Using Native Species of Trees for Reforestation in Costa Rica:

A Conversation with A. Carl Leopold

Excerpted from the Environmental Review newsletter Volume One: Number One, January 1994 pp 1-4

Carl is the second youngest of five children born to Aldo and Estella Leopold. He was mustered out of the Marine Corps in 1946 with the rank of captain. He received the Ph.D. from Harvard in 1948 in botany and is now William H. Crocker Scientist emeritus at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University. In 1993 Carl joined with several other people to form the Tropical Forestry Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to the reforestation of tropical forests using native species of trees. The Tropical Forestry Initiative can be reached at 7 Fiddlers Green, Lansing, N.Y. 14882, U.S.A.

ER: Carl why did you start the Tropical Forestry Initiative?

CL: For me a big shot in the arm was reading Edward O.Wilson's book The Diversity of Life and seeing real numbers about how biodiversity increased as you went into the tropics. And the tropical rainforest is of course the crowning jewel of biodiversity. Then you go to Costa Rica and walk around there and you see that not only are the tropical rainforests disappearing but the big efforts that they call reforestation are almost unanimously putting in exotic plants like eucalyptus and some teak, which is better but again it's an exotic, and pines. So what you have is the equivalent of a cornfield instead of a forest. You have a monoculture and nothing else can live there except the species that you're growing. Furthermore, it's expected that after fifteen years they cut them all down and start over again. That was really the trigger that made us sit up and pay attention and say 'who is doing something to at least learn how to restore the rainforest?' It's amusing that when you talk to experts in tropical forestry and you say you want to learn to restore rain forests and they suppressing a laugh say "you jerk" but ...

ER: What is their viewpoint? Why is that so absurd?

CL: It's too complicated. There are too many species. That planting a few trees is not going to restore a tropical rainforest. That remains to be seen. It's my opinion that once you get a good forest cover of native species that it should attract the birds and animals in, that bring with them the seeds of additional species and you should get a gradual increase in biodiversity beyond what you're planting.

ER: At least to some extent, maybe not the full restoration.

CL: Not the full restoration, I agree with that.

ER: What's on the ground there now in Costa Rica in the area that you're working on? Are there areas there that could feed into you if you built a restored area? Are there still undisturbed areas nearby?

CL: What have we got? A hundred fifty acres, 87 hectares I guess it is. There's mostly abandoned pasture. There are 2 islands of primary forest that are left over. They just didn't get around to cutting them out. They're on too steep land. Then one little corner that's regenerating very nicely. So we do have little islands from which we expect to increase our biodiversity by simply natural seeding in from them.

ER: But in terms of the insect fauna and bird populations, those are pretty whacked back then? What you're describing is on your property now. I was wondering in the area around your property say within ....

CL: In the area around the property we have some secondary forests coming in that are quite nice, within a kilometer of our place on the uphill, west side, toward the Pacific. And then in the river bottoms below us again, there is some really nice, pretty old forest that has not been messed up very much. So I think that if we can get the initial vegetation restoration going that we have a good chance of getting a lot more accumulation of biodiversity than we would have brought in just by ourselves.

ER: When you talk to a forester about replanting native species, they throw up their hands and say it's not even worth trying. They haven't tried?

CL: They just laugh.

ER: So you're the first people to go out there and actually take a whack at it?

CL: I think we're almost the first people. OTS (Organization of Tropical Studies) is sponsoring some studies of productivity of different native tree species. They're in the process of starting a study of productivity and theirs is the closest thing to what we're doing but on a rather larger scale. But their clear focus is on productivity in terms of lumber yield. We're interested in lumber yield also but we would like to think that that becomes an ancillary goal and the primary thing being restoration. Back to the biodiversity issue, I wrote to E.O. Wilson suggesting that it would be an interesting thing to try to follow the increase in biodiversity with replanting of rainforest species of trees. He sounded quite interested in it but it sounds as if he's too busy and couldn't do anything about it himself. So I'm still watching for somebody that I think I could call on to ask if they couldn't give it a try.

