- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-GRES, France (Agence France-Presse) — A beautiful corner of southeastern France, beloved by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, is planning to become a nature park to protect itself against tourism and a property boom.

The Alpilles, nestled between Luberon to the east and the Camargue region to the south, could become a regional park by the end of the year, said local officials, meeting this week to finalize the plan.

“Things have deteriorated in the past 10 years. There is such a pressure for property that there is a huge temptation to sell at the best price,” said Gerard Jouve, mayor of the picturesque historic town of Baux-de-Provence. “But that is at the detriment to agricultural land and Alpilles residents who can no longer afford homes.

“It’s wonderful to have such high-quality clients, but those with second homes have to be able to coexist with the daily residents.”

The turning point came in 1999 when a fire broke out in the forested area and about 5,700 acres were ravaged in 48 hours.

“We didn’t have enough equipment, trucks or wells. There were not even enough access routes for the firemen,” Mr. Jouve said.

Despite nearby urban centers such as Arles, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, the Alpilles has remained a rural area. Turning the 126,000 acres covering about 15 towns and villages with 65,655 residents into a regional park would give it access to regional and local subsidies.

But it also would act as a kind of “ethical label,” forcing local mayors to be more vigilant in awarding construction permits and to coordinate town planning.

The tiny town of Baux, perched on a rocky summit commanding breathtaking views over the Alpilles, welcomes about 1.2 million visitors a year, and an additional 100,000 visit the Greco-Roman site of Glanum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

“The park and its national logo would be both a label and a starting point for the visitor,” said Herve Cherubini, mayor of Saint Remy, where the park’s offices would be based.

The offices would inform visitors about some of the 119 historic monuments in the area, as well as advise about ecotourism and direct the hundreds of thousands of annual walkers who flock to the area in its season, which lasts from Easter until Halloween.

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