Tree Avalanche – Reforesting the World

Mt. Arenal Volcano
Costa Rica’s famed Mt. Arenal Volcano
Even lava flows are not as destructive
as anthropogenic deforestation

Editor’s Note: For several years now we have covered the efforts of Finca Leola, a company in Costa Rica who have established reforesting operations that are a model for companies throughout the world. In a number of reports, including “Profitable Reforesting,” and “From Deforestation to Reforestation,” you can learn about Finca Leola’s successful efforts to convert deforested areas into new forests.

Finca Leola’s work is important because their method generates an ongoing profit to the operators and investors. Such a method, of course, can be enthusiastically adopted throughout the world, and therefore has the potential to continue reversing deforestation even where operations dependent on foreign aid or nonprofit donations run out of steam.

What Finca Leola does first is convert deforested pastureland into a monocrop tree plantation. As these trees are thinned over succeeding years, generating increasing amounts of cash each time since the trees being thinned are progressively bigger, in their place diverse species of native trees are planted. These native seedlings often require an existing tree canopy for their initial survival, so the hardier cash crop of pioneer trees not only earn money, but they provide this vital canopy so the native trees can be reestablished.

Eventually, the entire crop of pioneer trees are removed from what is now a fully restored, diverse forest ecosystem. Throughout this transitional period, which can last from 25-50 years, the pioneer trees are a cash crop to fund the plantings of native trees. After that time, the native trees themselves can be thinned on a sustainable basis, yielding additional profits that will permanently fund maintenance and further expansion. It is hard for us to imagine how the world can be quickly reforested unless this business model, being pioneered by Finca Leola, plays a vital role. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

The Tree Avalanche – It isn’t reforestation unless the end result is a forest
by Fred Morgan, December 23, 2006
Pastureland in Costa Rica
The verdant pastureland of Costa Rica
Although pretty, this is deforestation
because the land use has changed.

To solve the problem of deforestation, we have to plant forests, not just trees.

The definition of deforestation is not the loss of trees, but the change of land use from forested to some other use. If trees are lost even through clear cutting, if the land is left alone, the trees will come back eventually.

In order to reforest, we have to permanently return land to forest use. If you go out and plant trees anywhere you want – perhaps farmers will let you plant on their property, for example – you haven’t yet reforested. This is because eventually someone can cut down those trees because of the value represented there. Very often, someone protects a section of their property and never cuts the trees, but after they die, the property is sold and their protected forest is cleared and turned to another use.

This is also a problem that governments don’t seem to handle very well. As seen in the USA, what one administration protects, another administration harvests. As pressure grows on governments because of the debt they all seem to build, the forest is being liquidated – just like those who own properties often sell their trees to help pay off debt or for money to live.

Almost anyone would eventually cut down their trees if economic pressures were severe enough. If you own your own home, where it stands was probably a forest at one time. Would you willingly abandon your home (and the money it represents) in order to let the forest come back? Most likely not, because the money lost to you would be very significant, and you probably could not afford it.

Voluntary preservation of the forest is not enough. This is why it is so difficult to stop deforestation in the tropics – a well-grown tree represents a lot of money. In Costa Rica and in most tropical regions, a farm worker could buy a home with the money from a single mature tree.

Replacing deforestation with reforestation must meet the following three requirements:

The trees must be able to fund land preservation.

The trees must be able to diversify.

The trees must be able to fund more acquisition of more land.

The Trees Must Be Able to Fund Land Preservation

Finca Leola Logo
Finca Leola

Trees have to have a way to pay for their own protection. Even though the Costa Rican government has put aside more than 25 percent of its land as permanent parks, the government doesn’t have the money to adequately protect those parks. Because of that, some of the bigger national parks are at risk because of tree poaching. Remember that an old growth tree (which is only 100 years old here) could potentially buy a home in Costa Rica.

Thinking a forest will survive without protection is like thinking you could protect your money by leaving it by the side of the road. Sure, there would be many people who would either pass it by or try to give it back to you – but it only takes one person who would consider it “finders keepers” for you to lose your unprotected money. Most Costa Ricans respect the need to preserve the forest, but it only takes a few to undo all the time spent growing trees. We know of a group involved in reforesting who will not accept donations of forested lands because they don’t have the resources to protect the lands after they receive them.

It isn’t as simple as just planting trees on land set aside for the purpose – or even passing laws saying areas are protected. Without active protection, the trees will eventually be gone, just like your money by the side of the road.

