Tree Angel of Santo Domingo

By Boerner, Deborah A. | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Tree Angel of Santo Domingo


Boerner, Deborah A., American Forests


Michigan State University professor, urban forester, tropical forester, legislative understudy, fundraising apprentice, AFA's liaison, and treeplanting guru in the Dominican Republic. Who are all these people? Correction. Who is this man? That's right, just one person somehow finds the time and energy to fill all these roles. His name is James Kielbaso.

The role that has excited Jim Kielbaso most in recent years is that of tropical forester in the Dominican Republic, a country that shares an island with Haiti. Haiti's name has become almost synonymous with forest loss and destruction in recent years, but the Dominican Republic has a better track record, and aims to improve.

In 1982 Kielbaso was contacted by Partners of the Americas, a private volunteer organization that links more than 15,000 people throughout the U.S. and Latin America in partnerships at the community level. Each state has a "partner country" (or part of a country) in Latin America. Michigan has two-Belize and the Dominican Republic, whose capital of Santo Domingo was hit by two major hurricanes in 1979, leaving the city with far fewer trees to cover its sun-baked streets. Enter Jim Kielbaso, professor of urban forestry at Michigan State.

Even at that time, Jim was no stranger to tropical forestry. As early as 1968, he had developed an interest in tropical forests and participated as a student, then faculty member in an Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) graduate course in Honduras and Costa Rica. In 1974-76 he supervised a MSU contract with the Peace Corps and spent one month each year in Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines observing Asian forestry practices and helping agricultural Peace Corps volunteers.

His Partners project has since taken him several times to the Dominican Republic, where his work is two-pronged. One effort is a watershed-reforestation project in the Rio Bani region, about an hour west of the capital; the other involves development and implementation of an urban-forestry program for storm-ravaged Santo Domingo.

"When I went down there for the first time in 1982, it was the most exciting 10 days of my life," said Kielbaso.

His visit and contact by the Partners of the Americas came about through i promise made by Dr. Jose Francisco Pena Gomez while campaigning for mayor. Pena pledged to re-green the city, and once elected, he set out to do just that.

That's how Kielbaso's first meeting with Pena came about. The mayor must have been struck at first by Jim's wide grin that seems to work only in conjunction with smiling eyes-a persona that puts people at ease immediately. His soft-spoken yet purposeful manner undoubtedly worked in his favor with students he taught in the classroom-perhaps that is where he acquired it.

Kielbaso's job, abetted by John Giedraitis, was to prepare an urban-forestry plan for a city that, since its loss of trees during the hurricanes, had felt temperature increases of about nine degrees Fahrenheit (five degrees Centigrade). Giedraitis, then an energetic young Michigan State grad student, was to become city forester of Austin, Texas. Within their 19-point plan, 3,000 to 6,000 "demonstration" trees to be planted in the first year "in prominent locations for maximum visual impact and acceptance" would start the city on its way to shadier, cooler days.

Dr. Pena and his team of city employees (led by Fernando Badia), in their enthusiasm to re-green the city, must have imagined this: if 3,000 trees would set the city in the right direction, 100 times that number would get it there that much quicker, for 300,000 is the number of trees planted in the first 20 months of Pena's term.

Perhaps Pena also suspected that 100 times the recommended number of trees would garner that much more public attention and fervor to the act of tree planting. Perhaps he was right., But as with any new endeavor, there were problems in planting even 3,000 trees, and these too were magnified. …

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