By: Gabriela González Izquierdo
When he talks about trees, you’d think he’s describing old-time buddies. He imparts personality traits on different species, rather than beginning to explain their biological properties.
That’s why, when Frank Wadsworth, PhD, talks about deforestation in Puerto Rico, which reached all-time highs during the island’s agricultural era, he can comfortably attribute most of the subsequent reforestation to the Spathodea campanulata, also known as the African Tulip Tree or “meaíto” (in Puerto Rico), because it was a “cunning” tree. According to Wadsworth, the “meaíto” knew where it had to grow, choosing deforested spots because it wouldn’t have to compete with other species. It was a preemptive strike at the hands of this tree, which is otherwise regarded by island locals as an invasive species.
He has worked with trees for more than 75 years, which explains precisely why he speaks about them with kindness, compassion, and even with humor. After all, perhaps understanding trees and forests isn’t far from understanding humans and society: We both strive to develop, thrive and reproduce in a competitive world that constantly challenges our success.
Born in Chicago, Frank H. Wadsworth earned his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in forestry from the University of Michigan. He began working for the US Forest Service in the 1930’s. He arrived at Puerto Rico in 1942 to work at the Tropical Forest Experiment Station in El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo. Before becoming the Director of the Institute of Tropical Forestry and Supervisor of the National Forest in 1956, his work at El Yunque included setting up and monitoring a 7,000-acre plot, roughly 20 percent of the forest, where the selective thinning out of tree species would be carried out in order to favor the growth of taller trees with stronger wood. In those times, the wood industry was regarded as somewhat of a priority, and this plot from El Yunque would provide an important supply to the local industry. The remaining 80 percent of the National Forest remained untouched.
When Wadsworth discusses selective thinning to favor certain trees, he talks about the “good guys” and the “bad guys” when referring to trees with certain properties, as though trees were starring in their own cowboy movies. The good guys are big trees with strong wood; the bad guys compete with the good guys and don’t allow them to grow properly. But there can’t be too many good guys in the same area, either, because they will compete with each other.
“Some people questioned what we did,” recalls Wadsworth of those years where he was working to produce wood in El Yunque. But what they didn’t realize, Wadsworth adds, is that forest management goes beyond protection.
“Management assumes that the forest will be used in some way,” says Wadsworth. And using the forest isn’t a bad thing, as long as it’s done sustainably. In fact, according to Wadsworth, “if you want the forest for something, you’ll protect it.”
And to properly manage forests, you must first understand how they work. Wadsworth emphasizes the valuable information that can be drawn from studying forest plots. The use of plots not only helps researchers to determine species, number of trees, diameters, and other relevant data, but also to follow behavior by observing competition, growth and change, succession, and other processes.
To illustrate this point, Wadsworth recalls the time when Hurricane Hugo hit the island of Puerto Rico in 1989, and its impact on El Yunque National Forest.
“When Hugo came, everybody wanted to know what ‘damage’ it had caused in the forest. In my vocabulary, a hurricane can’t do damage to a forest. It’s nature. But it did change the forest, and plots helped to study those changes,” says Wadsworth.
As Forest Supervisor at El Yunque, Wadsworth made significant contributions to the National Forest’s management and expansion, and to research studies conducted in the area. In 1960, he co-founded the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico, one of the oldest environmental groups in the island that promotes the study, conservation and appreciation of the environment by providing the public with educational and nature-immersion activities, including conferences, field trips, camping and bird-watching, among others. In 1964, he and Elbert L. Little, Jr. published the book titled Common Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, featuring more than 200 drawings of tree species by local artists.
At a broader level, Wadsworth has gained widespread local, national and international recognition for his numerous achievements in the study and protection of tropical forests and biodiversity.
Throughout his long career in forestry, Wadsworth estimates that he has visited 34 countries, including some in Central and South America, Africa, the Pacific, as well as the Caribbean. He says that the current state of tropical forests around the world is not a reflection of humans’ contempt for the forest itself, but of the need to use the soil for life-sustaining purposes, such as agriculture.
“The unfortunate part is that the productivity of tropical soils wasn’t a function of soil richness, but a function of continuous replenishment,” explains Wadsworth. “The productivity of forest lands was a gift from the trees, not of geology. When the trees were removed, soils lost productivity.”
As for the future of tropical forestry, Wadsworth predicts that it will become more and more directly related to sociology as time goes on. It has to do with empowerment at the hands of communities who have a stake in protecting their forests, and not so much with the efforts of local and national governments to preserve them. According to Wadsworth, community-managed, private land conservation initiatives offer a feasible alternative to protect forests.
Foresters must also strengthen their focus on the issues that will ultimately decide the forests’ fate: Humans’ need for freshwater and wood use. Trees, particularly their roots, as well as other forest vegetation, hold the soil, preventing sediment runoff that ends up in freshwater sources, like rivers and streams. As we consider the precarious state of many freshwater sources around the world, including the Caribbean Region, the relationship between forest protection and access to water becomes clear.
“If people were aware that the cheapest way to protect water is to protect forests, more forests would be protected,” states Wadsworth.
On the other hand, foresters could also contribute to economic development in the Caribbean Region by administering forest plots that would produce wood to supply local needs, such as material provisioning for local craftsmen and artisans. To Wadsworth, artisanship supposes an important trade that provides cultural and economic benefits, while also requiring sustainable forest management.
Wadsworth also encourages foresters to participate in the Caribbean Forestry meetings, especially those who do field work and “like to get their shoes dirty”. Although he admits that the Caribbean Foresters meetings could incorporate more “dirty-shoe issues” in their agenda, he believes that they provide a valuable experience for everyone involved in forestry.
Even though Wadsworth has formally retired, he continues to volunteer at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, and he remains involved in research. His mind, a lustrous and voluminous source of knowledge, has neither lost its sharpness nor its sense of wonder. He may no longer be able to venture into deep forests in search of the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, but Wadsworth remains a firm example of a man who has always practiced what he preaches: That combining forest protection and forest use will eventually provide the answer we’ve been looking for. And that, according to Wadsworth, is the “broad side of forestry.”