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Bringing Trees Back to Bared Lands : Ecology: A UCI scientist is risking all hoping to save forests by showing Costa Rica farmers they can raise hardwood as a cash crop.

RAIN FOREST RESCUE: One Woman Works to Heal "The Sad Earth"


COTA BRUS, Costa Rica — In the soggy mist of the nursery, Frances Lynn Carpenter's newborns lie content and still below a blanket of dusky topsoil.

Thousands of jade-colored seedlings sprout from a crib of wet earth, pushing forward delicate leaves like butterfly wings. Carpenter squats to the ground to finger the thin, tender shoot of a freshly germinated tropical tree. She admires its fullness. She pictures it fully grown. She dreams of seeds rising up and saving the world--in a tall way.

"Some of the people here feel sorry for me because I don't have any children," said Carpenter, a 50-year-old ecology professor from UC Irvine. "They don't understand a gringa who doesn't have babies. But I do--I have 6,000 babies."

Some baffled friends call her the "wanna-be Johnny Appleseed" of the tropics, a seasoned scientist who risked academic prestige, personal savings and every last dollar of her credit card limits for a quixotic project to raise a rain forest from the battered, grassy slopes of southwest Costa Rica.

With a $20,000 gift and the mud-stained, blistered hands of California volunteers, Carpenter is carving a tropical tree finca, or farm, along hills beneath the mist-shrouded mountains of the southern frontier and overlooking the steel-blue ribbon of the Pacific and Golfo Dulce.

She is gambling the ranch that she can coax a rain forest so quickly, efficiently and economically that local farmers-- campesinos --will imitate her, investing in trees and reaping a cash crop of hardwood.

Her aim is to stave off further destruction of rain forests, which have been chain-sawed and left rotting in the hills of Coto Brus to clear land for cattle pastures and coffee plantations.

Rufous-tailed hawks and wild parakeets sail the cool breeze above her farm--63 acres of steep, emerald green hills that have been burned by fire, shaved by herbicide, washed by relentless rain, crushed by the heavy hoofs of cattle and now planted with 6,000 trees, with more on the way in the nursery.

"It is exactly what I wanted," Carpenter said with a cheerful smile as relentless as the afternoon rainstorms.

Just four decades ago, the vast sweep of velvet green hills was covered completely with a canopy of lush tropical hardwoods so dense that the towering forest smothered the light for 20th-Century settlers who wandered here from northern Costa Rica, the United States and Italy.

The first tree slain by an ax fell on Feb. 28, 1952, and in the years that followed, the giants came crashing down with such fury and intensity that some wistful residents called the shuddering land La Tierra Triste --The Sad Earth.

Costa Rica has been losing its forest more rapidly than other ecologically rich countries even though the nation has been widely praised for its extensive network of forest preserves. At the start of the century, more than 85% of the small, Central American country was covered with forest, but that figure has fallen to less than 50%. Some local economists pessimistically estimate that unprotected forests--which are not located in the country's national preserves--will vanish at the rate of 98,000 acres a year.

Far from the thunder clap of dead trees, Carpenter had been preoccupied for much of the last 22 years with the foraging patterns of Hawaiian honeycreepers, or the pitched battle for nectar waged by insects and hummingbirds.

Her UCI research focused on the torpor of the Andean hummingbird and the feeding territory of migrant hummingbirds. She was fascinated by the wild, furious creatures with beating hearts so huge they consume life at a fever pitch.

"They live life on the edge," she said of the birds she was so taken with. "They're always in danger of using up their energy reserves. They have to interact intensely with their environment."

But Carpenter keenly missed that intensity in her own life. She was restless in class, daydreaming about retirement that was years away. And as she careened toward her 50th year, she took stock of herself and assumed a peculiarly modern burden.

"I began to realize that my life was going to be my career," she said of her decision to shift specialties. "I was not going to get remarried and have a family, and I accepted that."

Gradually, the trembling, iridescent hummingbirds no longer seemed so intriguing. While on sabbatical in 1991, she participated in a deforestation seminar in Costa Rica. She left the lecture steaming and outraged because no one seemed to offer a solution to the relentless problem.

That's when the seed of an idea took hold: Why couldn't The Sad Earth be healed? Carpenter started biting her nails again, tossing at night with dreams about her life's work. She received encouragement from her mother and father, who gave her a gift of $20,000 to purchase property for a tree experiment in Costa Rica. Still she couldn't decide. She feared her UCI colleagues might be scornful of a practical project with a lab of deep red mud and washed-out cattle trails.

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