<strong>Word</strong> to the experts - Dune du Pilat

Word to the experts

They are, in a way, the “guardians of the Dune”. Engineer, botanist, landscaper ... and many experts find here an inexhaustible field of study and exploration. So much knowledge to pass on so that everyone becomes aware of the issues related to the preservation and management of this moving natural monument. 

Credits: Mixed Syndicate of the Great Dune of Pilat
Video and image credits: @Midiprod
Audiovisual production: @Opixido, Maxime Morin and Magalie Fargeas


Nathalie Madrid, Delegate of Rivage Aquitaine, within the Conservatoire du littoral

In 2017, Nathalie Madrid joined the Conservatoire du littoral, taking responsibility for the Aquitaine delegation, which has been engaged since 1998 in a land acquisition policy in order to guarantee the maintenance of public space while permanently protecting the Grand Site from the Dune of Pilat.

What does the Dune du Pilat Grand Site represent for you with its landscape components?

"One of the largest natural sites in France"

<strong>Word</strong> to the experts - Dune du Pilat

It is one of the largest sites in the New Aquitaine region, see one of the largest natural sites in France, due to its dimensions which are, for the best known physical but also and above all geological, historical and cultural. Beyond its monumental aspect, it is necessary to be interested in the geological “monument” which deserves, as such, to be respected. It is a totally atypical training process on the Aquitaine coast, a constantly moving dune, unique in Europe. This type of dune is usually found on the edge of desert areas.

Can you present the impact of your work on the Grand Site de la Dune du Pilat?

"A role of acquisition and management"

The main action of the Coastal Conservatory on the Great Site of the Dune du Pilat is, as everywhere else on the French coast, to acquire land holdings in order to guarantee current and future generations access to these natural spaces and limit its artificialization. For several years, an intervention perimeter has been decided which commits us to acquire all the natural plots within it, whether they are in dune or wooded areas.

The second mission of the Conservatory is to ensure the establishment of sustainable public management of its land because the objective is not to remove it from the public, quite the contrary! As a land operator, the establishment for which I work therefore entrusts the management of its properties to a local public actor and supports them in defining a strategy to be implemented. Broken down into a management plan, this becomes the common “road map”. The Syndicat Mixte de la Grande Dune du Pilat was appointed in 2012 as manager for all the plots gradually acquired by the Conservatory on the Dune du Pilat site. Today this represents around 500 hectares. Every year, we meet with all local partners to evaluate the impact of the elements of the management system and adapt them if necessary.

Beyond restoring the acquired plots and fighting against the trivialization of places, management also includes the regulation of uses which are diverse. On the Dune, they are essentially sporty and fun (practice of free flight, boarding for sea crossings, hunting, hiking, etc.). It is also a question of organizing, managing and supervising the flows generated by these activities so that they can, at least for those compatible with the sensitivity of the site, continue. Their regulated framework makes it possible to meet the primary objective of the Conservatory, namely to preserve natural spaces and their biodiversity. On the Dune, these are actions yet to be undertaken with our manager. They will be facilitated by new acquisitions.

The scientific monitoring carried out by the Syndicate are real management tools and provide valuable information on the flora and fauna established on the grounds of the Conservatory. Let us not forget that the reconquest of biodiversity is at the heart of our mission.

What message do you want to convey to visitors?

"Be amazed but respect"

Visitors should come here with respect for this unique place. That they consider it as a natural space with incredible landscape components and not as a tourist attraction.
“It is a dune of blond sand, in a green and blue setting, a nugget between sea and forest, a jewel of the French coast”.

What is your view on the 15 years of public management?

"Balanced management"

The Syndicat Mixte, with the Conservatoire du littoral, and the partners who are aware of the fragility of this site and of the need to put in place a lasting policy, leads real balanced actions to achieve the fragile balance between preservation of natural spaces and reception of the public. Today, all the fundamentals (land management, regulatory frameworks, partnerships, awareness-raising actions, improvement of reception facilities, etc.) are in place to sustainably pursue actions in favor of enhancing the Grand Site. Our manager got heavily involved and showed consistency in action.

