Forest meets the beach in this aerial view of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. Photo by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Friends of the Osa / Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0
Today is Earth Day, and to celebrate, we have a story about Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula (pictured above) and an interview with a man who has helped save it: Adrian Forsyth.The Osa Peninsula on Costa Rica's Pacific coast is one of the world's most spectacular places. It harbors the last remaining old growth rainforest on the west coast of Central America and provides critical habitat for hundreds of species of birds, including 54 species that breed in Wisconsin, my home state, workplace, and chief birding haunt. Eighteen of the species are state conservation priorities, three are listed as threatened, and one is endangered.Last month, bird-conservation leaders in Wisconsin donated $60,000 to the non-profit Friends of the Osa. The funds, which came from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Neenah Paper Company, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, are aimed at protecting wintering habitat for birds that migrate to the Badger State to breed.One of the people who helped secure the funding was our friend Craig Thompson, regional land leader at the DNR. You may remember a fabulous article Thompson wrote for us in 2008. He described a trip he led to Ecuador that raised $14,000 for land-conservation efforts in that country. Now he is Wisconsin's point man in a new movement called Southern Wings — a partnership of agencies that support funding for bird-conservation projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies launched the effort to encourage state governments to protect wintering habitat for migratory birds. On Saturday, April 24, the Natural Resources Foundation, the DNR, and other conservation organizations are hosting a benefit event for the Osa project at the Milwaukee County Zoo. I'll be there; if you can make it, please say hi. Adrian Forsyth (right), the founder of Friends of the Osa and president of its board of directors, will be the guest speaker. Forsyth is an internationally acclaimed conservationist and author of nine books, including Nature of the Rainforest: Costa Rica and Beyond, A Natural History of Sex, and Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America. I interviewed him on Monday, April 19, about the Osa and its birds, the state of tropical forests worldwide, and how the planet is doing on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. --Matt Mendenhall, Associate EditorTell me about the Osa Peninsula. What’s special about it?The Osa is kind of an outlier of the Amazon [ecosystem] because it projects out into the ocean. We believe it's probably a safe haven against climate change. If you look at tropical tree distributions, for example, a lot of Amazonian trees reach their northern limit in the Osa, not on the mainland. That's because the Osa is almost like an island, being surrounded by the ocean. As a result of that peninsular shape, it's isolated during seasons of sea-level rise, so you find a lot of endemic species that are found only in the Osa. We have birds that are restricted only to that area, like Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, Yellow-billed Cotinga, and Mangrove Hummingbird. A lot of vertebrate taxa have evolved specifically in that area, and we think that's because of its unique geological and climate properties.
[Photo: Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Friends of the Osa / Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]
It's also important because it was one of the last areas to get an access road in Costa Rica. It has the biggest intact stand of wet tropical rainforest left on the Pacific coast of Central America. It's got the biggest intact mangrove ecosystem left on the Pacific coast of Central America. It's got a deep tropical fjord where, for example, northern and southern humpback whale populations meet. So it has a lot of biological superlatives tacked into a relatively modest area. If you had to say, “What's the most important conservation unit in Central America?” this has got to be at or near the top. And it's still largely a forested landscape. There are still jaguars. There are reports of Harpy Eagles periodically. And this magnificent tall forest is an important over-wintering spot for birds like Golden-winged Warbler, which a huge percentage of the world's breeding population is in Wisconsin. They go down to the Osa, where they find this great tall forest that they like. The mangroves are also important for migrants like Prothonotary Warblers. They like the safe space that mangroves give them for roosting in the evening, and then they go off to forage in the forest during the day. You can see that the Osa is important for Neotropical migrant songbirds in addition to its own rich flora and fauna.Being a relatively intact place in a fairly stable democratic country, it's a place where conservationists can have hopes for the future with modest amounts of support. Other places are going to be very hard to fix, like Haiti, for example, which might have been biologically very important in the past but very hard to do much about it with the resources that we have available to us. How did you get involved