Sept. 8, 2006 – With the recent rains drenching the territory the dirt road leading to the secluded Estate Thomas Experimental Forest was treacherous at best. Despite the muddy road conditions, about 30 nature enthusiasts – including representatives of the University of the Virgin Islands, the Department of Tourism and Agriculture, the St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF) in San Juan – attended a press conference to hear about new plans for the area.
The urban forest, located behind Estate Sion Farm, is classified as a tropical dry forest because it's located in a climate which is warm year-round. The forest also experiences long dry seasons, which have a great impact on the vegetation and wildlife.
Ariel Lugo, IITF director, is very enthusiastic about the forest and the environment it creates. Lugo said that since Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the forest has renewed itself.
"Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon that tests species and determines which survives," he said.
And the forest is thriving. According to Lugo the forest is home to 16 species of birds, two lizard species and two bat species. Also thriving are 10 species of butterflies; 110 species of herbs, ferns and vines; and 2,885 trees, the majority being small leaf mahogany.
The abundance of life in the forest "teaches us about the capacity of nature to replenish itself," Lugo said. IITF has been conducting research at the forest since 1953. The research included seed germination, tree growth rates and species adaptability.
SEA Director Carol Burke announced at Thursday's press conference that the environmental association would partner with local high schools to introduce students to the science of forestry.
Burke said teachers would be given the opportunity to involve their students in "information gathering," which will help protect the forest for future generations.
The students would be a part of a cadre of learners across the nation including students from Oregon, Washington state and Puerto Rico who are already involved in similar programs.
Burke hopes that by participating in the program, students might be "drawn to scientific careers."
UVI President LaVerne Ragster called for more outreach activities to give information to the community on the importance of the forest on the ecosystem of the Virgin Islands. "People need to recognize the importance," Ragster said.
Sen. Terrance Nelson, Labor and Agriculture chairman, spoke briefly about the importance of the balance between development and nature. "It's important we maintain our green space," he said.
Tourism Commissioner Pamela C. Richards said she was "intrigued" upon hearing the details of the urban forest. Richards said she could envision the area as a tourist attraction with butterfly gardens and nature trails.
"I look forward to further discussions," said Richards. "We are on board."
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