San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

La Sabana Park on Verge of Major Makeover

Public and private interests are joining forces to overhaul La Sabana Park on the west side of San José to turn it into a quasi nature reserve.
The long-term plan is to eliminate the non-native tree species that today make up about 70% of the park’s forest and replace them with native fruit and flowering trees to attract a larger variety of wildlife.
At the same time, the footpaths and sports facilities will receive a facelift.
The “Recovering La Sabana”project comes at a time when four mixed-use high-rise condominium towers are under construction around the edge of the park, with more than a dozen others in the planning stages.
“The attractive thing about those projects is La Sabana Park,” said Osvaldo Pandolfo, the government’s vice minister of health and sport.
The overhaul will include financial support from Scotiabank, a Canadian institution that has been conducting a visible public relations offensive after its Costa Rica division completed the purchase of Interfin late last year.
Scotiabank’s Costa Rica headquarters are located near the northwest corner of the park. “The purpose of this project is to restore the vegetation of the park and turn it into a forest with Costa Rica’s own flora and fauna,” said Scotiabank Costa Rica CEO Luis Liberman. “We want La Sabana to be a natural refuge.”
The technical side of the project would be carried out by the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.
San José Mayor Johnny Araya was on hand at the press announcement on Tuesday to offer the municipality’s support as well.
So far, the project is still in the planning phase. Five forestry experts from INBio will spend the next few months taking stock of the current forest and then drawing up a plan for the renovation.
Liberman said the bank will not know how much funding it will offer for the project until that study is completed.
The duration of the project remains up in the air as well, said Armando Soto, an INBio botanist.
“If you think about a natural forest, you think 100 years,” he said.
This project will likely try to speed things up a little. Soto said the procedure with these kinds of forests is to start by planting a species of fast-growing trees.
Once some of those trees are in place, the project would continue by putting in more shade-friendly varieties that take more time to grow.
The non-native trees in La Sabana to be replaced are, for the most part, the painted eucalyptus that dominate the park. Though their brightly colored trunks and long, swaying limbs are visually attractive, biologically they have little value.
“The thing is, look at them,” Soto said, gesturing toward the forest. “They don’t have anything.”
Their graceful curves don’t provide a home to the thousands of species of birds, plants, animals, moss and aerial plants that typically turn tropical trees into mini-ecosystems all their own.
In the past, environmentalists have complained that Australian eucalyptus trees planted around the world by overzealous amateur reforesters have damaged local environments.
Guido Saenz, the political and intellectual father of La Sabana Park, said he had basic reasons for planting eucalyptus trees.
“First, I didn’t understand anything about trees,” he said with a chuckle. “I was in a hurry to get the idea firm because everyone was attacking the project. I needed quick, rapid growth.”
Saenz took on the project in 1970 when he became the minister of culture. The 72- hectare field had a long history by that point, first as a grazing pasture shared by San José families, then in the 1940s as the country’s first international airport.
In 1960, jet aircraft put La Sabana out of business. Saenz said he had to fight hard to convince people that the land would be better as the “Central Park of San José,” rather than a giant soccer complex.
So in went the eucalyptus trees, and they’ve been there ever since.
“I hoped that with time, other governments would start changing the trees for some other species,” Saenz said.

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