Sometimes farmlands quickly regrow tropical forests on their own, but other times they don’t. Dr. Karen Holl, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, gives some rules of thumb for when we can save money on tropical forest restoration by letting nature do the work, and when we may need to invest in tree planting.
Ambitious targets are being set to restore tropical forest because of their importance in storing carbon, regulating water cycles, conserving biodiversity, and supporting the wellbeing of people who live in tropical countries. For example, the 20 × 20 Initiative aims to restore 20 million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America by 2020. This represents an area slightly smaller than the country of Ecuador. One big question is: How are we going to restore forests at this scale with limited funds?
One of the cheapest ways to restore forest is to let nature do the work and leave forests to recover on their own. This works in some sites where forests regenerate quickly. In other cases, usually sites that have been used intensively for agriculture, the land may be covered by tall grasses (up to 3 meters, or 10 feet high) for years. Our past research shows that even within a small region, the rate of natural forest recovery varies greatly.
So, how do we predict which sites will recover quickly and which ones need some help in the form of clearing pasture grasses and planting trees? If we could develop some rules of thumb it would help land managers to more efficiently allocate scarce restoration funds.
To answer this question, we drew on our long-term study on tropical forest restoration in southern Costa Rica. We have research plots at 13 different sites where we removed the land from agriculture and let the forest recover on its own. Each year we measure grass cover, tree canopy cover, and how many and what species of new tree seedling establish in the plots. We have also quantified the forest cover surrounding the plots, the nutrients in the soil, and how long cows had grazed the sites in the past.
We found that two easy-to-measure variables explained on average two-thirds of variation in forest recovery 7 years later; those were the amount of grass cover and tree canopy cover measured after only 1.5 years. Plots that had more canopy cover and lower grass cover early on had a closed tree canopy and lots of forest tree seedlings from many species after nearly a decade. We were surprised that the amount of surrounding forest cover and soil nutrients did not explain much of the variation in forest recovery.
Of course, our results need to be tested in other recovering tropical forests. But, if they hold true, this is good news! It means that land owners and managers just need to wait a year or two and then measure the tree canopy and grass cover. If some trees have established and are starting to shade out the grasses, land managers can use the low cost method of leaving the site to recover naturally. If the site is mostly a monoculture of dense grass, then the site is a good candidate to plant native trees. Planting trees takes more resources since it is necessary to clear around the native tree seedlings for a couple of years until they grow taller than the grasses. At least now there are some general guidelines to help chose where to invest the extra effort.