Do we really need to plant a trillion trees? Tree islands are an ecologically and economically sound strategy to facilitate tropical forest recovery

Karen Holl (UC Santa Cruz) and Leighton Reid (Virginia Tech) describe lessons learned from a 15-year study of tropical forest restoration in southern Costa Rica. Their new paper is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

It seems that everybody from business people to politicians to even Youtubers is proposing that we should plant millions, billions, or even trillions of trees. They cite a host of reasons, such as storing carbon, conserving biodiversity, and providing income. These efforts should be done carefully and with a long-term commitment to ensure that the trees survive and to prevent unintended negative consequences, such as destroying native grasslands, reducing water supply in arid areas, or diverting attention from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another important question is whether we really need to plant that many trees to restore forest. In a new paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, we summarize some the lessons we have learned about a different approach.

Volunteer plants tree seedlings in one of our plantations in southern Costa Rica. Photo: Karen Holl

Over 15 years ago, we set up an experiment in southern Costa Rica to test whether planting small patches or “islands” of trees could speed up forest recovery for a lower cost than typical tree plantations. The idea is to plant small groups of trees that attract birds and bats, which disperse most tropical forest tree seeds. The tree canopy also shades out light-demanding grasses that can outcompete tree seedlings. As a result, over time these tree islands spread as they grow and facilitate the establishment of a lot more trees.

Compared to tree plantations, the tree island approach has two major benefits. First, it better simulates the patchiness of natural forest recovery. Second, it costs much less than planting rows and rows of trees.

Trade-offs in forest restoration strategies. Planting fewer trees leaves more to chance and can require more time, but tree plantations are more expensive and leave a bigger ecological footprint. Our study tests an intermediate option, and after 15 years it appears to provide a good balance. Figure modified from Corbin & Holl (2012).

In our experiment, we planted tree islands that covered about 20% of a 50 × 50 m plot of former cattle pasture. We compared that to plots where no trees were planted (natural recovery) and to the more intensive and more typical restoration strategy of planting trees in rows throughout the plot (plantation). We repeated this set-up at 15 sites in 2004-2006.

Over the past 15 years, we have monitored the recovery of vegetation, litterfall, nutrient cycling, epiphytes, birds, bats, arthropods, and more. Our data reveal a few key lessons about how to restore tropical forests more ecologically and economically.

First, our data show that planting tree islands is as effective as bigger tree plantations, despite cutting costs by around two-thirds. Compared to plantations, tree islands have similar recovery of nutrient cycling, tree seedling recruitment, and visitation by fruit-eating animals. Both tree islands and plantations speed up tropical forest recovery compared to letting the forest recover on its own. After 15 years, cover of trees and shrubs in the island planting plots has increased from 20% to over 90%.

Artist's depiction of three tropical forest restoration treatments: natural regeneration, tree islands, and plantation.
Drawing of our three treatments showing a few trees establishing in the natural regeneration plots, the tree island merging canopies merging in the island plots, and the rows of trees in the plantation. Artist: Michelle Pastor.

Second, we have found that larger tree islands are more effective than smaller islands in enhancing the establishment of fauna and flora, as larger tree islands attract more birds and shade out competitive grasses.

Third, while tree islands cost less than plantations, some landowners won’t use the tree island approach because the land looks “messier” than orderly tree plantations. Some people prefer to plant lots of trees that are valuable for timber or fruit, rather than having the diverse suite of species that are typical of a tropical forest. So, the tree island planting strategy will be more suitable in cases where the goal is to restore forest.

Natural recruitment of trees seedling in the understory of a canopy of planted trees.

Our results and those of others show that the tree island planting approach holds promise as a cost-effective forest restoration strategy in cases where there are seed sources nearby to colonize and animals to disperse them, and where the spread of tree islands is not likely to be slowed by fire or invasive species. But we need more long-term studies to judge whether tree islands will be effective in other tropical forest ecosystems and to test other questions, like how the particular tree species used affect forest recovery, or what is the best distance to leave between tree islands.

More broadly, our study shows that tropical forests can recover some species quickly but it will take many decades, or longer, for forests to fully recover. So, preserving existing rain forests is critical to conserve biodiversity and the services that intact forests provide to people.

Yes, carefully-planned tree planting can help accelerate tropical forest recovery. But, in many cases we don’t need to plant trees everywhere. Rather we should use restoration strategies that encourage trees to plant themselves.

To learn more about our research, read our new article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, visit our websites (Holl Lab, Reid Lab), or watch a 7-min. video below.

Karen Holl describes the tree planting restoration approach and our long-term experiment in southern Costa Rica. Nota: Pronto se subirá una versión de este video en español.

Global pledges to restore forests face challenges, and need increased support

Matthew Fagan is an assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Systems at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Here he describes the challenges confronting countries as they attempt large-scale forest restoration, and why many countries will need help to fulfill their goals. For more information, read his new, open-access paper in Conservation Letters.