in conservation work in the Osa? I went there as a graduate student after having worked in dry tropical forest in northern Costa Rica, which was full of things that I liked, such as tropical hornets that I was studying. But it was also full of ticks and was extremely hot, wind-blown, and dry. I'd also been working in wet forests in Ecuador, where every place that I went, the next time that I returned, they all had been cut down and turned into oil palm or something. I went to the Osa at the urging of Dan Janzen, a fairly famous ecologist, and I was just astounded by the height and majestic nature of the trees. It's a relatively tropical-storm-free area. It doesn't get hurricanes like in the Caribbean, so you get these monstrous big trees that are 800 or 1,000 years old. It's such a compelling place, and then there's all the biological richness of the place. I think the very first time I went out on a beach in Corcovado National Park, I saw the tracks of jaguars looking for big sea-turtle corrals. And in most relatively civilized countries, you don't find jaguars on the beach with primary forest right behind the beach. There's only a few spots in the world where you can find primary forest running right to the coast. In most of the world, that's now covered with condos and hotels, but not in the Osa.How is it that it avoided development?It was the lack of road access. United Fruit developed some areas in the southern part of Costa Rica, and they built a rail line. But no one built a road into the Osa until after World War II. Prior to that, there were only a few small fishing villages of completely subsistence fishermen and no agriculture. When United Fruit established its plantations nearby, a few people cleared land to provide beef for the plantations. But it was not a place with good road access, and consequently, there was nothing to take out except cattle by boat. So it never developed as an agricultural economy. It was really protected by its isolation. Why did you establish the Friends of the Osa?Actually, it was a joint effort with Manuel Ramirez, who is Costa Rican. His family owned land for a long time in the Osa, and he's involved with Conservation International, where I met him. [Ramirez is Conservation International's director of the Southern Mesoamerica Program.] We were both working there, and we had a board meeting in the Osa. After that he suggested I might want to become his neighbor. And I liked that idea. [Photo: Mangrove Hummingbird by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Friends of the Osa / Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]
A couple of non-profits existed in the Osa at one time, but they both failed. We felt there was a need for a locally based organization that was focused on the Osa. So we decided we had to step into the vacuum and see if we could create something that was viable. We didn't exactly need to take on another task, but I really think that if you don't have a local organization on the ground, the money gets stuck in Washington or New York or some other place. You have to have a presence in the place that you're concerned about saving. That's why we decided to have offices, staff, programs, and facilities in the Osa rather than just trying to do it by remote control, where people operate a short-term program and, when the funding goes away, the program goes away and nothing really sticks.What is your staff in the Osa working on? We do direct habitat conservation through land purchases. We're building part of a biological corridor to connect to the national park at Corcovado. Most of the national parks are too small to adequately support populations of things like Harpy Eagles and jaguars. So you need to work with the private landscape, and luckily that's mostly forested. We've bought about 5,000 acres of private property that we're turning to pure conservation, teaching, education of students, research by biologists — all of which we think builds a knowledge base for the right way to manage property down there. And then we have specific programs targeted toward figuring out the biology of the local birds — what they need in terms of habitat requirement. We're doing active restoration of degraded habitat, replacing pasture with native tree species that are bird- and bat-friendly. We're protecting sea turtles. We work with local schools on environmental education. And we create job opportunities for local guides. We try to do whatever it takes to develop a local constituency for conservation among the people who live there, as well as to develop the scientific knowledge that says, “How do you work with this landscape in a way that people can benefit from it, but it also does what plants and animals need to survive?”What’s the connection with Wisconsin? It was through the American Bird Conservancy that we met people from Wisconsin who are involved with Neotropical-bird conservation. Now the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin has brought groups to the Osa. They've raised money for land purchases. They've really become a partner with us in ensuring birds like Golden-winged Warbler have a summer breeding ground as well as a wintering area.The migratory songbird issue brought us together. The fact that the Osa is a fantastic place to go in the winter to birdwatch has made it a happy partnership. They also put us in touch with Neenah Paper, which is a high-end green paper company that is interested in helping do forest restoration. Can birders from anywhere come to visit or do they have to have special permission? Friends of the Osa has a couple research facilities, and we tend to want people who are coming to add information rather than just drink piña coladas by the pool and look at toucans. When people stay at our research facilities, they're actually doing systematic work on a bird count or monitoring something. We have a lot of bird-related projects that we need volunteers for. [Photo: Chestnut-mandibled Toucan by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Friends of the Osa / Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]
