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Benjamin Fryer, Schepp Scholar 2010-2013

Student, Yale School of Forestry and Yale Law School, MF and JD

For almost 130 years, the Brooklyn Bridge has connected Brooklyn and Manhattan. What if it also linked New York City to a remote forest in Guatemala?

More than a million people walk or bike across the Brooklyn Bridge every year. The Promenade – the wooden walkway that weaves through the arches of the bridge’s towers and suspends the visitor above the East River – has achieved almost the same iconic status as the famous bridge itself. It is a setting for innumerable films and stories. It is the scene of marriage proposals, speeches, and protests. It inspires poets and fascinates photographers.

When people on the Promenade shift their gaze from the skyline ahead or the sky above down to the boards beneath their feet, what do they take in? Some may simply see a strong and beautiful material on which to walk. The life-long New Yorker may notice the way the wood has aged over time to a soft gray brown. The historically minded may see heritage – the wooden walkway, replaced every thirty years, has been a key element of the bridge since it was opened in 1883. What most do not know is that the wood they are standing on is a tropical hardwood, cut from South American rainforests.

You can find tropical hardwoods in infrastructure all over New York City: the Coney Island Boardwalk, park benches throughout the City, even as railroad ties in the subway. The widespread use of these woods has stirred concern, because much – if not most – tropical hardwood is of dubious origins, cut unsustainably and often illegally. Forests are disappearing throughout the tropics, and although cattle ranching and large-scale agriculture drive most of the losses, in many places timber harvesting also plays a role.

This situation poses a difficult question for New York City: When the wood currently on the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade needs to be replaced about five years from now, how can the City maintain the authenticity of this global landmark while improving the outlook for endangered tropical forests?

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest initiative provides an answer to that question. Two organizations – an idea incubator called Pilot Projects and New York’s world-famous Wildlife Conservation Society – have developed an approach that would not only provide the durable and beautiful hardwood that the bridge will soon need, but would also complement New York City’s environmental goals and strengthen its position as a center of international cooperation.

The concept is this: Establish a relationship between the City and a community in the tropics that has demonstrated that it can harvest timber sustainably while protecting the forest over the long term. New Yorkers and others who love the Brooklyn Bridge would be able to sponsor each of the 11,000 planks on the Promenade. Through their sponsorship, the project would source the next generation of planks from the partner community – at no cost to the City. We would recognize each sponsor by etching his or her signature onto a new plank on the Promenade.

The planks would be harvested with minimal impact on the forest, while the sponsorship funds would enable us to support forest protection in the source area for several decades. The project would fund things like forest patrols, firefighting teams, and satellite monitoring. It would provide resources to reduce poverty in the partner community and improve local people’s food security, thereby reducing the pressure that hunting puts on wildlife. It would also fund educational programs in New York City to make sure the next generation understands the importance of rainforests. If we establish a strong relationship, Brooklyn

Bridge Forest would repeat the sponsorship model every thirty years, renewing the walkway and renewing the bonds of cooperation into the future.

The City has not yet approved the concept, but our team is laying the groundwork to provide this solution when the time comes to replace the wood. We have found a potential partner community in Guatemala that has a track record of providing sustainably sourced timber while protecting the forest from those who want to clear it. We are evaluating candidate timber species so that we can provide New York City with the best options available. We are exploring ways to structure the sponsorship model to make the project as accessible as possible while also raising the funds needed to protect the forest. Although the replacement wood will not be needed for several years, we hope to reach key decision makers in the City’s government in the next few months, so that if they approve the project we will have time to maximize public participation.

I came to this project after working as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in another Central American country, Nicaragua. There I lived with a family of coffee farmers who, like our potential partner community in Guatemala, inspire me with their ability to plan for the long term despite facing considerable material challenges every day.

During Nicaragua’s civil war in the late 1980s, my Nicaraguan host family fled from the violence in the region where they were living and settled in a new community in another part of the country. Land was scarce and they had to settle for a small parcel along the top of a cliff. One of the first things they did when they arrived in the midst of war was to plant trees: timber trees, fruit trees, trees with strong roots to stabilize the cliff edge.

Thanks to their foresight and diligence and the tropical climate, the trees they planted now form a small forest that provides them with many of their necessities. They are poor by most standards, but they sustain themselves with income from coffee plants shaded by the trees they planted. When a son or daughter gets married and needs a house, they rev up the chainsaw and fell a few trees, cutting them into boards on the spot. With more firewood than they can use, they turn a blind eye if the neighbors run short and borrow some from their woods. Their small forest has also been a boon to wildlife – surrounded on all sides by farmland, it nonetheless harbors red-eyed tree frogs, an abundance of songbirds, and a tiny possum-like mammal that I never managed to identify.

Our proposed location for the Brooklyn Bridge Forest, in nearby Guatemala, tells a parallel story of sustainability amidst great challenges. The forest surrounds the community of Uaxactún (pronounced wa-shock-TOON), which was established a century ago by people seeking chicle, a resin used to make chewing gum. The community gained formal rights to live in and use the forest as part of the peace agreement that ended Guatemala’s civil war in the mid-1990s. That agreement granted them the right to harvest limited amounts of timber and other products from a well-defined area. The community plans for the long term, removing trees from a different portion of the forest every year according to the strictest international standards. They also harvest fruits and medicinal plants, as well as ornamental palm fronds that they export to florists in other countries.

In contrast to many places in the tropics, where rainforest destruction prevails, the people of Uaxactún have found a way to conserve their forest while still making their living from it. They work hard to make sure outsiders do not clear land for pasture. Their careful harvesting of timber and other products provides income and employment to individual community members and supports local resources such as health care and education. They still face problems, including persistent poverty and the constant threat from cattle ranchers prowling around the edges of the forest, but these things make it all the more urgent that we support them and their tradition of stewardship.

The forest they protect is magnificent. It sits at the heart of the enormous Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is home to jaguars, scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and millions of migratory birds from North America that spend the winter there. Thousands of ancient Maya archeological sites, including pyramids poking through the forest canopy, are scattered throughout the reserve. The portion of the reserve under the care of the Uaxactún community covers 200,000 acres, almost exactly the same amount of land as all five boroughs of New York City combined. With time, the project might be able to expand its conservation impact beyond this area – the reserve as a whole covers about 6 million acres, larger than the entire state of New Jersey. Much of it is under threat.

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest concept was developed by a group of architects, urban planners, foresters, and ecologists. Staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society have greatly expanded our knowledge and have provided key connections to community leaders in our proposed location in Guatemala. If the City government supports the project, we hope to involve thousands of people in one form or another: Teachers who could use the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a lesson on rainforests; university researchers looking for a living tropical laboratory; citizens checking up on satellite images of the Maya Biosphere Reserve to watch for changes in the forest; retirees who want to help protect a piece of rainforest for their grandchildren to visit.

brook bridge pic

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest would be an opportunity for all of these people to help preserve and connect two pieces of our global heritage: the historic Brooklyn Bridge and a tropical rainforest growing on the ruins of an ancient civilization. And it would enable New York City – the city that hosts the United Nations and welcomes America’s immigrants – to reinforce its reputation as a citizen of the world.

For more information please visit www.brooklynbridgeforest.com, or contact Benjamin Fryer at benjamin.fryer@yale.edu.


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