Degraded and deforested landscapes are widespread, and tropical forests are being lost at a rate of 15.8 million hectares a year. But there is good news—temperate forest area is increasing, and more and more countries are voluntarily pledging to restore vast tracts of degraded land. Restoring forests benefits biodiversity and society, and can combat global warming as well, as growing trees lock away carbon dioxide.

International interest in restoring trees to landscapes emerged out of policy discussions last decade, and resulted in the 2011 Bonn Challenge and the creation of voluntary national restoration targets by many countries. The Bonn Challenge seeks to bring 150 million hectares into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectarees by 2030 (that’s roughly 700 million American football fields, 350 million rugby fields, 500 million FIFA football fields, or an area a bit larger than India).

Current Bonn Challenge pledges total some 172 million hectares. That’s a massive international commitment, and when you add in internal commitments by countries, the potential restoration area swells to 318 million hectares.

All that area voluntarily committed to restoration got my co-authors and I excited, but also skeptical—were countries really going to follow through on their commitments?

Fagan_RainforestBlowdown

A rain forest blow-down in northeastern Costa Rica, with a storm-downed tree cut to clear a path. Silviculture restoration promotes the recovery of disturbed forests like this one. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

To try to answer that question at this early stage, myself, Leighton Reid (Virginia Tech), Maggie Holland (UMBC), Justin Drew (UMBC), and Rakan Zahawi (University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa) asked three related questions in a recent paper in Conservation Letters.

  1. Is the amount of land a country pledged to restore related to their past record of restoring forested landscapes and implementing sustainable development?
  2. For the small group of countries that have publicly reported their progress on commitments, is the amount of restoration they completed predictable by their development level or other risk factors, like deforestation?
  3. Which countries will likely face the greatest challenges to meet their commitments and maintain restored land into the future?

We then set to gathering published information on country commitments and progress, and recent national rates of forest loss, agricultural expansion, and forest recovery.

Fagan_NaturalRegeneration

Recent natural regeneration in northeastern Costa Rica of varying ages. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

All of these programs seek to reforest landscapes in ways that benefit both nature and people, including options like natural regeneration (letting natural forests recover and expand), silviculture (interventions to restore standing forests, like preventing forest fires and promoting recovery from selective logging), tree plantations (often tree monocultures to produce timber and pulp on degraded lands), and agroforestry (planting trees on and around farmland to shade crops or protect streams and fields). These options are not all equal in their benefits for biodiversity, carbon, and society, but a diverse menu of options allows countries to consider committing to at least some form of restoration over large areas.

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A tree plantation in northeastern Costa Rica funded by the national payments for environmental services program. It is a monoculture of a single native species, Vochysia guatemalensis, grown for timber. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

In a nutshell, what we found was both discouraging and encouraging.

First, after adjusting for the size of a country and how much restoration they had done previously, we found that less-developed countries committed more land for restoration. This might be for positive reasons; for example, they may be taking proactive action against the greater risk they face from climate change. Or it might be because they underestimated how challenging it would be to achieve a large pledge.

Fagan_Silvopasture

Silvopastoral restoration, a type of agroforestry, in northeastern Costa Rica. The understory is a cattle pasture, while the overstory is plantation of a native tree species, Dipteryx panamensis. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

Second, for twelve early-reporting countries, restoration progress was predictable based on a risk index. Countries with higher risk (risk factors included deforestation rates and progress on sustainable development goals, among others) had less restoration progress.

Third, countries made massive individual commitments that will be hard to achieve without wholesale transformation of their food systems. One third of countries committed >10% of their land area (with a maximum of 81%, in Rwanda). A quarter either committed more area than they had in agriculture, or committed more area than they had in forest. And one quarter of countries had more forest loss and agricultural conversion in 2000–2015 than their restoration commitment for 2015–2030.

Fagan_ShadeCoffee

Coffee plantation under tree cover, a type of agroforestry, in central Costa Rica. The understory is a monoculture of coffee shrubs, while the overstory is scattered planted trees. The partial cover helps the shade-loving coffee plants stay healthy, but many coffee farmers are moving away from this traditional farming approach. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

As noted in our paper, “If voluntary commitments like the Bonn Challenge fail to precipitate meaningful restoration across large areas, the UN’s vision of a sustainable future will become less attainable.” But what this study found is not countries that have failed on their restoration pledges. We are still in the first days of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. What we have identified is countries that will need help to restore their lands.

We believe it is time for the international community to step up and aid all countries in achieving their restoration goals. To quote Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Fagan_Rainbow

A regrowing forest in central Costa Rica, showing the promise of restoration. Photo credit: Matthew Fagan.

Hard times for hemiepiphytes: Aroids have trouble making a comeback in second-growth forests

Estefania Fernandez Barrancos is a PhD student and Christensen Fellow at the University of Missouri St. Louis, where she is affiliated with the Harris World Ecology Center and the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Estefania has previously written about how to restore bromeliad populations. Here she describes a recent study asking how well hemiepiphytic aroids recover in secondary forests in Panama.

Most people know aroids as the familiar swiss cheese plants found growing in hotels and shopping malls. But few people realize that the aroid family (Araceae) is the fifth most diverse plant family on Earth. These plants provide essential food and refuge for birds, bats, insects, and primates in tropical forests throughout the world.

