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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Natural Forest Habitat Restoration in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve

More than 400 species of plants inhabit the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. In spite of the immense diversity of plant life found here, and the official status of a protected area, deforestation is rampant. Some areas have been deforested for a few decades, when the areas were developed as cattle pasture. Although cattle are no longer legally permitted in the reserve, there are still large areas that continue to have few trees from that period. Some locals cut firewood and timber illegally, menacing the trees especially on the northern side of the reserve. GAIA works with local landowners, MARENA and the municipalities to reforest areas sustainably, using seeds from the same forest, with species native to the area. This point offers one strong distinction between our reforestation project and almost every other reforestation project in Nicaragua. At Gaia, we discourage the use of neem, eucalyptus, Benjamin's fig, and any other non-native tree in the area, and we never plant those species.

Nicaragua
Ceiba seeds (Ceiba pentandra) are highly nutritious, attracting parrots, parakeets and many other birds. The wood from the ceiba tree is not of high value, making it of limited use to illegal forest raiders. The trees tend to form hollow cavities, providing excellent animal habitat, also. Photo Jen Moran. 
Most reforestation projects are directed at wood production for construction or furniture woods, using few species, and managed in even-age stands. Reforestation projects of these types rarely contribute to wildlife habitat in any significant way. Wildlife, however, need diverse species, of diverse ages, and including hollow trees which are definitely unwanted by production forest managers.
Nicaragua
The ceiba seeds come in a pod with a fluff that is used by many animals as nest material, and it has been used as packing for bedding until recently among rural people. Photo Jen Moran. 
One challenge to reforestation and natural forest restoration is to maximize the diversity of tree species expected in a natural forest in the area. This challenge means harvesting a wide diversity of tree seeds, cleaning and classifying them, then seeding them before eventually taking the small trees to the forest for planting. Most of the tree species found in nature in the Nicaraguan forests have never been grown in commercial tree nurseries. There is no readily available information on how to maximize the survivability of those species. We are learning as we go, and enjoying every minute, while making small successes which help the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve to remain as biologically diverse as it can be.
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In this box, a diverse sampling of forest seeds that have been collected and processed in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Our Eco-Warrior Volunteers help with every stage of reforestation. 
Some trees such as ceiba (also known as kapok) have known uses for nature as well as for man. Other tree species may contribute to the local ecology in ways we do not know. We do try to emphasize the selection of species most appropriate for each particular area, according to the physical features present such as shade, access to water, slope, rockiness, and soil conditions, but in the end, we want to see as many trees of as many species planted in areas that can eventually return to mature forest.
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Another very attractive species for natural forest restoration is the Guanacaste or Elephant-ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) The seeds are consumed by many birds and mammals, and were once consumed by locals. Photo Jen Moran. 
Another challenge to a successful reforestation project is to obtain seed stocks that are robust, healthy and genetically diverse. Furthermore, we want to use seed stocks from local strains. We collect seeds locally, monitoring productive trees for the best moments to make seed collections. Once collected and processed, the seeds are planted in seed bags or other containers, often using materials such as plastic bottles, jet-packs for milk, etc., which give another "life" to these artificial materials that we just can't seem to rid from our lives. If we can eliminate the use of artificial materials, at least we should re-use and recycle, and our reforestation project gives us a good place to put lots of material which otherwise would be waste.
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Volunteers help seed new trees in nursery bags made from recycled plastics. Photo Jen Moran.
We grow out the majority of our seedlings during the dry season in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, from December through April. Our tree nursery is shaded by a partial tree cover, keeping the intense sun rays down and the evaporation rates lower, as well. Even then, we have to supply lots of water to each seedling as it grows, as well as some tender, loving care to be sure each seedling gets the best chance to grow surely into a small tree. 
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These volunteers filled seedling bags with compost made from our own kitchen! Photo Jen Moran.
Most successful seedlings require at least a few months to grow up to size appropriate for planting in the forest. Once up to size, the seedlings must await the first rains, to be taken out and planted in a forest area. In Nicaragua, the seasons revolve around rain, rather than temperature.
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Eco-Warrior volunteers place seeds in bags with lush soils. Although these volunteers will be long gone from Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve when these seeds become trees in the forest, they have left an important contribution to nature in Nicaragua. Photo Jen Moran.
There are at least 10,000 mature trees in the forests of Laguna de Apoyo today, which started life in the GAIA tree nursery. Each was planted and attended by volunteers, summing up to many, many hours of donated time. Even then, there are costs that can not be avoided, including water costs, which are very expensive. We maintain a well which entails pumping costs and yearly well maintenance, adding up to almost one hundred dollars per month.
Eco-Warrior volunteers
Ear guanacaste seeds are not only good for planting, they make very attractive seed jewelry! Photo Jen Moran.
Once the seasonal rains begin, seedlings of sufficient size to survive are transplanted into forest habitat restoration plots. Most of the Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is steeply sloped, and the soils are recently formed volcanic ash. The volcano last exploded some 23,000 years ago. As a result, the soils can be quite week, lacking in nitrogen, and extremely susceptible to erosion in the deforested areas. Furthermore, the deforested areas are generally covered with annual grasses which often burn during the dry season, presenting one of the most dangerous hazards to the small, new trees. Our care of these trees must include periodic cleaning of the plots to reduce the risks of fire and constant vigilance against forest fires, especially in March and April, when the risks are greatest.
volunteering in Nicaragua
Small trees begin their new life on the steep slopes of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, in a reforestation plot. If these trees survive, they will grow to increase wildlife habitat and reduce erosion rates into the lake. Photo Jen Moran.
During the rainy season, small trees can be planted into reforestation plots. We don't just plant anywhere. We have agreements with landowners who want to return their plots to natural forest and ask us to help them. We agree with them to conditions for land management and together, we make a strategy for handling the problems in their land.
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In this brushy site, soon there will be a growing forest with trees that will provide a complete cover. This cover is vital to protect the ground against transpiration (drying out during the windy, dry season) and erosion. The native tree species we plant also provide ideal habitat for wildlife. Photo Jen Moran.
Our forest habitat restoration project in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is run entirely by volunteers and donations. We count on people like yourself to participate or donate small amounts to pay for the costs involved. If you, like us, love Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve and you would like to see it remain green and full of wildlife, and its waters clear and blue, you might consider helping us with reforesting the reserve as an Eco-Warrior Volunteer. If you can not participate, or by making a small donation to offset the expenses associated with each tree. Contact us if you have any questions or comments!

Thanks to our Eco-Warrior Volunteer Jen Moran for the photography in this entry! 

You can help us keep nature wild in Nicaragua, by volunteering your time with us or making a small donation to support our projects in wild nature conservation.



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