Rainforest in Costa Rica
The Costa Rican Rainforest

The Trees Must Be Able to Diversify

We need forests rather than continuous monocrop plantations of trees all of the same age. Also, monocropping is risky: Many monocrop plantations in the USA are being lost to pests and diseases that spread easily when all the trees in an area are to their liking. If you have a single tree of a particular type, there generally isn’t much of an issue, but plant thousands of hectares of the same species and you are just asking for problems. They may survive, but only because of constant vigilance and perhaps constant application of pesticides.

There is no way to create a permanent forest out of only one species of tree. Usually, forests start with pioneer species, and these do tend to be clumps of all the same trees. This works well, because the purpose of these trees is to create the shade required for the trees of the climax forest to grow. It also works well because these trees tend to be relatively short lived. However, after the pioneer species, you have to move toward diversity; otherwise you don’t have a forest, you have a crop – and in truth, a crop that will be in danger of failure due to insects or disease. We must remember as well that one of the reasons to want to reclaim forestland is to be able to prevent the extinction of many plants and animals that depend on a real forest.

The Trees Must Be Able to Fund Acquisition of More Land

In many parts of the world, it is critical that we plant a lot of trees and return a lot of land to forest. The loss of the forest contributes to loss of habitat for animals, a reduction in available drinkable water, loss of soil and even landslides that destroy towns and villages. We also need to increase the number of trees to absorb the excess gases that cause global warming. Moreover, there is a direct link between deforestation and drought, which has become a severe and worsening problem – totally reversible through reforestation – throughout the tropics.

Most reforestation efforts are being spent on plantations, not on genuine new forests. We use the term “reforestation” a lot, but in reality, unless the lands are permanently returned to forest, you are not reforesting, you are raising a crop of trees. Tree plantations can reduce commercial pressure on remaining forests, but they are not themselves new forests. Just like a loss of trees is not deforestation unless the land usage permanently changes, it isn’t reforestation unless the end result is a forest.

Let the Trees Work for a Living

It would be wonderful if the trees, from their own “work,” could buy more space for more trees! What is the work of trees? Well, they grow. Look around your home and see the wood in it. A logger brought trees out of a forest, cut them down, and hauled them to a sawyer, who cut them into boards. A carpenter or a craftsman created something out of them for your use and enjoyment. They all got paid for that wood – but the trees never did. You cannot continue to expect the forest to work for nothing – it starves just like we would. In fact, if the forest received money for its “work,” it would not only survive, but fund its own preservation and expansion.

Oxen Hauling Wood
From the mill in the forest to the trailhead
Costa Rican lumber makes its way to market

There is a way to pay the trees. We call it the Tree Avalanche. The Tree Avalanche works by using donated trees to create a pioneer forest of valuable wood. Among these trees are also planted the succession trees that will make up the more mature rainforest. Most tropical succession trees require shade to grow; that’s why planting pioneer species speeds up the creation of the new forest.

When the pioneer trees are removed to leave the succession trees to form the new forest, the money realized will be used to purchase more land and plant more pioneer and succession trees. Since the money gained from the pioneer trees is more than the money it costs to plant, care for, and harvest them, the amount going into reforestation keeps multiplying. This is an avalanche that leaves in its wake a swath of new forest instead a path of destruction.

But will we really be able to create an “avalanche” of trees? This simple story explains why we will. There once was a man who did something that a king wanted to reward. The king asked the man, “What do you want as a reward?” The man replied, “I don’t want much, just the following: On the first day, place a grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard and then give it to me, then, on the second day, place two grains on the second square and give them to me, and then on the third day, double that and place four grains on the third square and give them to me. Keep doubling the grains in this way until you use up all the squares.” The king almost agreed, until a person better at math pointed out that before the end of the 64 days, the man would own the kingdom! This is called a geometric progression, or compounding.

Chart of Tree Multiplication
As a cash crop, the natural increase in growth of
100 trees would, within 100 years, result in a forest
of 12 million trees – triple the growth if left to nature.

Instead of one grain of rice, let’s start with 100 trees planted in Costa Rica.

The first year there are 100 trees, and they cover about 0.17 hectare, or 0.42 acre.

In the tropics, within 6 to 8 years, some of these trees have to be harvested as thinnings to leave space for the other trees to keep growing. These trees will have about 100 board feet each in them at thinning, and between 33 and 45 percent of the trees are harvested in the first thinning. Rare tropical woods return good money. The forest’s profit on the trees goes to buy 80 more seedlings and land to plant them. So now there are 180 trees, covering 0.31 hectare.