Like many other plants, aroid populations are dropping because the rainforests where they live are being converted into farms. My new research shows that aroids are also slow to recolonize new forests that become available.

City Aroid Country Aroid

City aroid (left, Monstera deliciosa in a building), country aroid (right, Monstera sp. in a Colombian forest). Photo sources: Left Maja Dumat CCBY 2.0; Right – Thomas Croat via Tropicos.

Before I describe that research though, here is some botanical jargon for the uninitiated. Epiphytes (a.k.a. air plants) are plants that grow on other plants (but not as parasites). Hemiepiphytes are plants that grow on other plants but only for part of their lives. Many aroids are hemiepiphtyes because they start life in the soil of the forest understory and grow until they find a tree. Then they climb up the tree and live above the ground, but they always keep a connection to solid earth.

To study their recovery, I surveyed hemiepiphytic aroids in native tree plantations (9-years old), natural secondary forests (8-14-years old), and mature forests (>100-years old) near the Panama Canal. These forests are part of Agua Salud – a tropical forest restoration experiment led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In the dense forest, I found aroids by looking for their stems coming down from the trees, then I followed the stem with binoculars until I found their leaves, which helped me identify the species. In all, I surveyed 1479 trees this way.

Estefania surveying mature forest tree Panama

Estefania Fernandez (below) and field assistant Carlos Diaz (above) look for aroids in a mature forest tree in Panama.

I found out that there were virtually no aroids in secondary forests or plantations. I recorded more than 2000 aroids from at least ten species growing on trees in mature forest, but in secondary forests and plantations I found less than 1% as many aroids and only three species.

Why do aroids have recovery troubles?

One reason for the lack of aroids could be that seeds from adult aroids in mature forests can’t reach the new forests. This seems unlikely because all of the secondary forests and plantations in my study were close to mature forests full of aroids, less than one kilometer away. Also, birds that are present in secondary forests are known to eat aroid fruits and disperse their seeds.

Another reason could be that the young forest canopy is too open for aroid seeds to germinate and grow. Unlike most plants, some aroids start out life growing away from light and towards darkness. (This has another great word: skototropism). It seems counterintuitive since most plants need light. But it is actually a good strategy. By growing away from light, aroid seedlings are more likely to run into a tree, which they need to climb up into the canopy and get to the light that they need to photosynthesize. So it is possible that there is too much light in the young forests and it keeps the aroid seedlings from finding a host tree.

Whether dispersal or establishment limits aroids in secondary forests, it is likely that more time will help. As forests become older and darker and birds bring in more seeds, aroid populations should eventually begin to recover. My research suggests that there is a considerable lag time required for aroids to recolonize disturbed habitats such as secondary forests and plantations.

More importantly, my study highlights how important it is to hold onto old forests. Forest restoration is a poor substitute for mature forest conservation. To the extent that we can prevent older forests from being cut down, it will help preserve many species of aroids as well as other plant and animal species that are threatened by habitat loss.

Aroid being pollinated by scarab beetles at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Source: www.aroid.org.

You can read more about Estefania’s research in her new open-access paper in Tropical Conservation Science, or on other posts from Natural History of Ecological Restoration (here and here).

Things are not always better on the sunny side!

Chris Birkinshaw is an assistant curator in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Madagascar Program, based in Antananarivo. He describes his observations on forest succession at Ankafobe, a site in the central highlands.

Anyone flying over Madagascar’s highly dissected central highlands will be struck at first by the vast grasslands that dominate this landscape.  But, those looking more carefully will also detect pockets of forest within the rich network of valleys.  These forests have a distinct fauna and flora but, perhaps because of their small size, they have attracted little interest from conservationists.  Consequently, in the last few decades, the majority have been degraded or entirely destroyed as their trees were cut for timber or charcoal and the relicts burnt by wild fires that rage over this landscape in the dry season.

The Ankafobe Forest, located some 135 km NW of Antananarivo, is currently being designated as new protected area by Missouri Botanical Garden’s Madagascar Research and Conservation Program.  It is one of the larger remaining areas of highland forest but, here too, the forest has been impacted by exploitation for timber and charcoal and burning by wild fires.

Efforts are underway to restore this forest to its former extent in the recent past.  This is no easy task because away from the current forest edge tree seedlings are subjected to harsh conditions: soils impoverished and compacted by annual burning, grasses that compete greedily for water and nutrients, an extended 7-month long dry season, and exposure to hot sunshine and strong desiccating winds.  Even when firebreaks are used to prevent wildfires from penetrating the grassland surrounding the forest, few tree seedlings naturally colonize outside of nurturing limits to the forest.

Few but not none.  A closer inspection of the landscape reveals some woody plants in the grassland on the less sunny south-facing slopes surrounding the forest (south is less sunny because Madagascar is in the southern hemisphere). Perhaps then the forest could be helped to expand by planting young trees preferentially on these slopes?

