The Estate Thomas Experimental Forest now has a covered pavilion atop a high concrete slab. The forest is fenced all around and has an environmentally friendly composting restroom, thanks to roughly $230,000 in funds from the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The pavilion, fencing and restroom will help support educational activities with students of all ages, said Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, which owns the land, at a ceremony at the pavilion Tuesday. The IITF is a section of the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.
"We want students to come to Estate Thomas, learn about the forests of St. Croix and learn about the processes of nature," Lugo said. "There are a lot of ecological processes happening right now in the forest, and it allows you to interact with these natural systems and see first hand how they interact with the health and life of St. Croix," he said.
The location of the forest, on U.S. soil deep in the eastern Caribbean, along with its many years of data, give it particular scientific value, Lugo said.
"Any climatic system coming to the Caribbean will have to come through here first," he said. Or Sahara dust, blowing across the ocean from Africa and seeding the Caribbean with nutrients; "It has to pass through here first, before it goes on to the U.S. So what better place to study," he said.
In the past, "we used this forest to learn about the productivity of the land and about forestry. But today, with climate change, there are different issues," he said. "We would like to see it as part of a new network of forests the Forest Service is establishing that we call a "smart forest,"" he said
If it happens, the forest would join a network of 80 experimental forests, with automated equipment that would upload all manner of data online, where it can be accessed all over the world.
Estate Thomas is the easternmost Experimental Forest in the United States and it is the only major public forest in the interior of St. Croix. It was designated as a place to study subtropical dry forest ecosystems.
The IITF started doing research in the forest of Estate Thomas back in 1953 and the Forest Service bought the land in 1963, continuing research on tropical dry forests and breeding tropical hardwoods for a number of years, said Grizelle Gonzalez, a research project leader for IITF, who gave a short history of the site and its research opportunities.
Funding was cut back some 25 years ago, before Hurricane Hugo, and little was done there until about six years ago. As a result, the forest serves as a font of information about how a tropical dry forest changes and how various plants succeed one another over time in the current environment on St. Croix, she said.
It was revived about six years ago as a cooperative endeavor between the departments of Agriculture, Education and Tourism, the University of the Virgin Islands, the St. Croix Environmental Association and IITF, which owns the land.
Benign neglect has created a storehouse of valuable environmental information for researchers, Gonzalez said. As IITF and the U.S. Forest Service looks into new directions for study, "that research will be focused on the changes in species composition, hurricane damage assessments, recovery assessments, changes in the forest's structure and composition," Gonzalez said. "I look forward with great optimism, hoping together we can develop the next generation of research projects in Estate Thomas," she said.
Getting the most out of the forest will take cooperation with a variety of groups, from the Department of Education to Agriculture to the St. Croix Environmental Association, said IITF Cooperative Forestry Leader Constance Carpenter.
"We believe your skills can help us do what we cannot do alone," she said.
After the opening ceremony for the new pavilion, IITF presented partnership awards to Carol Burke of the St. Croix Environmental Association and Marilyn Chakroff of the V.I. Division of Forestry for their contributions to the educational and scientific missions of the site. Back in 2006, shortly after a short, scholarly book was written about the forest, Burke began planning to arrange for educational visits to the forest. And Tuesday, Burke said she has engaged six public schools and three private schools for science projects within the forest.
"Students were taking measurements, just as scientists would, which would be linked to measurements taken previously, so students could look right into the past information and add new information to the body of knowledge," she said.
Chakroff spent many hours directly helping with work at the forest, helping with surveying of the land, working with contractors to arrange the fencing and the pavilion construction, as well as tirelessly working to educate the public about conservation and forestry, Carpenter said before giving her a wooden plaque in appreciation of her efforts.