ER: This issue has been raised in his book. The study of these things is not a very glamorous kind of science to be doing. It's bloody hard work to go out and catalog critters and it also takes some fairly well trained and dedicated people.

CL: You are exactly right.

ER: So it's not an easy thing to do to just go out and monitor the biodiversity. It turns out to be very expensive.

CL: And who's going to want to fund such a thing? To go on about where we are; we built a nursery on our property. We gathered seeds. We have about 14 different species of seeds of important components of the rainforest there. We planted them in March and now they run from one foot high to 2.5 feet high and we have 4,000 of them planted. We're using 3 different kinds of systems. One is what we call direct planting into the pasture where we attempt to completely cover the pasture land with our seedlings. We use three meter interval spacing. The second program would be to use our seedlings to enrich the species mixtures of terrain that's trying to seed itself back in. So we can find that we have sections where there's lots of a given species like Lechoso that comes in quite nicely and we can move in where the natural seedlings are coming in and then enrich the stand with our seedlings so we get a better mix. The third category of our scheme is to just watch and record the development of the woodland. There's no tree planting at all. There are some areas that are seeding in and we're just leaving it alone. And we'll record how they're getting along and how the growth rates are going along in that status.

ER: You're doing basic forestry science there. Just getting some baseline information.

CL: I think so. We could best qualify our objectives as a threefold: first to just learn how to do it, secondly we are very keen to get over the hurdle of no seed availability for native species. You remember they are all recalcitrant and so getting seeds for them means you have to go out and find yourself some trees and shake the limbs and get them down. [Recalcitrant seeds must germinate soon after they leave the parent tree and cannot survive long periods of storage. ed.] Our second goal is to provide seeds for other people to plant. So from our plantings we hope in probably about four years we ought to really start getting seeds off.

ER: That's really quite remarkable. They grow very fast then compared to our northern temperate species.

CL: We're expecting to get 2 and 3 meters growth a year at least in the fast growing species. The third objective is we'd really like to interest the local campesinos in the idea that having a stand of rain forest isn't a loser. That you can actually selectively harvest the trees that you put in and get an income from it. It could be a better income we hope, than putting cows on.

ER: How does this relate to soil management and water discharge, flooding control. Has that been a problem in that part of Costa Rica?

CL: Yes. Of course these laterites are very gooey. [Laterite is red, iron bearing soil formed in tropical regions by the decomposition of the underlying rocks. ed.] So when heavy rains come, there's a lot of slippage of soils on steep slopes, big red scars on the land on the steep slopes. Of course the people that burn their pastures aren't helping a bit. Cattle of course compact the soil and make it even more intractable to vegetation. It's just amazing that under the new seedlings that are coming in on the pasture, that are volunteering, even in 3 to 5 years of regrowth, you can actually put a shovel in the soil and feel a difference. It's turning brown and it's getting much more friable and it's not that damned red glue. So I think that the soil can come back quickly if we can just get a good healthy planting.

ER: Well that would indicate that the underground biodiversity, the fungi,bacteria, nematodes and insects may also be coming back quite well with the reforestation.

CL: We hope so. We have no way of monitoring that. We don't really know. Here we are back to the biodiversity question.

ER: Well something good seems to be happening there if the soil's recovering.

CL: Yes. The land was cut in the middle 70s and it was burned and grazed until about 1990, so that's why I say we have some start on restoring, the seedlings coming in naturally.

ER: So how are the local campesinos...what is the reaction you're getting from them?

CL: Their first interest is that they love working for us. It's a way to work. And that's fine. That's alright. Gradually we find that even in this first year that they begin to show an active interest, so that the oldest son of one of the people who is working for us is starting his own nursery for growing native species. That's just what we were hoping for, that they would begin to see 'oh there's something here and maybe we can do it and realize a profit too.' It's harder to detect though how much they might move out and do forestry work on their own independently of us. At the moment their work is really centered on servicing the TFI and we hoping that it's going to expand to more of a local interest that would carry off on its own.