Ankafobe Forest South-facing on left.JPG

Vegetation is lusher on south-facing slopes (left) compared to north-facing slopes (right) at Ankafobe, a proposed conservation area in highland Madagascar.

To test this idea in 2017 we planted 25 nine-month old seedlings of each of four native tree species in grassland 20 m from the forest edge on both a south-facing slope and a north-facing slope.  The species were selected for this test are native to the Ankafobe Forest and were available at the local tree nursery when the experiment was installed.  After 12 months the survival and growth of these young plants were measured.

All four species survived well on the south-facing slope but only one species, Nuxia capitata, had good survival on the north-facing slope.  Mortality of Uapaca densifolia was total on the north-facing slopes.  Growth was sluggish on both the south-facing and north-facing slopes with the exception of Nuxia capitata on the south-facing slope that had a mean 12-month growth exceeding 20 cm.  These results suggest that south-facing slopes may provide the best results, at least at Ankafobe, for forest restoration endeavors.

South- facing North-facing
Species % Survival Average growth (cm) % Survival Average growth (cm)
Eugenia pluricymosa 72% 4.1 8% 3.0
Baronia taratana 88% 9.1 28% 12.4
Nuxia capitata 96% 21.5 100% 8.7
Uapaca densifolia 72% 10.5 0%

Aspect – the direction that a slope faces – makes a big difference for vegetation in the temperate zone, especially in dry places. But it is not often considered in tropical ecology. Directly or indirectly, the difference in sun exposure between the slopes at Ankafobe can make the difference between life and death for young trees growing in this hostile, water-stressed environment.

To read more blog posts about the restoration efforts at Ankafobe, please click here. You may also read a 2019 open access paper about seedling trials at this site here.

What can bat poop tell us about past tropical landscapes?

Rachel Reid is a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. She uses isotope chemistry to answer questions about ecology, geology, and conservation – including questions that can help build reference models for ecological restoration. Note: This blog is republished with permission from Amigos (No. 91 May 2019), the newsletter of Las Cruces Biological Station.

 Many people head to Costa Rica for spring break to see monkeys and sloths at Manuel Antonio National Park or to try their hand at surfing in the Pacific. While we did stop to gawk at the crocodiles that hang out under the bridge over the Tárcoles River with a busload of tourists, the goal of our trip diverged significantly from the spring break crowd – we were heading off the beaten path to southern Costa Rica to collect samples of modern and ancient bat guano (aka poop).

Bats sometimes visit the same caves over thousands of years, and the accumulated piles of guano offer a unique opportunity to study past environments. Just like a core of sediment from the bottom of a lake or the ocean, a core of bat guano collected from a cave contains useful information about the past, both recent and distant. The material at the bottom of the core is the oldest and that at the top is the youngest, so by sampling the length of a core, we can essentially take a short, stinky walk back in time.

We are interested in detecting changes in bat guano chemistry (particularly the carbon isotope values) through time as a way of evaluating what type of vegetation would have been on the landscape in the past. This works because information about the plants at the base of the food chain gets propagated up to the plant-eating insects and then to the insect-eating bats whose guano we’re sampling.

Bat Food Chain

Like other animals, bats and insects both gain carbon and nitrogen through the food they eat. Bats eat insects, which are in turn eating the local vegetation. Different types of plants have different carbon isotope values, such that most trees and shrubs (C3 plants) have much lower carbon isotope values than most grasses (C4 plants). Shifts in tropical bat guano carbon isotope values, therefore, are indicative of landscape-level changes in vegetation between more open, grassland plants and tropical forest.

How does bat poop inform conservation?

In the late 1940s, southern Costa Rica was nearly 100% forested. We know this from aerial photos – the earliest ones are from 1948. In later years, aerial photos show that most of that forest was cleared for coffee plantations; two thirds of it was cleared by 1980, for example.

This recent deforestation has motivated forest restoration efforts such as the creation of biological corridors and international scientific studies. Nonetheless, several studies (such as this and this) suggest that extinction rates in this region may be lower than would be predicted from recent habitat loss. One explanation for this could be that the regional flora and fauna evolved for several thousand years in a mixed forest and non-forest landscape managed by humans. By piecing together records of past vegetation from bat guano cores, we’ll be able to gain a better picture of what the landscape would have looked like in the past and potentially refine landscape-scale conservation and restoration targets.

For this first trip, our goals were to visit several caves to collect samples and to scout out future sampling opportunities. Southwestern Costa Rica has the highest concentration of karst caves in the country, so we were in the right place. In four days of fieldwork we visited three different caves (two of them twice!), collected 77 cm of core material, and took dozens of samples of modern bat poop.

At Bajo los Indios Cave, also known as Corredores, along the Rio Corredor, we ventured into a restricted, elevated chamber in hopes of finding deeper, more protected accumulations of guano. We were disappointed to find that even in this higher chamber, the cave was very wet and muddy and any significant guano accumulations appeared to have washed away. We collected a guano/mud core anyway and we’ll see what we can learn from it.

