Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cape Town's Magical Forests

Newlands Forest in Cape Town, with the summer sunset through the pine trees that are being replaced with a rare indigenous forest.

The sun slants in long rays filtered through the crisp air of the Cape mountains.  It sets early here in most places, but some spots get a longer evening as the sun dips past the craggy mountaintops above the trees.   Here a forest lives and breathes once again, up above the modern city of Cape Town, an island of biodiversity in a sea of people, cars and needs far removed from its ancient smells and moss-covered secrets.  Deep in this forest a special magic lingers on after the sun has set.

That magic is very special indeed. An ancient glade of woods have survived here since the time of the mega-continent of Gondwanaland 180 million years ago.  Some of the tree species we know today have a common ancestor here. Through a fortunate combination of wind, water and inaccessibility this is one of the last remnants of what was once a continent-circling forest primeval. 

This towering bastion of ancient biodiversity is called a Western Afrotemperate Forest, or Afromontane Forest.  Today we know it as Cape Town's Newlands Forest.  In the old days of sail the long hardwood trees of these forest glades provided much needed hardwood for the shipping and construction industry in the Cape.  Spars needed repairing and ships needed lumber. Since the earliest days settlers chopped down these trees everywhere they found them.  Once they chopped them down they planted more fast-growing lumber like pine trees.  These woods mostly became a large timber plantation. Only a few shady  and hard-to-get-to dells with rippling streams still held the last of the old forest giants, a seed bank of diversity nearly lost to humanity.

A a pine plantation, with the barren floor almost bereft of life, whereas, below a replanted Afromontaine forest a few hundred meters away.  The Cape Peninsula Mountain Chain supports 2 285 plant species in 471 km², of which 158 are endemic.

A replanted Afromontaine forest in Newlands Forest.  The Cape Peninsula Mountain Chain supports 2 285 plant species in 471 km², of which 158 are endemic, like many of the species found here.

So a forest that survived the very breakup of continents over  tens of millions of years only just clung on through a few centuries of development.  That it survived at all is perhaps a testament to the forestry values of our ancestors, who believed in conserving at least a little in order to maintain their future timber stocks. 

From those few small stands of ancient woodlands a new plan came together after the end of apartheid.  Forward thinking plans in forestry were set in motion through the South African National Parks, Western Cape Nature Conservation Board and the South African Government's Department of Environmental Affairs. Together they employed jobless people from underprivileged communities, planting forest seedlings and today the sterile stands of pine are making way for the old forest once again. 

South Africa has embarked on a long-term plan to eliminate water hungry trees from the land and restore the original vegetation countrywide, not only to increase biodiversity but to secure water catchment systems and create sustainable jobs.  It is called the Working For Water Project.  A large foreign tree like a pine or eucalyptus can soak up to 18 tons of water per day, whereas local vegetation like the Afro-montaine forest actually preserves water, holding it in the soil and releasing it slowly over time. The plan is to replace much of these foreign trees with rare indigenous plants.

Pine trees on the right run up against the small saplings that are part of the restoration effort.  Little by little the pines are thinned out and the forest trees start to take over.

The trails through this reserve wind through all the stages of replacement and planting.  Pine forests still dominate in some places but are being thinned out as the ancient trees are replanted as skinny little saplings. In just a few hundred meters it is possible to walk through pine trees, cut trees, the beginnings of small forests  replanted and then a primeval Afro-montaine forest, like stair-stepping through the stages of regeneration.

The old forest secures water resources, is more fire resistant, and much more diverse.  Jobless people have been put to work and trained in forestry, even becoming experts who are sought after for their knowledge in how to propagate these incredibly rare species.  How special is this place?  The Cape Floral Kingdom, less than .5% of the continent, harbors 20% of all the plants in Africa.  This is also where the highest number of IUCN Red list endangered plants are. The Newlands Forest sits on the Cape peninsula, a part of this floral kingdom and a tiny area where half of the rarest plant species in the world live.

A Helicopter helps keep fires under control. It is heading home after dusk with it's water bucket, which is has been using on local fires. 

The plants of the Table Mountain chain can be damaged by very hot fires, wiping out entire species.  Helicopters like these are based at Newlands during the hot, dry summer months to help with fire control.  

It is the deep in the dry season in Cape Town but because of a rare combination of  converging topography and possibly the very presence of the forest itself the rain falls here more than any other place on the Cape Peninsula. New research suggests that the forest itself can help create rainfall.  When it falls it is retained by the forest, modulating the dry/wet cycle and delivering clean water into the Cape Town metropole.  Today the streams usually flow year around and this little forest is the place where I walk when I am in Cape Town.  

Spending time here is special. It shows what we as humans can do to regenerate our tired and played-out ecosystems, if we only try a little.  When a cash-strapped city like Cape Town with all the problems of poverty and crime that it has can get it together to recognize and restore such a precious ecosystem then there hope. 

Since 2004, this forest is part of the UNESCO World Heritage system.  Called the Cape Floral Kingdom it has as much biodiversity as the Amazon.  According to the UNESCO journal, Dr Sandra Knapp, Merit Researcher at London’s Natural History Museum said, “For botanists like me, the fynbos area is fascinating. It is the most species-rich habitat on Earth, and is an area where speciation is happening at a rapid rate. This means that the fynbos is an area where diversity of life on Earth is being generated today, making it a key area for the conservation of plant diversity.” 

Devils Peak presides over the lower part of Newlands Forest.  In the foreground pines have been felled to make way for the more diverse indigenous woodland.  In the middle-ground the pines are still standing, but they are slowly being thinned out.

Perhaps there is more to survival of the fittest than mere usefulness.  What if, by its very nature, nature can invade our minds with a need to preserve, to keep safe.  Everywhere on our world small pockets of biodiversity have been preserved against great odds.  What if that preservation we have all taken for granted as something we humans did out of care was at least partly driven by the wild itself.  Perhaps living systems can reach out to a deep psychological need and inspire us to save them against our very consumptive human nature.  It is just a thought, but anyone who has spent time in an ancient dell of mossy trees with a sparkling stream might identify with an odd feeling of being watched by a thousand woody cells driven by the urgent need to stay alive.

That may sound crazy, but in this very good report in the respected magazine The Atlantic it seems that mind control from the plant and animal world is in fact something we humans have lived with for a long time.  

Nevertheless, in the Newlands Forest over 30 000 forest seedlings were planted in the first three years of this huge restoration effort, and the project has been so successful that the Table Mountain National Park is rolling it out in many of the forests on the Cape Peninsula.   Over the last two months as I worked on the post production part of the Creating A Climate For Change film it was this place that inspired me. I hope it can inspire you too.  

The magic of Newlands Forest and the leadership shown by the people restoring it helps us all see what can be done if we work towards a common goal.  In these old woods lies the story of the breakup of continents, the rise and fall of the glacial epochs, and a more recent story.  One which we are writing today about how small places like this can inform us of how we can take care of the greater ecosystems that supply us with our daily needs.

Spring Blossoms in Newlands Forest

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