- Bridging the Gap between Scientific Research and Tropical Forest RestorationA Multifaceted Research, Conservation, Education, and Outreach Program in Southern Costa Rica
In the last century, well over half the tropical forest in Central America has been cleared, creating a fragmented agricultural mosaic within which small forest remnants are embedded. However, changes in agricultural markets and incentives, in addition to land degradation, have led to agricultural land abandonment, providing the opportunity for tropical forest recovery and restoration. Over the decades, a few well-known biological field stations in Central America (for example, La Selva, Barro Colorado Island, and Las Cruces) have hosted scientists, primarily from Europe and the United States, who have produced thousands of publications on rainforest ecology and, increasingly, conservation and restoration practice. However, the question remains how to better facilitate the exchange of information between scientists and local communities to support restoration practice in the region.
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The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) Las Cruces Biological Station (LCBS) and associated Wilson Botanical Garden, located in southern Costa Rica, are building these connections. The station has become a leader in tropical restoration and conservation research by capitalizing on its location in a highly fragmented landscape. In recent years, LCBS has taken several steps to reposition itself, shifting from solely a field station where international researchers stay only long enough to conduct research, to one that has become a key player in local conservation strategy and design, thus promoting regional educational outreach and exchange efforts. These steps include educating national and international students; developing a strong environmental education program; training local research assistants; coordinating and promoting activities to facilitate information exchange between U.S. and Costa Rican scientists, regional land managers, and local landowners; and working with regional conservation campaigns.
More than 25 classes (in English and Spanish) at high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels visit LCBS each year; several are based at the station. The new field-oriented OTS Undergraduate Semester Abroad Program in Global Health provides U.S. students with hands-on experience in addressing tropical health issues in rural communities. The annual Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience Summer Program, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), offers a unique [End Page 143] opportunity for minority students, many of whom have never traveled abroad, to conduct tropical field research in the fields of restoration and conservation biology and to interact with indigenous groups in the region. But aside from more traditional approaches to promoting restoration research, how can a field station engage and develop more novel ways to further such activities?
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Naturally, environmental education and outreach are key in building support for regional programs and conservation initiatives. Although a program has existed at LCBS for many years, more recently the station has put considerable resources into developing a broader and more comprehensive regional program, spearheaded by Ariadna Sánchez, the outreach coordinator for the station. One measure of the program's success is the number of participants; the station reported its fourth consecutive annual increase in participants, with more than 1,200 registered for the 2009 fiscal year.
The program has developed such typical outreach activities as guided field visits around the station and botanical garden for local high school and college students, talks and informative poster sessions by station staff and researchers, and similar events held at local schools and colleges. Themes touch on a variety of topics and hot-button issues and depend in part on the age of the group. They range from simple good-practice talks, such as the importance of recycling and how to conserve water, to presentations on birds, insects, and plants and their role in the ecosystem (Figure 1), to more applied topics, such as the importance of reforestation and...