Bat Guano Team by JF

The bat guano team. From left to right: Leighton Reid & Christy Edwards (Missouri Botanical Garden), Rachel Reid & Alice Xu (Washington University in St. Louis), and Jeisson Figueroa (Organization for Tropical Studies). Photo by Jeisson Figueroa.

Taking a guano core by JF

Leighton Reid uses a peat corer to extract a sample of bat guano from a karst cave. Photo by Jeisson Figueroa.

One additional important piece to our project is to try to get a better idea of what modern insectivorous bats, such as the mesoamerican mustached bat (Pteronotus parnellii mesoamericanas), are eating. We’ll then use that information to better interpret our results back in time. We’re excited to start analyzing samples!

This pilot study was generously funded by grants from the Living Earth Collaborative and from the International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.

What does the Black-faced Antthrush tell us about tropical forest restoration?

Anna Spiers (University of Colorado Boulder) describes a recent field experiment done with Emma Singer (Hamlin College) and Leighton Reid (CCSD) during an Organization for Tropical Studies Field Ecology Course in Costa Rica.

Bird diversity and forest restoration are synergistic. Birds facilitate forest regeneration through seed dispersal, pest control, and pollination. Forest restoration replenishes lost bird habitat by providing food, protection from predators, and suitable territory for breeding and nesting. Monitoring bird communities in a regenerating forest is an effective strategy to gauge the success of restoration.

While some birds are flexible regarding the quality of their habitat, others require a narrower set of conditions to survive. One such bird is the Black-faced Antthrush (Formicarius analis), a medium-sized, ground-dwelling insect-eater, easily distinguished by its plaintive song and chicken-like strut. The bird spends its days flipping over leaves and sticks with its bill to expose tasty ants, beetles, and other arthropods (and sometimes small vertebrates). A member of a bird family highly threatened by forest fragmentation (Formicariidae), the Black-faced Antthrush is known to disappear from small forest fragments and to struggle crossing even narrow strips of open space. Finding such sensitive birds in a regenerating forest is a positive signal that forest restoration is increasing habitat for forest-dependent species.

bfan

Black-faced Antthrush (Formicarius analis) strutting across the rainforest floor. Image: Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML54054261).

Earlier this month, we did an experiment to find out how different forest restoration strategies affect the Black-faced Antthrush. Specifically, we tested whether the bird exhibited a stronger territorial response in tree plantations, naturally-regenerating secondary forests, or areas where patches of trees (tree islands) had been planted to stimulate forest recovery. We expected to find that birds would be more defensive of areas where trees had been planted, given that these areas had a more closed canopy and more leaf litter for the birds to pick through for arthropods.

jlrplayback

Leighton holds up a speaker to conduct a bird call playback. Unsurprisingly, there was no response in this scrubby, abandoned pasture (one of the control points in our experiment). Image: Martha Bonilla-Moheno.

To test the bird’s territorial response, we amplified a locally-recorded sound file of the bird’s vocalization and recorded its response. We noted how long it took for the bird to respond, how many notes it sang in response, and how close it approached the speaker. For this species, a short call with 4 notes is a “hello”, but a long call with upwards of 12 notes is a warning to let the other birds know that this territory is taken.

map

Our study area at Las Cruces Biological Station in southern Costa Rica. Each of the two restoration sites contained a tree plantation, a natural regeneration area, and a “tree island” area where patches of trees were planted to kick-start forest recovery. Image: Google Earth 2018.

Antthrushes defended restoration areas where trees were planted

As we expected, Black-faced Antthrushes responded more quickly and more forcefully when we taunted them with calls broadcast from tree plantations and tree island plantings – an indication that they were expending more energy to defend these areas. However, we only found this at one of the two restoration sites. The other site was a veritable antthrush desert with not a single response during any of our trials. Leighton’s collaborator Juan Abel Rosales often finds Black-faced Antthrushes at both sites, but this second site is near a road and dogs occasionally wander into the regenerating forest, possibly causing birds to temporarily abandon this area.

maxnotesfig

Black-faced Antthrushes responded quickly and with many tooting notes when we played their song to them from tree islands, plantation, and mature forest, but they responded not at all in abandoned pastures or in natural regeneration. The data representing restoration treatments are from one site only – at the other site we recorded no birds during any trials.

Tree islands and plantation had a couple of habitat features that natural regeneration lacked. First, the understory was more open, providing ground-dwelling birds with greater visiblity. Second, planted areas also had deeper leaf litter, and leaf litter is essential for a bird that makes a living flipping leaves to find its dinner.

habitats

Understory comparison between natural regeneration (left) and a tree plantation (right). Both have been recovering for 15 years. Natural regeneration vegetation is thick and still grassy from pasture days. A closing canopy in the tree plantation produced a thinner, more visible understory, with lots of nice leaf litter, full of delicious arthropods.

So what does the Black-faced Antthrush tell us about forest restoration?

 It may be telling us two things. First, restored forests growing up alongside remnant ones can be valuable habitat worth defending. When birds spend time calling, that is time that they do not spend foraging, and they can pay a price with their energy budget. Second, tree planting may create habitat for these birds faster than natural forest regeneration – although natural regeneration is highly variable from site to site, and we only found a pattern at one site right next to an old-growth forest. Promisingly, we did not see a difference between tree islands and the tree plantation, which suggests that we could plant fewer trees and still see the return of a forest-dependent bird species within about 15 years.

