Immersion in the Dry Forests of Costa Rica

Posted: April 17, 2013

Our spring semester expedition series finished with a visit to Santa Rosa National Park. This protected area is the flagship of Guanacaste National Park, one of the most emblematic parks of Costa Rica. Santa Rosa protects a plethora of tropical habitats, from mangroves and savannas to tropical dry forests, which represent the most endangered terrestrial tropical ecosystem, and one of the first to almost disappear in its totality during the Spanish colonization.

Santa Rosa was first established for reasons other than its current biological importance. The area was an old cattle ranch dating back from the 1700s. It was the site of a very famous battle on March 20th, 1856 against the filibusters of William Walker, an American adventurer and believer in manifest destiny. The Costa Rican army defeated Walker and moved the campaign into Nicaragua.  The old house on the ranch has survived time and an arsonist’s fire in the ’90s. It is now restored for future generations… and so is the surrounding dry forest.

Tropical dry forest restoration began in the early ’80s, when the idea of saving a significant and functional tract of this ecosystem was merely a dream. A few visionaries, among them humble park rangers and administrators, guided by Daniel Janzen, started the enterprise of understanding the regeneration of this rare ecosystem. There are not that many places with representative patches of mature, primary dry forests. Most forests were consumed by fire to open up space for cattle ranching, used for timber harvesting, or just indiscriminately burned to give more space for agriculture.

For generations, local communities forgot their connection to the forest. It is not until recently that bio-literacy has become strong, with education playing a large role in helping to reestablish the tropical dry forest. A lot of the techniques that now are in place to restore dry habitats, and that now form part of current mainstream knowledge, were developed in Santa Rosa. Forest restoration depends on fire suppression, controlled cattle exclusion, and the natural flow of seeds between pastures and forest patches. The connection with the mountain tops became critical, and many tracts of forests were purchased and connected to the new expanding park, named after the province where it is located: Guanacaste National Park. Local communities were instructed on the benefits of conservation, and many now cater to local and international tourists. Guanacaste has become a major driver of the Costa Rican emerging ecotourism industry, and is now the prime example of successful restoration efforts in the tropics.

However, not everything is a happy story. The evolution of Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks is still unfolding. Many challenges lay ahead, from fire control to illegal hunting, the expansion of hotels and urban areas on the edge of the park, increased visitation, conflicts with local communities and reluctance to expand the limits of the national park.

Santa Rosa was a camping trip to remember, especially the Naranjo Beach sector with its breathtaking sunsets. We all enjoyed the field trip, and it is my hope that many generations of students, researchers and the public in general will continue enjoying, exploring, and knowing wild places such as Santa Rosa.