SAN FRANCISCO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - An elusive songbird that wings its way each year from austere mountaintops of the northeastern U.S. to the steamy forests of the Caribbean has inspired the creation of what conservationists hope will be a new model for nature reserves in a country that has long struggled with deforestation.
The reserve is taking shape in a lushly overgrown former cattle ranch measuring about 1,000 acres, at the edge of a deep green forest in the Dominican Republic's rugged northeast. Conservation-minded Dominican and U.S. investors have acquired the plot as a pilot project, hoping to protect what they say is a global biodiversity hotspot that's home to dozens of threatened species.
Tentatively known as the Reserva Privada Zorzal, the government sees the reserve as a potential example, showing that such land can be put to better uses than burning down the trees to convert it to pasture, a typical approach in this Caribbean country with only about 40 percent of its forest cover left. Neighboring Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola, has virtually none of its forest standing.
Jesus Moreno, a Dominican businessman whose family is partially funding the reserve, says the portion of the property where most of the trees have already been removed is well-suited to low-intensity, organic agriculture. He plans to grow macadamia trees and cacao, the raw material in chocolate, while allowing the forest to regenerate, in perpetuity, on three-fourths of the holding. The country's environment minister is scheduled to inaugurate the reserve project on June 5.
"I am not trying to make this into a big business and make a lot of money," said Moreno, whose family's ventures also include a nursery that grows macadamia trees and the country's only factory processing the nuts. "We are trying to create a model and break the cycle of destruction."
The concept of setting aside private land for conservation in land trusts or easements is an old one, long in use in the U.S. and elsewhere, but still rare in the Dominican Republic, a largely poor country.
Some private landowners have set aside tracts for ecotourism and nature reserves, and the government has designated more than 130 public reserves. But much of the country's forests face threats from development, agriculture and illegal timber harvesting, carving what remains into ever smaller chunks that leave species isolated and vulnerable.
In practice, the government reserves usually provide protection to endangered species in name only, said Sesar Rodriguez, the executive director of the Dominican Environmental Consortium.
Among those species at risk is the zorzal migratorio, known in English as the Bicknell's thrush. The palm-size, brownish songbird mostly comes out at dusk or dawn and, like many birds, heads south in the winter. It divides its time between the Caribbean islands and mountaintop forests in the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada that generally rise above 3,000 feet.
The bird is considered vulnerable, with an estimated fewer than 100,000 in the wild, because it occupies a narrow range of habitat that's under pressure on both sides of its migratory route, said Chris Rimmer, an ornithologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who is an expert on the Bicknell's thrush and helped establish the reserve. Threats to the species in the U.S. include air pollution and loss of the conifer forest habitat from development and climate change.
It's not a high-profile species likely to spur public passions, and some bird species in the Dominican Republic are under a more dire threat, Rimmer readily acknowledges. But he and others are nonetheless devoted to the Bicknell's thrush, what he calls an "enigmatic" bird.
"It's much bigger than just this one little migratory songbird," Rimmer said. "If we protect it we automatically protect all the other elements of the flora and fauna, many of which are themselves under siege."
The Cordillera Septentrional range, a mist-shrouded cloud forest that shimmers an emerald green in the distance from the former pasture acquired for the reserve, is also considered habitat for vulnerable species such as the Hispaniolan parrot and mammals such as the Hispaniolan solenodon, a nocturnal burrower that resembles a possum with a long snout.
Rimmer, for one, has spent countless hours studying the Bicknell's thrush in the granite mountains of New England and the dense forests of the Dominican Republic, listening for its nasal, swirling call. "It's kind of ethereal, I guess, kind of mysterious," he said of the sound.
He and other researchers noticed that as the Dominican Republic was losing forest, female Bicknell's were being crowded out of their prime habitat by the larger males, depriving them of food they need for the journey back to North America.
He began working with the Dominican Environmental Consortium and others to find a way to expand two areas designated as protected by the government - the Loma Quita Espuela, which Moreno's father helped found, and the Guaconejo reserves.
This loose-knit group eventually found land owned by the family of an elderly doctor that was just a few miles west of the Loma Quita Espuela reserve, prime habitat for the thrush and near the country's cacao-growing center of San Pedro Macoris, a combination of factors that seemed perfect for a blend of profit and preservation, said Charles Kerchner, an American working as a project manager for the consortium. Part of the land was still an active cattle ranch, the rest already in various stages of regrowth and some had been left untouched for so long that it had become fairly healthy secondary growth forest - not virgin, by any means, but not bad.
Most of the money for Reserva Privada Zorzal came from the Eddy Foundation of Willsboro, New York, and Moreno's family, which previously owned a controlling stake in the Helados Bon chain of ice cream stores in the Dominican Republic and neighboring Haiti, Kerchner said.
Danneris Santana, a vice minister in the natural resources ministry, said about a dozen new private reserves are in process of getting approval under regulations that were updated last year. Moreno and others involved in the zorzal project say several landowners in the vicinity of their site are close to adopting similar plans.
"While it's great that we are doing (the Zorzal reserve), it's an isolated project and we need others to protect their land as well," Kerchner said.
Much will depend on the economic viability of the effort. Besides the macadamia and cacao, Kerchner said they are looking for other sustainable uses of the surrounding forest, such as honey production and high-end chocolate.
The Dominican Republic is already a producer of organic cacao in the fertile hills around San Francisco de Macoris and has a growing macadamia nut crop, but the country is not a significant global supplier of either commodity. Most of the world's cacao comes from Africa and Indonesia; Hawaii and Australia are the main producers of macadamia nuts.
The backers of the project expect to allow public access but the plans are not yet defined. The property is more than an hour's drive along a bone-jarring road from the nearest town.
"To be a sustainable business, we need to get value from this forest," Kerchner said.