For more information about the Islas Project (with the tree islands) see previous NHER posts here, here, and here. Thanks to Bert Harris for some of the ideas that we used in this project!

 

 

It’s Complicated: Trees and Ecological Restoration

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The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.
-Anonymous

Addendum: That is, unless the tree will grow just fine without your help or the tree doesn’t really belong there. In that case, the best time might be never.

Planting a tree is rejuvenating. It gets you outside, it’s good exercise, and it’s often good for the planet. Really, trees give us an awful lot and don’t ask for much in return. Among their many gifts are food, shade, animal habitat, building materials, erosion control, and fuel. Trees also filter our water and suck carbon out of the air. In cities, trees collect grit and grime that would otherwise coat our lungs.

But tree planting is not the same as restoration. Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of a damaged ecosystem. Trees are integral to many ecosystems, like forests…

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The ephemeral forests of southern Costa Rica

Damaged ecosystems don’t recover overnight, but sometimes that’s all the time that they get. CCSD scientist Leighton Reid describes new research about tropical secondary forests in southern Costa Rica, including how long these young forests last, what’s at stake, and how we can keep them around longer.

Regrowing tropical forests on marginal farm lands is one of the main ways that humans can prevent runaway climate change. With ample moisture and long growing seasons, tropical trees often can grow quickly and pull large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, storing it in their wood and keeping it from trapping heat. At the same time, young forests provide habitat for plants and animals and improve water quality for humans, among many other benefits.

But even in a moist, tropical climate, trees don’t grow instantly. Typically, it takes many decades for a recovering forest to stock up all of the carbon that it can hold. And it can take even longer for some plants (like orchids) and animals (like antbirds) to return. If a forest starts to grow back, but then someone cuts it down again, these time-dependent benefits never accrue.

In other words, the hopes and expectations that many people have for young tropical forests depend on young tropical forests growing old. So do they? Our new study suggests not.

San Vito & Coto Brus Valley

The Coto Brus Valley and Talamanca Mountains in southern Costa Rica. Photo by J. Leighton Reid.

To find out how long secondary forests persist, I teamed up with Matthew Fagan, a landscape ecologist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Rakan Zahawi, director of the Lyon Arboretum, as well as two students, James Lucas at Washington University and Joshua Slaughter at UMBC.

We studied a set of historical, aerial photos from southern Costa Rica, which covered the time period from 1947-2014. Previously, Zahawi and colleagues had classified which areas in each photo were forest and which areas were farms or other non-forest land uses. By comparing the maps they made for each year, we were able to see where and when new forests appeared and how long they remained as forest before they were converted to some other land use (mostly farms).

The young forests did not last long. Half of the new forests disappeared before they were 20-years old. And 85% were cut down before they were 54-years old. Larger forests and forests near rivers lasted longer.

One hectare forest fragment, Coto Brus, Costa Rica

An isolated forest fragment surrounded by cattle pastures in southern Costa Rica. Photo by J. Leighton Reid.

First, the bad news. Twenty years is not even close to the amount of time it takes for a young forest to become as diverse as an old-growth forest. For example, vascular epiphytes like orchids and bromeliads take more than 100 years to fully recover in young forests.

Carbon storage will also take a hit. If forests elsewhere in Latin America are as ephemeral as forests in southern Costa Rica, then carbon stocking over the next thirty years may be reduced by an order of magnitude.

Ephemeral forests could just be a problem in Costa Rica, but another study shows that secondary forests in eastern Peru have even shorter lifespans. There, secondary forests are cleared at a rate of 3-23% per year. Compared to that, the 2-3% per year rate of loss in southern Costa Rica is considerably better. And that’s not a good thing. Clearly we need more research on secondary forest persistence from other places.

There is some good news, though. Even though many new forests were short-lived, the ones that survived were predictable. And if we can predict where new forests will survive, we should also be able to help them survive longer. Larger forests and forests close to rivers were cut down less often than small forests and forests far from rivers. This suggests that restoring large, riparian forests could be a smart investment.

Gulfo Dulce from Fila Cruces - Coto Brus, Costa Rica

Forests and cattle pastures in southern Costa Rica. Photo by J. Leighton Reid.

Governments and other organizations can also help forests persist by creating incentives for long-term forest management, providing resources to enable long-term management, and ensuring that local people will be able to enjoy the benefits that old forests provide.

We hope that this work will lead to stronger restoration commitments. Right now, dozens of countries are setting big targets for forest restoration. For example, in 2012 Costa Rica committed to restore a million hectares of degraded land by 2020 (an area about one fifth the size of the country). There is a great opportunity for Costa Rica and other ambitious countries to plan for long-term forest restoration.

If we can begin to restore a million hectares of forest by 2020, why not plan to restore a million hectares of 100-year old forest by 2120?

