to accept conservation failures or inactivity with less species-rich, and therefore more ordinary, tropical sites. In the headlong rush to conserve diversity, we risk leaving the next generation with a handful of pretty baubles rather than the substance of the tropics. Saving a habitat with 300 species of endemic orchids on an Andean mountain top may not have the same long-term geological, intellectual, or economic value as does saving remnants of once widespread and less species-rich lowland forest.


The threats to the tropical dry forest are multiple and complex. The concerned observer is correct to be no longer stirred to action by the simplistic chant, “The beef cow is responsible for the demise of the tropics”; the music is more daunting, more complicated, and more site-specific.

There are almost no large blocks of dry forest still standing that can be destroyed and thus cause concern among the public and academic world. Equally important, there are few opportunities to recognize the biocultural deprivation of the ranching and farming cultures that have been sustained for hundreds to thousands of years by the soils that once supported dry forest. As tropical conservation has swung into high gear during the past three decades, it has become comfortable to focus largely on the remaining rain forest and not to worry about scraps of other scattered vegetation types such as the dry forest. A traditional conservation battle for tropical dry forests would have to have been fought in 1900. Today, restoration ecology and habitat management (e.g., Janzen, in press c) are the only answers.

The acquisition and restoration of dry forest wildlands conflict with traditional conservationist protocol in numerous ways:

  • Land apparently used for agricultural production, or land that has produced something, is being set aside. This is expensive land, and its acquisition is often accompanied by a last-minute harvest of the few remaining trees and other resources by sellers who can do very serious damage to the anticipated restoration of the site.

  • The sellers—poor to very wealthy—are likely to be involved in neighborhood functions and politics far into the future; they cannot be bought out and left as resentful recipients of a bad deal.

  • The frontier is gone. The audience is local. The power is local. Within a few decades, if it hasn’t happened already, almost all members of tropical societies situated on dry forest soils will be settled on firmly titled land and will be leading a real or vicarious urban life with amenities such as good roads and schools. Survival of a wildland will depend on regional policy decisions by government institutions and planning commissions, and those decisions will be made by or in conjunction with the local community.

  • Many dry forest species are relatively robust, largely due to their evolutionary history of exposure to seasonal changes. Thus even tiny population fragments and severely altered populations can be ecologically reworked into viable, interacting populations and complex habitats that are replicas or facsimiles of what once was

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