Many think that trampling accelerates the advance of the dune and degrades it, but in the face of natural elements and in particular the action of the wind, this is not the case. The public can be numerous because the management tools are in place and effective. The challenge today is the preservation of the “green” component of the Grand Site. It is the forest area that suffers from illegal parking and uncontrolled pedestrian traffic creating a risk of fire (following the fire in summer 2022, access to the forest area and illegal parking are strictly prohibited).

Even if this does not fall within its competence or its obligations, the Syndicat Mixte has taken up this subject. It had to be done and it was done. Today, the management of peaks in attendance during the summer is dealt with at the scale of the territory, in a global approach involving all public actors. We need to diversify modes of locomotion and welcome more qualitatively visitors coming by bicycle, public transport or using shuttles from a relay car park.

The mixed union played a leading role on this file but on many others during this decade and today the manager of the Large Site is taken more into consideration. It is the confirmation that we must continue the actions undertaken which sometimes, often, take place over time, over several years.

What would you like to add that you would not have expressed when answering the previous 4 questions?

"A decisive turning point"

It's about being up to the task of turning the corner together. All public actors and partners must come together and work in the same direction to define tomorrow's objectives to ensure the future of this site which leaves no one indifferent.

Aurelien Caillon, Botanist within the South Atlantic National Botanical Conservatory.

Since his arrival in Gironde in 2011, Aurélien Caillon has been the botanist referent for the inventory of the flora of Gironde as well as for invasive exotic plants in New Aquitaine.

What does the Dune du Pilat Grand Site represent for you with its landscape components?

When I first discovered the Dune du Pilat, I absolutely did not expect to find such a geological formation. On its crest, I felt a feeling of vastness.

It feels like a big surprise, you wouldn't expect it to be so big and so vast.

<strong>Word</strong> to the experts - Dune du Pilat

After working on the subject for a few years, I now see it as a book, telling a multitude of stories. It is a real natural heritage with its animal, plant, fungal, lichenic and geological components. 

At first glance, the environment appears hostile, desert, uninhabited. On the contrary, populations lived here (the landscape was quite different), before the Middle Ages! The landscape there was of course very different. It is fascinating to imagine that when visitors arrive at the dune crest, they are at the top of a mille-feuille, made up of several geological layers that bear witness to ancient dunes, forests, and lakes ...

My vision as a botanist encompasses the entire Atlantic dune massif. The latter offers a place of transition and refuge for many animal and plant species, many of which are endemic to the South Atlantic coast.

Can you present the impact of your work on the Grand Site de la Dune du Pilat?

The role of the South Atlantic National Botanical Conservatory (CBNSA) aims to acquire knowledge relating to the state and evolution of wild flora and natural habitats according to scientific methods. This involves the identification and characterization of rare and endangered plant species, but also of more common ones and sometimes invasive exotic ones.

Floristic inventories, research for rare species and use of bibliographic resources are all methods deployed to better know, understand and preserve our plant heritage. The ultimate objective is to ensure the conservation of this plant heritage.

My prospecting work on the dune of Pilat started in 2011. These inventory and sampling work consisted in drawing up an inventory of the plant diversity present on the Dune.

At the end of this work, a real partnership was born between the Botanical Conservatory and the manager of the Grand Site. My role for several years has thus consisted of supporting the Dune teams in setting up monitoring of the flora and its habitats. These regular inventories have made it possible to clearly identify the wild flora of the Dune: emblematic species such as the Oyat and the Immortelle des dunes, atypical species such as the common reed, the ribbon tree or the red willow (specific to wetlands), rare and protected species such as the famous thyme-leaved toadflax, Port Silenus and Dune Hawkweed or those considered to be invasive exotic: Pampas lily of the valley or Garlic ...

Our goal: to follow the evolution of flora and habitats on a constantly moving dune! But also put in place a management plan adapted to the challenges identified. In which sectors and which species should we intervene? Where should protective islands be positioned to avoid any trampling? What invasive species should we manage…?