Melissa's Meadow, Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica

A trail through secondary forest at the Las Cruces Biological Station in southern Costa Rica. Photo by J. Leighton Reid.

For more information on this research, you can read our open-access paper in Conservation Letters or watch a video of Leighton Reid presenting to the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation back in June. Additional papers on restored ecosystem persistence are available here and here. This work is a product of the PARTNERS (People and Reforestation in the Tropics: a Network for Research, Education, and Synthesis) Working Group on Spatial Prioritization. Funding was provided by grant DEB-1313788 from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Coupled Human and Natural Systems Program.

How to grow instant fig trees to restore rain forests in Costa Rica

CCSD scientist Leighton Reid and Lyon Arboretum director Rakan Zahawi write about giant fig tree cuttings: how to make them and why some grow better than others.

Choosing the right species to include in a restoration project is a hard choice, but in the economy of nature, some species earn a bigger ROI than others. For example, Pacific sea otters maintain kelp forests by eating sea urchins, and wolves in Yellowstone National Park allow aspen groves to regenerate by scaring away tree-munching elk. These vital creatures are called “keystone species” because they hold ecosystems together, much like the keystone in an arch.

KeystoneSpecies

A keystone and three keystone species. (A) This small keystone holds up an arch in the Shoenberg Temperate House at Missouri Botanical Garden. (B) Sea otters are keystone predators in kelp forests. Photo by Marshal Hedin CC-BY 2.0. (C) Gray Wolves are keystone terrestrial predators. Photo by Gary Kramer USFWS CC-BY-NC 2.0. (D) A keystone fig tree feeding a Knobbed Hornbill in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman CC BY-SA 3.0.

Plants can be keystone species too. Around the world there are about 800 species of fig trees, and they hold tropical forests together by providing food for a wide array of animals. On any given day, the busiest tree in a rain forest is likely to be a fig tree with fruits. Monkeys, birds, bats, and others gather at fig trees to eat, and in the process, they deposit seeds of other plant species that they have been carrying in their guts. This chain of events, repeated day after day, often turns the area beneath a fig tree into a hotspot of plant diversity.

A few years ago, we had an idea to plant keystone fig trees in young forests in Costa Rica. We wanted the figs to grow as fast as they could, so instead of planting seedlings, we planted cuttings – big ones. With help from our local collaborator, Juan Abel Rosales, we cut dozens of twelve foot-long branches from eight species of fig trees. We stripped off all of their leaves to keep them from drying out, and then we planted our figs trees in shallow holes.

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Rakan Zahawi (delighted!) poses with a three year-old fig stake.

To our delight, many of the fig trees grew!

The ones that did the best came from a special group, the subgenus Urostigma. Many figs in this group have a unique life strategy. They begin their lives in the top of a tree when their tiny seeds are deposited on a branch by a bird or some other animal. As they grow in the treetop, they send long roots down to the ground, and these roots harden and fuse together, forming a lattice-like trunk. Over time, these figs kill their host trees by taking most of the water, nutrients, and light. They also keep the host tree from growing outwards, giving them the nickname “strangler figs”. Maybe the ability to transform a flimsy, dangling root into a solid trunk is related to these figs being able to grow from cuttings.

To find out how well our planted fig cuttings might survive over the long-term, we also tracked down some fig cuttings that we had planted in 2004. We were happy to learn that out of the trees that survived for their first three years of life, all of them were still thriving a decade later.

Full disclosure: planting large cuttings is not a new idea.  Farmers in many parts of the tropics plant trees this way to create ‘living fences’ – with all of the normal fixings like gates and barbed wire, but with a row of living trees instead of dead posts. The advantages for farmers are many – their fences don’t rot and fall apart (that happens quickly in the tropics); the trees provide shade for cattle; they have a constant source of new fence posts (by cutting off a limb); and in some cases they can feed the young shoots to livestock.

Big cuttings have big benefits for restoration too. Not only are planted trees already several feet tall, you also get to skip the pricey nursery phase, and, most excitingly, cuttings have a tendency to fruit quickly.

Some of our young fig trees are now making fruit, but we will have to wait a bit longer to see whether they start attracting more big animals and whether those animals carry more tree seeds into our young forests. For now, we can say that others who are interested in growing keystone figs for forest restoration may have the best luck by working with the stranglers.

For more information, please take a look at our open access paper on this project in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation and prior blog posts here, here, and here.

FigProduction

How to grow an instant fig tree. (A) Remove a long, thin branch segment from an adult tree. The red arrow shows a cut branch. (B) Strip the cuttings of their leaves to keep them from drying out, then carefully transport cuttings so as not to damage cortical tissue. Here, cuttings are padded by a foam mattress. (C) Remove the bark from a ring on the cutting to promote root growth. Here, a ring is being cut about 20 cm (8 in) above the base so that it will be just below the soil surface when planted. (D) Dig a shallow hole and plant the cutting. Be sure that the cutting is firmly planted to prevent it from toppling, but take care not to compact the soil too much around its roots. Photos by Rakan Zahawi.

