The view from the crown of the Dominican Republic's Cordillera Central suggests sleight of hand on a gargantuan scale, as though some invisible force had swept aside the vestiges of over five hundred years of European presence and restored the landscape to the unblemished glory of its pre-Columbian existence. Deep-set valleys glisten with pristine white water that rushes to the coast on either side of the island of Hispaniola. As far as the eye can see, rugged, emerald-green mountain ranges stand fortresslike, having won their battle to keep this remote corner of the Caribbean free of humankind's most disruptive intrusions. Not so much as a wisp of smoke or the flicker of lights from a distant village intrudes the solitude.
The largely virgin terrain in and around the Dominican Republic's tallest mountains has changed relatively little in the five centuries since even the hardiest among the early Spanish colonizers surveyed the mountains' imposing features and decided it wasn't worth the effort to attempt a conquest. Today, thanks to the Dominican Republic's blossoming interest in environmental matters, and through the hard work of the country's small but efficient Direccion Nacional de Parques, the odds have greatly improved that such examples of natural grandeur will be a part of this Caribbean nation's physical makeup for many years to come. The outlook, however, wasn't always so bright.
The Dominican Republic's first national parks were established in the 1950s, but it took two decades before the Dominican congress passed a law establishing the Direccion Nacional de Parques and setting the stage for the administration of the country's expanding system of protected lands. Studies conducted in the early 1970s reached the alarming conclusion that at the then rate of defoliation, the Dominican Republic would face the same fate as neighboring Haiti and virtually wipe out its remaining forestland within twenty years. The wake-up call was sobering, and Dominican officials and the public decided urgent steps were required to halt the disastrous trend.
Since that time a concerted effort has been under way to upgrade the operation of the park system and add to its inventory. Today the Dominican Republic's thirteen national parks account for over 11 percent of the national territory. That's a particularly impressive commitment to the environment for a developing country with almost four hundred persons per square mile, one of the highest population densities in the Western Hemisphere.
But the Dominicans were just getting started. Also created in the 1970s and 1980s were eight scientific reserves to complement an overall approach to protecting the country's most important geological assets and its unique flora and fauna. A prime example is the maritime protected area for humpback whales located in the Atlantic Ocean ninety-two miles north of the port city of Puerto Plata. The Banco de la Plata sanctuary is seasonal home to an estimated three thousand humpbacks - about 80 percent of the North Atlantic population of the species - which migrate to the bank every spring to give birth to their young.
Other reserves give further insight into the country's incredibly diverse array of natural resources. The Isabel de Torres Natural Scientific Reserve, located in coastal mountains west of Puerto Plata, is small - only 8.49 square miles - but contains an astounding 594 species of plants, including 11 new varieties that have been identified only in recent years.
An even more minuscule area - the 3.86-square-mile Redonda and Lincoln Lagoons Natural Scientific Reserve near the mouth of Samana Bay - is essentially a humid forest micro-environment bordering the ocean, replete with an extensive habitat for several species of waterfowl.
Although their physical domain may be small when compared to the enormous parks of the United States, Canada, Venezuela, and Brazil, parks officials see themselves as fully vested participants in...