About every 4 years, some trees have to be thinned out and are sold. Because the trees are getting bigger, the percentage of valuable wood grows too. Also, the wider the plank, the more expensive it is per board foot.

Every time we have to thin, more trees are bought with the proceeds. Around year 17, an interesting thing starts to happen. The trees that were bought with the proceeds from the first thinning now have their own first thinning, which is used to buy more trees.

By year 17, the original 100 trees have increased to more than 450 trees covering about 0.80 hectares.

By year 25, there are more than 1,600 trees covering more than 2.7 hectares.

By year 58, the 100 trees have increased to being more than a square kilometer (100 hectares).

By year 100, the original 100 trees will have taken over 0.38 percent of the land mass of Costa Rica or nearly 20,000 hectares.

Portable Sawmill
Portable sawmills can operate in remote
areas, reducing need for new roads, and
bringing more value to local communities

How the Tree Avalanche Handles the Problems of Deforestation

The key to how the Tree Avalanche enables the forest to protect itself and diversify is the succession forest. When you plant 110 pioneer trees, you can expect 5 or 10 to fail for reasons of genetic problems or damage by wildlife or nature.

Instead of replanting the same tree, we do what nature would do: We introduce another kind of tree. Since there is usually some shade by this point, we can introduce the slower growing, shade-loving trees that will make up the permanent forest.

Over the next 25 years, all the pioneer trees will be removed, leaving at the end the succession trees. These trees will be at the point of bearing seeds and will quickly fill in any remaining holes – just like in a natural forest. This means that behind the Tree Avalanche is left not a monocrop plantation, but a true forest. And it comes about a lot faster than occurs in nature. We still have to protect the forest, though, so we aren’t done yet. After the pioneer trees have all been removed, we have to pay taxes and pay people to care for and guard the forest. Thankfully, the forest is able to provide for that. By only removing boards from selectively harvested trees every year, more than enough money will be generated to pay taxes and to pay the “tree shepherds,” as we like to call them.

The decision to remove a tree will never be made based on the profit it can bring, since the forest owns the trees, and a forest doesn’t care about fancy cars or worry about retirement. The decision to remove a tree will be based on whether it improves the forest. This will include removing trees that have fallen and replanting with other trees, introducing a different variety when there are too many of one type for proper diversity, and removing diseased trees that threaten the rest of the forest. The wood itself will be carefully extracted using portable sawing techniques that cause very little (if any) damage to the forest and leave all the limbs, bark, and waste wood in the forest to go back to the soil. Only the sellable part of the trees will be removed.

Even though we have been talking about the needs of the forest, the forest, as a good neighbor, will be generating by its work jobs for those in the surrounding areas: jobs for those who watch the forest, those who harvest the boards, and those who produce forest products to sell. This is very important – it causes the people living around the forest to value it and to provide protection as well.

Reforesting Tree Plantation
Pioneer trees between forested areas
getting started putting the forest back

How Do We Know We Can Do This?

Finca Leola S.A. grows trees in Costa Rica for people around the world. People buy trees from us that we take care of for 25 years. They receive the value of their wood at every thinning and at the final harvest, but we plant a succession forest of slower growing trees in between the trees we grow for people. We are placing all the land that we are planting, whether owned by us or by someone else, under an ecological easement that will protect the resultant perpetual forest forever. The ecological easement is crafted to make sure that the entity that is served is the forest. The easement rides in perpetuity with title to the land, and as the trees will always keep producing money, they will always be able to pay to enforce the easement and pay for the guardians of the forest.

The idea for the Tree Avalanche started when someone asked if they could buy trees to help with reforestation, but they didn’t want the money back from the wood harvest. We were excited when we realized that we could use the money that came out of the trees to plant more trees. When we did a simulation of the impact of that, we were astonished, and the concept of the Tree Avalanche was born.

Amazon Honor System

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So as you can see, for us to produce a Tree Avalanche, we just have to keep doing our job. We already have people contributing to it, but we would like to invite you to help push the Tree Avalanche faster.

Look around your home and see all the wood that is in it. Some you cannot see, because it is within the walls, but it is still there. Everyone got paid for that wood – except the forest itself. Please help the forest (and ultimately ourselves as well) by donating to accelerate an avalanche of trees.

We will all breathe easier because of your help.

To learn more about Finca Leola S.A. and reforestation go to

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