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Who is going to save it ?

Only in one spot is there today some of the wildlife that was formerly everywhere in the northwest.... Here are the puma and manigordo, deer, peccary, tepiscuintle, pizote, kinkajou, chulumuco, kongo, carablanca, and miriki. The jaguar and tapir are already extinct.... Two years more and the mountain will be dead. Who is going to save it? ~ Olof Nicolas Wessberg, in a passionate letter about Cabo Blanco to World Wildlife Organizations in 1960.

The “golden toad” (bufo perigienes) is a beautiful animal. A brilliant orange-colored male, it’s the kind of toad even a princess would kiss – if she could find one. Originally discovered in 1968, it was known to exist only in its breeding ground, the Monteverde Cloud Forest. In 1987, Costa Rican biologists counted more than 1,500 adult golden toads (sapo dorado in Spanish) in an annual survey. The next year the researchers found only 11. By 1989, they could find only 1. Since that day, golden toads have never been seen again.

As a group, frogs were on the planet long before dinosaurs, so why then are they disappearing all over the world? Especially from such a protected area such as Monteverde? No one is sure, although it seems to be related to environmental pressures. Whatever the reason, scientists agree that the plight of the frogs is a biological warning sign for our Earth.

Researchers are looking closely at the correlation of the frog’s disappearance with El Niño and global warming, but another theory speculates that an alien organism or microscopic pest may have been carried in by an unsuspecting scientist – or visiting eco-tourist – and caused a plague. That would be ironic. After all, the national parks, along with private reserves such as Monteverde, were begun specifically to preserve and protect Costa Rica’s biological diversity.

The story of the creation of Costa Rica’s remarkable national park system is one of hard work, imagination, dedication and a tremendous amount of luck. The story also makes for a great read. Pick up a copy of The Quetzal and the Macaw, by David Rains Wallace, a Sierra Club book.

Ecological awareness has always been a theme in Costa Rica’s political history, perhaps because of the country’s natural beauty. In 1775 Spanish colonial governor Don Juan Fernandez de Bobadilla issued a proclamation against slash-and-burn farming, “since the practice is followed by sterility of the soil.” In 1833, green belts of permanent farmland and forests around cities were mandated, and in 1846 the government set aside forested watershed areas. By 1859, Costa Rica had set aside for preservation all uncultivated lands in a 15-km/nine-mile zone on either side of the main rivers in the Central Valley.

The first attempt at establishing a true national park system came in 1939, when a law created a two-km/1.25-mile protected zone around the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Poás, overlooking the Meseta Central. A second zone was created on either side of the then newly built Inter- American Highway that bisected an old-growth oak forest. Despite the law, the sides of the volcanoes were cleared for pasture, and the oak trees were cut and shipped to Spain to be made into wine barrels. By the early 1960s, several foreigners (extranjeros) had taken preservation into their own hands, buying land to prevent its degradation. Archie Carr, a herpetologist, worked with local people to save the turtles at Tortuguero. Ornithologist Alexander Skutch and botanist Leslie Holdridge bought farmland to preserve part of a rainforest. Their holding became the famous La Selva private preserve.

Way back in 1951, a group of expatriate Quaker dairy farmers purchased a cloud forest in the mountains of Tilarán that would become Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. So it may be fitting that the “god-parents” of the first large Costa Rican park were foreigners as well.

Aspiring fruit farmers Karen and Olof Wessberg landed in the Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica’s northwest Pacific coast in 1955. They had bounced around the world from Denmark and Sweden, their respective home countries, to Ecuador, Guatemala, the United States and Mexico. They finally settled in Montezuma, a small town on the southern Nicoya coast, because they enjoyed its quiet natural beauty. They especially loved living next to one of the last wilderness areas on the peninsula, Cabo Blanco (White Cape).

In 1960 they woke up to find someone cutting trees and clearing a small finca (farm) in the primary forest. Olof became determined to buy the entire tract (at $10 an acre) in order to have the government put it off-limits to development. His unique appeal yielded offers from the British World League Against Vivisection, Sierra Club, Philadelphia Conservation League, Nature Conservancy and the Friends of Nature. However, Costa Rican bureaucracy had no experience in managing such an ambitious endeavor (or the large Santa Rosa tract they had acquired in 1966). In 1969, in typ- ical Latin American fashion, they hired two graduate students – Mario Boza, 27, and Alvaro Ugalde, 24 – to run a new national park system.

They could not have made a better choice. On a trip to the US in 1960, Mario Boza had been so impressed with the Great Smoky Mountains Park that upon his return he drew up a master plan for Poás Volcano as if it were a national park. His master’s thesis would become the blueprint for other Costa Rican parks. Alvaro Ugalde was a biology student at UCR who had taken a national parks management course at the Grand Canyon in the US. He worked as a volunteer, along with a Peace Corps member, physically managing the Santa Rosa tract before anyone was hired to do so. His first task after he was hired? Running the new Santa Rosa Park.

IIf the Wessbergs’ efforts gave physical birth to the park system idea, these two uncommonly gifted environmentalists raised it to adolescence. Boza and Ugalde’s foresight and hard work gave Costa Rica the foundation required to build upon a relatively modest start and create a viable national park system that is now the envy of the world.

Park fees are US $6 for all foreign tourists, but cheaper for local residents. It’s a way of funding the lesser-used parks and, although many foreign visitors feel it’s unfair, we believe it’s a good way to insure the park system’s survival (despite the fact that the fees go into general revenues and are not park-dedicated). Though the government still struggles with funding (the land in several parks has not been paid for, many years after its expropriation) Costa Rica has found that protecting its natural heritage has paid unexpected benefits well beyond everyone’s expectations.


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