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Preserving the land Columbus saw first.

In October of 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on San Salavador, part of what is now the 700-island nation of the Bahamas, he described groves of mature forests and massive trees. Today the nation's innovative Bahamas National Park system, though in its infancy, seems up to the challenge of preserving the best of what remains of that landscape 500 years later.

When those first ships hove over the horizon, San Salvador, a small cay (pronounced key), was lush with groves of mahogany, lignum vitae, and redcedar. It is one of the few islands that still possess pockets of mature timber. The Bahamas' large forests are gone, used up over the centuries for export, firewood, and lumber to build ships and houses.

The once-rounded forest canopies that covered the Bahamas in pre-Columbian times are today serrated with the graceful spires of the aromatic Australian pine, or Casuarina, a species introduced much later. The now ubiquitous Casuarinas were brought to the Bahamas and nearby south Florida to serve as windbreaks. Much of the rest of the islands' vegetation is scrub-like, baked by sun and rustled by trade winds.

Two urbanized islands hold nearly 85 percent of the nation's quarter-million citizens, and the 3 1/2 million tourists who visit annually are probably most familiar with Nassau and Freeport. But savvy travelers are being drawn away from Nassau's casinos to the smaller airports and quiet resorts of what Bahamians call the "Family Islands." These largely undeveloped islands, and their startlingly beautiful beaches and reefs, harbor a wealth of rare plants and animals, some declining due to man's impact.

The largest park is Inagua, a 287-square-mile preserve that dominates Great Inagua Island. Established in the early 1950s as a preserve for the West Indian flamingo, it was the only national park until the late 1950s, when the

Bahamas National Trust was established to oversee it and the nine parks that would follow.

Those include some world-class natural wonders. Exuma (pronounced Ex-HUME-a)

Cays Land and Sea Park 126 square miles encompassing 200 islands-was one of the world's first underwater parks.

Lucayan National Park is a 40-acre site on Grand Bahama Island that surrounds entrances to the world's largest underwater system of caverns. An environmental education center, which will include an exhibit on a Lucayan Indian "burial mound cave" in the park, will open there next year. The park contains more than 300 plant species, covering all the Bahamas' vegetation zones.

"Just eight years ago, the level of what we were doing with the parks was dramatically lower," says Gary Larson, an American who serves as the National Trust's executive director. "It's exciting to be emerging from our frontier days. We'll have more parks. More wardens. We'll be doing more interpretive and educational work, and working more closely with tourism."

An effort is underway to identify "Out Island" sites where ecotourist facilities might be developed. The reefs surrounding those resorts will be designed as parks.

The Trust, which has a paid staff of five park wardens and five administrators, is "the world's only private organization that runs a national park system," Larson says. It works through a system of standing committees and a membership split 60/40 between Bahamians and foreigners, mostly citizens of the U.S., Canada, and Britain.

The Trust works with the few people who live in the park to keep their activities from working against the preservation efforts. From the high-fide line down, the trust has total control.

And it seems to like the low profile its ecological wonders have managed to maintain in the 500 years since Columbus landed there. "The last thing we want to do," Larson says, "is develop tourism so quickly that people are loving the parks to death, like they are in the U.S."
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Title Annotation:500 Years of American Forests; Christopher Columbus
Author:Johnson, Randy
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Gone are the groves Elysian.
Next Article:Big white: the pine that built a nation.

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