On the Great Site of the Dune of Pilat, the Botanical Conservatory has recommended monitoring and quantifying the number of individuals of the species identified, then mapping the habitats on the dune.

“Through its support role, the Botanical Conservatory allows the Mixed Syndicate to set up appropriate preservation methods for certain species or certain sites. For example, the Gaillouneys site is very rich in remarkable heritage species, many of which are protected. It is essential to identify sensitive areas (reservoirs of biodiversity, etc.) where visitors must be channeled more to avoid too much wandering ”.

What message do you want to convey to visitors?

Enjoy the scenery and pay attention to everything around you. Listen to your senses. Observe. Soak up yourself.

I invite them to have the curiosity to move around, to take a closer look at this vast natural landscape which seems to be in slow motion, while it teems with life, at certain times of the day. You have to spend time there, take advantage of this time and this timeless space that nothing freezes. Nature offers us an incredible spectacle of which everyone is the guarantor. Nature imposes itself on us, and it's intense.
Then, I call on everyone to be accompanied by a cultural mediator during a visit. I am convinced that the vast majority of visitors who took part in these activities discovered a myriad of new and exciting information! For example, do you know the Dune Panicaut's strategy to disperse its seeds? Do you know the endemic insect infested with the thyme leaf flax? How do plants resist drought, strafing by sand, the constant movement of the dune?

What is your view on the 15 years of public management?

“An objective of preservation”

The creation of a public management structure, the Syndicat Mixte, made it possible to raise awareness of the major issues linked to this exceptional natural space, via the web, social networks, the messages transmitted during the guided tours offered to the public. .
Everything is done to channel and educate visitors. Regular checks are carried out to reduce activities that can harm flora or fauna, such as campfires in the woods.
Without the creation of the Joint Union, there would have been no real management of flows, with “wild” parking causing damage to natural environments. The role of the manager is to inform visitors, support them and raise awareness. The Pilat dune is one of the emblematic French tourist sites and attracts 2 million visitors each year. It is important to maintain the good state of conservation of the dune alongside ever-increasing visitor numbers. The mixed union also makes it possible to convey this message about the issues and to channel the flow of visitors.

What would you like to add that you would not have expressed when answering the previous 4 questions?

“A source of knowledge”

I invite everyone not to see the Dune of Pilat as a desert. It is essential to make known all this diversity and all the interactions that species have with each other. “Relocate yourself to this ecosystem as a human being and an animal. We have to learn to look in order to respect what surrounds us ”.
Knowledge is an essential foundation, allowing the implementation of actions of protection, conservation and reception of the public. Communication on these different aspects, which can sometimes seem sharp, scientific and a little too technical, is however fundamental.

The New Aquitaine Coast Observatory

TheNew Aquitaine Coast Observatory is an observation, decision support and knowledge sharing tool for the management and prevention of the risks of erosion and submersion of the constantly evolving neo-Aquitaine coast.

Coastal risks engineers, specialists in extreme events and coastal geomorphology, work at the service of all coastal public stakeholders by traveling very frequently in the field.

What does the Dune du Pilat Grand Site represent for you with its landscape components?

The Dune du Pilat is a unique environment on the entire sandy coast of New Aquitaine. As part of its monitoring program, the Observatoire de la côte de Nouvelle-Aquitaine considers this very special site as a separate object of analysis due to its exceptional dimensions, but also the problems of erosion and dune migration which are very specific to which it is exposed.

The rhythm of this migration, from West to East, that is to say this progression towards the forest which finds itself buried, is perhaps the fastest that can be observed on the sandy coast of Neo- aquitaine.

This phenomenon is partly due to the shape of the dune, to its overall geometry. It is an asymmetrical dune with a very steep slope on the eastern side (forest side).

The Dune is subject to much greater wind dynamics than on the rest of the sandy South Atlantic coast, which is largely made up of white or gray vegetated dunes. The absence or scarcity of vegetation on the sectors of the Dune du Pilat most exposed to wind dynamics contribute to making this monument of sand extremely mobile.

