Saving Dominican forest and an elusive songbird

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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.

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