U.S. Biologist Wants to Create Vast Forest Preserve in Costa Rica

Associated Press

His forehead wrapped in a gray rag against a blazing sun, Daniel Janzen points to the high, green slopes of two distant volcanoes. With a sweep of his arm, he outlines his dream.

"We must have that land," he says, his arm completing an arc covering miles of scrubland, savannah and woods. He motions far beyond to the conical mountains looming hazily on the edge of a distant range of peaks.

Janzen's dream is nothing less than to create in this tiny Central American nation a forest preserve that would be nearly twice the size of Utah's Zion National Park, almost three times larger than Arizona's Petrified Forest and only slightly smaller than South Dakota's Badlands.

"Yes, I suppose it is ambitious," admits Janzen, 47, a professor of biology from the University of Pennsylvania who is attempting an unprecedented ecological experiment.

Muddy-Boots Science

At the thought, a smile adds new wrinkles to a face already lined and bronzed by years of sun in pursuit of what he calls "dirty-your-hands, muddy-your-boots" science.

"But," he adds quickly, as the smile fades and his jaw sets, "it is doable, and we shall do it."

More than simply acquiring land, Janzen hopes to complete in less than two decades a job it would take nature an estimated 500 years to do--re-create a nearly extinct ecosystem known as a tropical dry forest.

Tropical dry forests once covered 60% of the forested areas of Latin America, India, Southeast Asia and northern Australia, but have all but disappeared in most parts of the world. From Panama to Mexico, the west coast of Central America alone has lost 98% of its once abundant dry forest.

Expansion Plan

At the core of Janzen's plan is the expansion of Santa Rosa National Park on Costa Rica's northwest Pacific coast from its present 182 square miles to 340 square miles at a projected cost of $11.8 million.

He would rename it Guanacaste National Park. Guanacaste is the local province and also the name of a native tree that grows to two to three times the thickness of a man's waist and makes a low, overhanging canopy that covers up to half an acre.

In collaboration with the Nature Conservancy International, the World Wildlife Fund and others, Janzen has collected $1.3 million from such contributors as the MacArthur and W. Alton Jones foundations and hopes to get the remainder by next year.

With the money, he is buying up ranchland and farmland surrounding the existing Santa Rosa preserve, hoping to link the relatively flat, barren parkland to the wet tropical forests on the slopes of the volcanoes about 10 miles to the east.

Need Both Types

Janzen says: "It's important to have both the wet forests and the dry forests within the confines of the same park because much of the wildlife found in either system migrates back and forth, depending on the season. If those migratory habits are threatened, so are the animals."

Janzen has spent most of the last 14 years living in a small, wooden cabin in the wilderness that is Santa Rosa, created in 1971 as Costa Rica's first national park. He spends so little time in Philadelphia that he maintains no residence there, preferring to sleep on a cot in his university office.

His project is actively supported by the government of Costa Rica, long a leader among Latin American countries in wilderness and wildlife conservation.

Although only about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica has set aside nearly 20% of its land in the last 16 years to create 19 national parks, wildlife refuges and nature and biological reserves.

Unique Effort

"What Dan is attempting here is unique, not to mention huge in scope," says Curtis Freese, the World Wildlife Fund's director of Latin American and Caribbean programs. "He is the first to try to re-create a complete, complex and highly diverse ecosystem, starting almost from scratch."

Freese, who got his own start in conservation by working with Janzen in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early '70s, said the work could lead to similar efforts elsewhere to restore devastated lands once considered beyond salvation.

Janzen believes dry tropical forests can re-establish themselves if they are protected from overgrazing, overhunting and fires set by local residents each year to clear the land for farming and grazing.

Speed New Growth

If a patch of forest is allowed to grow back naturally, it will form a closed canopy in about 20 years. But Janzen thinks he can speed that up, cutting the time in half by planting seeds and seedlings and seeing to it that they are protected.

But as he views his domain from atop a small, grassy knoll, Janzen sees not just patches of forest, but a vast landscape of trees covering virtually all of his projected park--a landscape that might have been seen by the first Spanish conquistadors more than 400 years ago.

"Almost all of the trees and animals that were here then are still here now, although in vastly reduced numbers," Janzen says. "Dry forests are tough, and they can be brought back through good management."

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