If someone just wants to go and do their own thing and bird, there are fantastic ecolodges. They have better food than our food, which is food for biologists, who will eat just about anything. We're more focused on the education and science piece of it, but there's great birding and great places to stay. There's a birding lodge called Bosque del Río Tigre, which is one of the birdiest places I've ever seen. You can see 300 species in a couple days if you're lucky. And they have great local guides.Are the ecolodges within the national park? They're all outside, but they're basically set within this big forest matrix. From Google Earth, it looks like it's all one forest. The park is lines on a map, but it's really one biological unit as far as the birds are concerned. Sounds great. So why are you coming to Wisconsin? I'm going to be giving a talk that Craig Thompson from the Department of Natural Resources helped set up with Charlie Luthin at the Natural Resources Foundation. We're going to be talking about this partnership between Wisconsin and the Osa around the issue of the biological connections that exist between the two places. Part of it is birds, but it's other things as well. We'll be talking about how tropical biodiversity is important for people in Wisconsin, even if it's just in terms of the natural dyes that make cheddar cheese orange. That's where they come from — these tropical forests. In the broader picture beyond the Osa, how are forests doing in the tropics? Overall, we're still losing tropical forests at a horrendous rate. The pressures are just continuing to grow. For example, biofuels are a new fuel option that's causing a lot of deforestation, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where they're replacing natural forests with oil palm. The increased wealth of China is stimulating the demand for meat, which is stimulating the demand for soybeans, so soybean plantations continue to vastly expand in Brazil. I think that tropical forests remain under increasing pressure, not less pressure. The tropics are where most of the species on the planet are found. People have been hearing about it for a long time, but it's not an issue that's going anyway. It's something that still needs constant attention. What do you say to birders when they say, “How can I help?”I think all birders should be members of a bird-conservation organization of some sort. I don't care if it's Audubon or American Bird Conservancy or World Wildlife Fund or Nature Conservancy. You pick the organization that you're happiest with and feel most comfortable with. But if you care about anything in nature, whether it's a bird or a plant or whatever, you've got to stand up and be counted. Ultimately, membership in support of those organizations turns into political change and changes in policy, and those determine what we do with the land that we depend on and that birds depend on. That's what I would say is Job One: Join a conservation organization. Then I think there's no better way than to get involved with direct habitat conservation. You can do what you can to reduce your energy consumption and take pressure off the climate and all that. But that's a long-term, diffuse thing. Find an organization that actually gets out and protects habitat directly. Then you can go and walk on it and touch it and poke it and feel it and see it and know that it's real or not. Finally, we’re coming up on 40 years after the first Earth Day. What's the grade? How are we doing?I think we're learning. We've got a new vocabulary. Our children are a light-year ahead of us in terms of their thinking, commitment, and activism. Governments are slowly changing. If you stand back from it all, we're on the right path. The question is, Can we move faster down that path than the destructive forces that are looming over us? I definitely think there are lots of signs for optimism and hope because people are realizing that they have to sustain this system that sustains them. That's kind of a generational issue, and I think this current generation gets it.
The one coming along now? Well, maybe the one that is not yet born. [Laughs.] But look, my children are so much more aware than I was at their age. I just think that a lot of good things are happening. It's easy not to see those because of all the threats that you're seeing, but if you were a Martian looking down at us, you would have to say, "That species is starting to understand its situation." I don't think you could have said that a generation ago.
See more photos from the Osa on Flickr.
[Photo of Earth, courtesy NASA]
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