This dune is unique because, unlike the other dunes on the coast, public action is not aimed at curbing its mobility. Elsewhere we plant to stabilize, here we observe its evolution, we analyze and we adapt.

All these elements make the Dune du Pilat a unique system, which we follow as an object in its own right.

What is the impact of the work of the Geological and Mining Research Office on the Dune du Pilat Grand Site?

The Bureau of Geological and Mining Research (BRGM), the Observatory's main technical operator, is interested in the geomorphological evolution of the Pilat dune. Since 2009, the dune has been the subject of annual measurements on the basis of GPS and lidar (airborne laser) surveys which make it possible in particular to assess the retreat of the coastline (the limit between the land and the sea), the line of ridge and the limit between the dune and the forest.

These 3D modeled data help highlight areas of erosion and accretion that are quantified. The evolution of the altimetry is also observed as well as that of the vegetation.

All these elements collected give indications on the future of the Dune but also provide information on its past. This data is valuable for managers.

<strong>Word</strong> to the experts - Dune du Pilat

What message does the BRGM wish to convey to visitors?

It is an exceptional natural site which is really, really unique.

You have to realize that it is an extremely mobile environment. We observe there, all the power of nature, which takes back its rights, and occupies the space. Nothing is fixed here. We must always remain humble in the face of nature.

What are our views on 15 years of public management?

Given the tourist flow that there are every year on the site, the environment remains very preserved. Everything is channeled well enough to keep the flow contained. Arrival is mainly through the reception area and the majority of visitors stroll around the staircase installed to facilitate the ascent.

From an outside point of view, it is fairly well put together, so that the setting is preserved, and despite all this remains very attractive for tourists. It's quite remarkable.

We need to talk more about the preservation of a natural site of this quality and anticipate its evolution in order to carry out effective and sustainable management. We must perpetuate the public management of such spaces, it is important.

Bertrand Follea, Landscape designer, within the Folléa-Gautier agency

Since his arrival in Gironde in 2011, Bertrand Folléa has been a landscape planner with the Folléa-Gautier agency. He is also responsible for the Landscape and Energy chair at the National School of Landscape of Versailles-Marseille and Landscaping Council of the State. He received the National Landscape Grand Prize in 2016.

Since 2018, after having carried out a landscaping expertise mission at the request of the Mixed Syndicate, Bertrand Folléa has supported, as a consultant landscaper, the manager of the Large Site on major development projects during the pre-operational and operational phases and brings its contribution to the strategic thinking undertaken.

What does the Dune du Pilat Grand Site represent for you with its landscape components?

In the 20th century, Julien Gracq described the Dune du Pilat as:

"Nowhere in France do the great natural elements (...) present themselves as here in large simple and homogeneous masses, of a purity that one would say native"

Despite the few decades that have passed between Julien Gracq and us, we still find today this very great simplicity of the landscape: the forest, the sand, the sea. Very few elements follow one another, and it gives an impression virginal in nature. As if, the sea, the sand, and the forest had always been there. As if, these environments had not been transformed so much by man.

The colors are simple too: blue, white, green. Again, this simplicity gives an impression of remarkably unspoiled nature.

The other particularity of this natural site is its spectacular dimension, out of the ordinary. Everything is immense: the forest runs as far as the eye can see, the ocean stretches out to the horizon, and we walk on a giant pile of sand. It is an originality which is truly unique.

We are on this kind of unusual white slice that separates two very vast oceans.

<strong>Word</strong> to the experts - Dune du Pilat

Can you present the impact of your work on the Grand Site de la Dune du Pilat?

My contribution is on two very different levels.

In 2018, I carried out expert work, shared with a whole working group bringing together elected officials, technicians, and a wide variety of organizations that are closely or remotely partners of the Mixed Syndicate. The objective was to carry out a prospective approach opening on a perspective of evolution of the management of this great site of nature.

The other level of intervention is much more prosaic but no less important. It’s that of detail. My mission consisted of supporting the Union in the development and monitoring of the project to requalify the reception area. This is surprisingly small compared to the immensity of the site and the number of visitors. It is this contrast that makes the work accomplished to organize the reception of the public in such a small and fragile space remarkable.

