Magazine article American Forests

Little Island of Big Trees

Magazine article American Forests

Little Island of Big Trees

Article excerpt

Our boss once said, "People here don't worry about time, because bananas ripen all year; and they don't worry about what's north or south, because if you go in any direction, you soon run into the ocean." Likewise, why should people in Puerto Rico worry about trees, since they seem to spring up overnight? Right in front of our office grows an African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) just four years old that measures 29 inches in girth and 44 feet in height.

Fortunately, people in Puerto Rico do care about their trees. While we were conducting a study of sidewalk damage by street trees, neighborhood residents noticed us surveying, wearing our hard hats and vests. People came out of their homes, alarmed that we might be planning to cut their beloved trees.

Over the last 200 years, Puerto Rico's forests and trees have undergone precarious times. A dense population relying on subsistence farming felled the forests and cultivated almost to the tops of the mountain peaks. About nine-tenths of the forests disappeared; the remainder were heavily disturbed. Yet, so far as we know, all the native tree species have survived. Because of industrialization and prosperity, subsistence farming has ceased in the last five decades, and most steep and unproductive land has reverted back to forest or brushy pasture. With about 40 percent of Puerto Rico forested, and a lot more outside urban areas undergoing natural reforestation, one often feels lost in a paradise of lush vegetation.

The island hosts 547 native tree species, approaching the number (679) found in the continental U.S. (Species considered native and naturalized in the continental U.S., and therefore eligible for listing in the National Register of Big Trees, total 857.) Seventy-six of the Puerto Rican natives are also native to southern Florida and other parts of the South. Also, approximately 120 species of exotic trees have naturalized in Puerto Rico.

Our champion tree register was undertaken by personnel from the International Institute of Tropical Forestry to help increase appreciation for trees among a very urban population. Champion trees are measured and judged according to AMERICAN FORESTS' rules, just as in the mainland U.S. The International Institute of Tropical Forestry is maintained by the USDA Forest Service at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. The Institute's missions include research, cooperating with conservation organizations and forestry, departments in foreign countries, and assisting the Caribbean National Forest.

Although Puerto Rico's champs tend to be relatively young and smaller than they might have been had our island remained a wilderness, one - the giant cotton silk tree or ceiba of Villalba - ranks ahead of all but two U.S. champs in total points. It measures 780 inches in [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] circumference and is 128 feet tall with an average crown width of 146 feet, a total score of 944 points. The tallest tree known in here today is a 141-foot casuarina (a taller one recently blew down in a hurricane).

Eight of Puerto Rico's champion trees exceeded (in total points) U.S. national champion trees for 1996 (see chart).

Perhaps because so few people in Puerto Rico can identify trees by name, participation in the program has been limited largely to foresters. Assembling the registry has been great fun (156 species are currently represented). We hope that through the big-tree registry, more people will realize what truly magnificent trees Puerto Rico has to offer.

RELATED ARTICLE: IS IT TIME TO EXPAND THE REGISTER?

Since 1940 American Forests has promoted the country's distinctive trees with its National Register of Big Trees. …

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