Hacienda Bar: a different kind of National Wildlife Refuge

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2010

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is one of the 551 federal refuges in the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System. These refuges are public land and they are supported by federal tax dollars. Historically they have often been established after extensive lobbying efforts by conservationists, hunters and fishers, as was the case of the Kenai refuge in the first half of the 20th century.

Photo By Ed Berg
Photo By Ed Berg
Sara Berg takes a break on the buttress root of a fig tree at Hacienda Bar National Wildlife Refuge. Our guide estimated that this tree was about 80 years old.

In Costa Rica, however, a national wildlife refuge can be privately owned. Costa Rica has set aside a considerable amount its land area for national parks, but it also encourages the private sector to promote conservation and ecotourism through national wildlife refuges.

Hacienda Bar on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica near Quepos is an example of one such private national wildlife refuge. I first visited Hacienda Bar in 2005, and returned again to show it to my wife Sara this January. We spent almost a week enjoying the hiking trails, watching the monkeys and the raccoon-like coatis, and learning about the local plants and birds from the very knowledgeable guides.

Hacienda Bar began as a typical cattle ranch, hacked out of moist tropical rainforest in the 1940s. Situated on a flat narrow apron between the mountains and the ocean, some of the land was planted in rice, soybeans, cacao, and sorghum, and cattle grazed the remainder. Patches of the steep mountainsides were selectively logged.

A young American named Jack Ewing visited the area in 1972 working for a group of investors from Tennessee looking for land to buy in Costa Rica. The investors accepted Jack's recommendation to buy the ranch, and after a time put Jack in charge and subsequently made him a partner. In 1986 the partners decided to sell out, and Jack and his wife Diane together with another American investor Steve Stroud were able to acquire full ownership of the ranch.

The ranch was never financially very successful, so Jack began to explore the idea of ecotourism as an alternative business. In 1979 he began letting various parcels of the ranch lie fallow. The thick jungle forest quickly returned, especially given the area's rich volcanic soils. In many places it's now hard to tell the difference between the new secondary forest and the original undisturbed primary forest. Even the old "living fence post" trees (originally planted as green wood stakes) are now almost three feet in diameter, with strands of old barb wire still visible.

In the late 1980s Jack and Diane began to offer bird watching tours, rented out two cabins to tourists, and built a tent camp in the forest for overnight tours.

Today the facilities have grown to 12 cabin/hotel rooms, a nice thatched roof restaurant, butterfly and orchid gardens, eight small zip lines, a canopy observation platform, a sea turtle egg nursery, and seven kilometers of well-maintained hiking trails. All of this is packed into 813 acres. Hacienda Bar employs 34 people, most of them local, and has almost a dozen sharp-eyed guides armed with spotting scopes who can show visitors some of the 318 species of birds in or near the refuge.

The story I have told so far could the story of any enterprising lodge owner, be it in Costa Rica or Alaska. The unique part of this story is Jack Ewing's conservation ethic, which sets Hacienda Bar in a regional and indeed international conservation context. Early on Jack recognized that Hacienda Bar could not preserve all forms of wildlife if it was an island unto itself; it had to be connected to other areas of undeveloped land by "corridors" through which wildlife could move.

Jack first developed this idea on Hacienda Bar when he stopped pruning the living fences that ran down from the mountains through the fields to the beach. Allowing these fences to grow into trees provided corridors for capuchin monkeys, birds and other wildlife.

The next step was to try to connect Hacienda Bar with other undeveloped parcels along the coast. A local conservation group called ASANA picked up this idea and is now working to establish "The Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor." This corridor will extend 100 kilometers along the Pacific coast from Corcovado National Park up to Manuel Antonio National Park and Los Santos Forest Reserve. Just as the living tree fence lines joined isolated patches of Hacienda Bar together, The Path of the Tapir project seeks to create a corridor of forest joining these National Parks and Reserves. There have been no tapirs or jaguars on Hacienda Bar for many decades, but they can still be found on the Corcovado and Los Santos ends of the corridor. The goal is that one day these animals will pass again through this coastal corridor as they did in the past.

The Path of the Tapir corridor will in turn be linked to the "Mesoamerican Biological Corridor," which extends from southern Mexico to Columbia. There are about 600 protected areas in this international corridor, lying within Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Columbia. The funding is both national and international, especially through the World Bank. There is a strong emphasis on local economic sustainability, especially with ecotourism, so that these reserves become sources for local jobs (like Hacienda Bar) and local people are not kicked off their traditional lands in the name of wildlife conservation.

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is an example of a still broader movement under way in conservation circles today, called the "Global Transboundary Protected Areas Network." In our area we have the U.S.-Canadian group of parks including Wrangell-St. Elias, Kluane, Glacier Bay, and Tatshenshini-Alsek National Parks. There are similar cross-border groupings in Africa, Borneo, the Carpathians, Central Asia, Thailand, and the Danube River Delta.

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is an underwater corridor, extending from Isla Contoy on the north of the Yucatan Peninsula to the Bay Islands of Honduras, covering the second longest barrier reef in the world. All of these large-scale projects require active cooperation of the member countries and are a promising vehicle for promoting peaceful relations among neighboring countries.

Jack Ewing's book "Monkeys are Made of Chocolate" sets out his philosophy as a conservationist and provides numerous humorous and insightful anecdotes about the building Hacienda Bar.

More information on Hacienda Bar can be found at: http://www.haciendabaru.com. Information on the global transboundary protected areas network is at: http://www.tbpa.net/index.html.

Ed Berg has been the ecologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 1993.Ed will be teaching his weekly 1-credit "Cycles of Nature" course at the Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna and Homer, starting March 30 and April 1, respectively.

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