My work consisted of supporting the Union, formulating opinions, asserting choices to influence the project management, for example for the rehabilitation of the village of cabins or in terms of interpretation. The goal was to ensure consistency and maintain overall harmony.

Concerning the exterior spaces, my intervention was even more concrete. The focus was on reconfiguring the parking lot to improve it and refresh it. It actually receives a lot of people compared to its size (editor's note: during the July-August attendance peaks and the May bridges). We had to think about bus parking, so that they are less in contact with all the pedestrian flows, with the arrival of bicycles which are increasingly present, notably with the development of electric bicycles. It was necessary to improve the comfort, visibility and enjoyment of the pedestrian visitor in general (this work lasted two years between 2021 and 2023, the inauguration took place on June 30, 2023).

If we bring these interventions back to the issue of landscape, we can make a comparison with music. The operation of the planning of a territory is generally sectorized, each one works in his specialized field as each musician plays his favorite instrument. But if there is no common score, the music will be inaudible. The same goes for the layout, you have to write and share a common score for the harmony of the site which is unique.

What message do you want to convey to visitors?

You are going to visit a truly wonderful site. It's wonderful to get out of the trees and then to find yourself facing the white wall that stands in front of you, it's fantastic to find yourself at the top and have this horizon on this double ocean that we were talking about: the real one and the one forest, and in its very pure and virginal dimension. But, you don't know anything about it yet when you did that.

Go survey the dune in its length. You have a lot to discover by spending time on the site.

Take time to discover more all the facets of the dune, right up to the ocean's edge, up to the more terrestrial facade of the dune, which is the most spectacular, because we can see it advancing in the forest, dry the trees. It is absolutely magnificent.

And then also, take an interest in the forest. It is a very special forest in the classified site. It is a used forest, with a history and a unique aspect.

The average discovery time is striking. 80-85% of people spend less than 3 hours on the site. It is very quickly consumed. In fact there is a lot to discover, to go through but it is not known enough.

You have to get in the mood.

We must gradually experiment with other forms and other ways of simultaneously accessing, browsing and discovering the site in order to encourage visitors to understand it differently, to devote more time to it, to to impregnate, to permeate.

What is your view on the 15 years of public management?

It is one of the most frequented sites in France, on one of the most restricted reception areas there is. If I compare the number of m2 occupied for reception and the number of visitors, we can say that it is remarkably managed. This also translates into very high visitor satisfaction rates.

But it comes at the cost of a lot of work. Many seasonal workers have to be hired in order to make the reception area work in the summer. Unauthorized parking must be fought, which poses problems (risk of fire, trampling, illegal dumping of waste).

Seeking to manage this ever-increasing attendance in a qualitative manner also raises many questions. The expert work carried out seeks to bring out answers by broadening the field of possible actions, seeking to diversify the modes of discovery and the visit routes. Beyond the requalification of the reception area, we must quickly think of the site differently to tell a broader story for those who love the Dune and know it but also for those who are just passing through.

What would you like to add that you would not have expressed when answering the previous 4 questions?

If we want this to be less under pressure, work which will be long, must be started, which envisages the site of the Dune and its reception in a much larger space: from Arcachon, La Teste-de- Buch, Cap Ferret, Petit Nice. It is a programming work which involves land, which mobilizes other actors. What do we want to tell about the history of the dune? What do we want visitors to read about this story upon their arrival, during their visit and remember when they return? It is this approach which is interesting, it will reinforce the size of the site which is probably one of the first points of attractiveness for a population of urban territories where space is much rarer.

It is this story, the outcome of which is access to the highest point of the dune, that we must continue to write, chapter by chapter. This is not contradictory. I imagine an operation which in winter would be quite different from that in summer. For peaks in attendance, this other mode of operation, complementary to the reception area, must be considered and gradually implemented. And we can bet that this will only be beneficial for the territory more generally. It is also a way of being less of an express consumer of natural spaces, which is in the spirit of the Grands Sites de France. To lengthen is to slow down. It is a relationship to time, as well as to space.