Restoring Neotropical oak forests?


Neotropical oak (Quercus sp.) forests are special places. The closure of the central American isthmus around 3-5 million years ago laid down a bridge for northern and southern species to wander and meet, and many did so on the tops of the Cordillera de Talamanca, in Costa Rica. These hilltops contain a unique mix of temperate and tropical genera, like oaks, ectomycorrhizal Amanita fungi, and the same Vaccinium that form blueberry fields in the arctic. Having lived half of my life in the tropics and the other half in the north, I am invariably drawn to those mountains. I thus relished every second of our visit to Cuericí Biological Station.


Some of the most majestic oak forests in Costa Rica occur in Chirripó national park, south of Cuericí. Or actually, used to, because anthropogenic fires have burnt hundreds of hectares. The last major fire, in 1992, produced a landscape that looks like this: seas of dead trees still standing, interspersed with early successional plants and a mysterious fern. The new landscape has its beauty, and incredible vistas that are rare in the tropics.

oaks 2

As a scientist interested in vegetation successional dynamics and as a human with an urge to “repair broken nature”, my first reaction was to devise a restoration plan. Together with a friend we wrote a funding proposal to identify the barriers to natural regeneration and bring back these oak forests to their previous splendor. However, I am no longer sure that restoration is correct. These impressive, open landscapes that the fire created are now part of people’s experience of Chirripó. Who are we to put back a forest there and close up the view? Restoration is subjective, we restore to what we perceive as valuable.






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