Saving Dominican forest and a bird

An agricultural area of a forest in San Francisco de Macoris, where a reserve is being planned .
An agricultural area of a forest in San Francisco de Macoris, where a reserve is being planned . (RICARDO ARDUENGO / AP)
Posted: June 03, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - An elusive songbird that wings its way each year from austere mountaintops of the Northeastern United States to the steamy forests of the Caribbean has inspired the creation of what conservationists hope will be a new model for nature reserves in a country that has long struggled with deforestation.

The reserve is taking shape in a lushly overgrown former cattle ranch measuring about 1,000 acres, at the edge of a deep green forest in the Dominican Republic's rugged northeast. Conservation-minded Dominican and U.S. investors have acquired the plot as a pilot project, hoping to protect what they say is a global biodiversity hotspot that's home to dozens of threatened species.

The government sees the reserve, tentatively known as the Reserva Privada Zorzal, as a potential example, showing that such land can be put to better uses than burning down the trees to convert it to pasture, a typical approach in this Caribbean country with only about 40 percent of its forest cover left. Neighboring Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola, has virtually none of its forest standing.

The concept of setting aside private land for conservation in land trusts or easements is an old one, long in use in the United States and elsewhere, but still rare in the Dominican Republic, a largely poor country.

Some private landowners have set aside tracts for ecotourism and nature reserves, and the government has designated more than 130 public reserves. But much of the country's forests face threats from development, agriculture, and illegal timber harvesting, carving what remains into ever smaller chunks that leave species isolated and vulnerable.

In practice, the government reserves usually provide protection to endangered species in name only, said Sesar Rodriguez, the executive director of the Dominican Environmental Consortium.

Among those species at risk is the zorzal migratorio, known in English as the Bicknell's thrush. The palm-size, brownish songbird mostly comes out at dusk or dawn and, like many birds, heads south in the winter. It divides its time between the Caribbean islands and mountaintop forests in the northeastern United States and southern Canada that generally rise above 3,000 feet.

The bird, estimated to number fewer than 100,000 in the wild, is vulnerable because it occupies a narrow range of habitat that's under pressure on both sides of its migratory route, said Chris Rimmer, an ornithologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who is an expert on the Bicknell's thrush and helped establish the reserve. Threats to the species in the United States include air pollution and loss of the conifer forest habitat from development and climate change.

As the Dominican Republic was losing forest, Rimmer and other researchers noticed that female Bicknell's thrusts were being crowded out of their prime habitat by the larger males, depriving them of food they need for the journey back to North America.

He began working with the Dominican Environmental Consortium and others to find a way to expand two areas designated as protected by the government - the Loma Quita Espuela and the Guaconejo reserves.

This loose-knit group eventually found land owned by the family of an elderly doctor that was just a few miles west of the Loma Quita Espuela reserve, prime habitat for the thrush and near the country's cacao-growing center of San Pedro Macoris, a combination of factors that seemed perfect for a blend of profit and preservation, said Charles Kerchner, an American working as a project manager for the consortium. Part of the land was still an active cattle ranch, the rest already in various stages of regrowth and some had been left untouched for so long that it had become fairly healthy secondary growth forest - not virgin, by any means, but not bad.

Much will depend on the economic viability of the effort. The backers of the project expect to allow public access, but the plans are not yet defined. The property is more than an hour's drive along a bone-jarring road from the nearest town. "To be a sustainable business," Kerchner said, "we need to get value from this forest."

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