ER: At least there's no overt hostility.

CL: No. the local people are just very warm. We really like them. I think sometimes they think we're sort of silly. The remarkable growth that's happening is impressive, really impressive. The seedlings that we put in in June are just growing like hell. I think that we might catch their attention and that they might really see there's something going on here. We're also interested in improving the marketability of these beautiful, gorgeous tropical woods. Part of the problem now is that the native trees that are cut, are cut for construction lumber. You have these absolutely stunning colored woods and here you find them in 2x4s being used for pouring concrete. So its very important if this is going to work, and people are going to be interested in growing mixed stands of hardwoods like this, its really important that there be a market. A group called the Center for Environmental Studies in Michigan is setting up a tour of Costa Rica to go around to furniture factories and places where native woods are already being used in a constructive manner. I'm thinking of flying down there in November just to have a look at that and see what the marketing potentials are, what really good uses could be made of the native tree woods and bring a better profit than what they're getting.

ER: Many people have heard about the destruction of the forests in Burma and the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It seems like there needs to be a responsible way of harvesting tropical hardwoods which are wonderful construction materials for fine furniture. Tree harvesting is not intrinsically a bad thing but it has to be done responsibly.

CL: That's right, and CATIE is a research organization in Costa Rica for tropical forestry studies. It's sponsored by the government and by international agencies. They have some projects going, on selective cutting on trees, thinning with minimum impact on the stand. They have shown that you can cut up to 20% of the stand in a good, responsible manner and stimulate the growth of the remaining trees. Your capital investment isn't diminished because you've stimulated the growth. So what you said is exactly right. I believe that careful harvesting can be done and not destroy anything and in fact it can keep your growth rate of your capital accumulating nicely.

ER: This sounds like a practical attempt to answer the argument that environmental considerations cost jobs or are bad for the economy.

CL: I think that we need to learn how we can use renewable resources like this more efficiently; to keep them and use them effectively.

ER: There is a nice continuity of this project with you, your siblings and your dad planting many trees on your farm in Wisconsin.

CL: And actually restoring it from absolutely worn out, terrible land. And now look at how beautiful it is. There is very definitely an analogy yes. I have not missed that point.

ER: Were you paying attention to the native assemblages in Wisconsin? Were you trying to do some sort of restoration of what you thought was probably there before?

CL: Of the native forests? Absolutely. That was dad's whole center of his plan: to bring in all the native things that he could think of that belonged there and get them started again.

ER: This is a field of dreams question. If you build it will the animals return? What is the biodiversity like now on the Leopold farm? Obviously compared to a worn out pasture, it must be considerably different there but in terms of habitat for birds, insects, critters in general....

CL: Well when dad bought it, that was in 1936, it was a wasted, abandoned farm. As I remember it the only thing that was growing out there was sand burrs and some very aggressive species of weedy grasses. Soil was just blowing around in sand dunes. It was a mess. [The Leopold family property in Sand County Wisconsin has been donated to a non-profit foundation and is open to the public for educational purposes. ed.]

ER: This was Dust Bowl era then.

CL: Well it was made into a dust bowl by the wheat cropping that finally crashed. So now you go and look ... sometime you really must go by and see it. Yes the analogy is very good and the biodiversity that we have there now is just, really rewarding. Because there we have a mixture of prairie, and oak-hickory forest and pine forest and river bottom forest and a lot of marsh, lot's of big expanses of marsh. So with that kind of mixture of sites you have really quite a marvelous array of diversity. But you have to get the vegetation there first.

Copyright 1994 Environmental Review

Environmental Review (ISSN 1080-644X) published monthly at: 6920 Roosevelt Way NE STE 307 Seattle, WA. 98115 1/800/526-2501


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