Conservation and Environmental Education
in Rural Northwestern Costa Rica
LEARNING THE LESSONS OF A NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION
Gordon W. Frankie and S. Bradleigh Vinson
IT ALL STARTED WITH FIRE! In the late 1970s members of our dry-forest research team were aware that wildfires were becoming common in our general study area between Cañas and Liberia and southwesterly to the Tempisque River in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica (see maps 1.1 and 1.2 in chapter 1). We also had reason to believe that the risk of fire would increase through time and endanger the remaining plants and wildlife throughout the area. Reasons for our concern included the following. Fire was not a natural phenomenon in the dry forest, and the biota was not adapted to cope with it. Thus, the flora and fauna were extremely vulnerable to fire damage (Frankie et al. 1997) (Our research group had worked in the Tempisque region since 1968, when fires were infrequent and small). Wildfires received their greatest combustible fuel from a fire-adapted exotic African grass, Hyparrhenia rufa, and repeated fires in an area usually led to substantially increased fuel loads of H. rufa, thereby increasing the risk of future and more damaging fires. Moreover, all wildfires were human-caused, and the human population in the region was increasing. Fire was commonly used to “clean” fields and roadsides by local people, and “cleaning” fires often escaped and burned their way into forests, including protected areas. Indifference to escaped fires by most local people and authorities was the rule.
We were also aware that these fires could probably be managed with traditional, timeproven methods of prevention and suppression. This view was based on fire experience by one of us (GF), who had previously worked on fire crews for the U. S. Forest Service in several pine forests of northern California.
To deal with these fire concerns, a group of five biologists/naturalists (G. Frankie, J. Frankie, L. D. Gomez, W. Haber, and S. B. Vinson) and the National Parks Foundation of Costa Rica began working together in late 1979 to develop a proposal to protect a seasonal dry-forest site, Lomas Barbudal, having unique biological