 

Tree islands for tropical forest restoration: the outlook is rosy after 10 years

Planting tree islands has many of the benefits of larger plantations, but entails significantly less cost. Karen Holl (University of California, Santa Cruz), Leighton Reid (Missouri Botanical Garden), and Zak Zahawi (American University of Beirut) describe recent findings on tree seedling recruitment in a long-term experiment in southern Costa Rica.

Over the past few years there have been a growing number of commitments at the global, national and regional scale to restore forests because of their importance to conserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, and provide goods and services to people. For example, Initiative 20×20, led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, aims to restore 20 million hectares of tropical forest by 2020, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Uruguay or Nebraska.

A common strategy to restore forests is to plant trees. But, the big question is: where will the money come from to plant billions of trees when there are so many pressing needs? As restoration ecologists, we started thinking about how we could most efficiently allocate resources to get the best bang for the buck and restore the largest area of forest.

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Trade-offs in forest restoration strategies. Planting fewer trees leaves more to chance and can require more time, but tree plantations are more expensive and leave a bigger ecological footprint. Our study tests an intermediate option, and after 10 years it appears to provide a good balance. Figure modified from Corbin & Holl (2012).

Starting over 10 years ago, we set up a large-scale tropical forest restoration experiment in southern Costa Rica to test two ideas.

First, we tried planting tree “islands”. The idea is to plant groups of trees that attract birds and bats, which disperse most tropical forest tree seeds. The tree canopy also shades out light-demanding grasses that can outcompete tree seedlings. In one experimental treatment, we planted tree islands that covered about 20% of 50 × 50 m plot of former cattle pasture. We compared that to plots where no trees were planted (natural recovery) and to the more intensive (and more typical) restoration strategy of planting trees in rows throughout the plot (plantation).

Second, we asked: is it only possible to restore forest near remnant forests or can you restore forest anywhere in the landscape? This is important information to help guide forest restoration efforts. To do this we set up our entire experiment at 13 sites, some of which were mostly surrounded by agricultural land and some of which were adjacent to the largest remaining forests in the region.

Then we monitored establishment of new tree seedlings in our research plots over a decade. We compared the number of seedlings, number of species, and types of species in the restoration plots with those found in the nearby forest to evaluate how well the forest is recovering.

The tree island planting method not only saves money on buying, planting, and maintaining seedlings, but it also results in a more heterogeneous distribution of trees, so it looks more like a natural forest.

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Profuse tree seedling and sapling recruitment in the understory between two tree islands in southern Costa Rica.

We counted over 6000 tree seedlings, 88% of which have seeds that are dispersed by animals. On average there were many more tree seedlings in the tree island and plantation treatments than in the natural recovery plots. These results suggests that some tree planting helps the forest to recover faster, but that it is not necessary to plant the whole area with trees. The tree island planting method not only saves money on buying, planting, and maintaining seedlings, but it also results in a more heterogeneous distribution of trees, so it looks more like a natural forest.

Even though there were many tree seedlings in the island and plantation plots, on average there were less seedlings of tree species that have big seeds (>0.5 cm/0.2 inches across) compared to mature, reference forests. It seems that the larger-seeded species that are common in mature forests are much slower to colonize restored sites, likely because they are eaten and dispersed by a small number of larger animals, such trogons and agoutis. Many of those dispersers are less likely to visit early successional forest.

wheelwright_nher

Small frugivores, small seeds. Most of the birds we see in these experimental plots are small-gaped omnivores (e.g., Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Elaenia flavogaster, left), but it usually takes large-gaped species to disperse larger seeds1. The figure at right shows the maximum fruit size that a bird species with a given gape size was able to consume in a cloud forest in central Costa Rica (modified from Wheelwright (1985)). In our experiment, small seeds were ubiquitous, but large seeds were mostly absent.

We were surprised that the amount of forest cover around the experimental plots had a weak effect on the number of seedlings establishing. In other words, isolated plots had just as many tree seedlings as plots right next to old-growth forests. We think that this is likely due to the fact that there are many trees in the agricultural landscape surrounding our plots; these trees include remnant trees, living fence rows, and riparian corridors. Trees in the landscape can serve an important role in both providing sources of seeds and stepping stones for the movement of seed-dispersing fauna. We anticipate that having forest nearby will be more important in future years as these forests build up greater diversity of rare, large-seeded species. Nonetheless, our results suggest that there are good prospects for restoring forests in many locations in this landscape.

Our key finding is that planting tree islands can be a cost-effective way to restore tropical forests at our study site in Costa Rica, but we hasten to note that the strategy should be tested in other locations, particularly areas with fewer forest elements in the surrounding countryside. Our study also demonstrates that tropical forests can recover some species quickly but it will take many decades, if ever, for forests to fully recover. So, preserving existing rain forests is critical to conserve biodiversity and the services they provide to people.

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Diverse tree cover in an agricultural landscape in southern Costa Rica. Remnant trees in pastures, trees along fence rows, and riparian forests provide important sources of flora and fauna to speed up forest recovery.

1See Melo et al. (2009) for an example to the contrary: small-gaped animals dispersing fairly large fruits and seeds.

This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.