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Meet the Millennium Forest: A unique tropical island reforestation project

Gumwood trees.

Regrowing a gumwood forest where St. Helena's Great Wood once stood. Image by Luke McKernan via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

  • A two-decade reforestation project on the tropical island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean has not only restored trees found nowhere else in the world, but has also involved nearly every member of the island community in the effort.
  • The Millennium Forest, as it’s called, has struggled with invasive species and irregular funding, but has still managed to thrive, adding new plant species — several of them threatened and two thought to have gone extinct. The growing forest is attracting animal species to its habitat, including St. Helena’s only endemic bird.
  • Ocean islands pose special challenges for forest restoration, since many plant species evolved in isolation on remote islands, and saw drastic population crashes to the point of extinction, or near-extinction, when people and invasive species arrived.
  • As a result, island reforestations typically can’t match original forest composition, but must mix both native and non-native species. The Millennium Forest project has now become a legacy that the current generation is handing down to upcoming ones, according to project founder Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Birds were probably the first colonizers to arrive. Some likely carried seeds, perhaps stuck to their feathers. Most of those seeds didn’t survive. Some did. Insects followed. And for 14 million years or so, the tiny island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, located midway between Africa and South America, was left to the whims of nature. Hundreds of species evolved here, suited solely to the little island’s surprising number of habitats.

“There was vegetation to the waters’ edge, teeming with invertebrate, bird and marine life. Taller and bushier vegetation in central peaks, and then shrubbier, low-growing vegetation in drier areas,” says Martina Peters, the head of terrestrial conservation at the Saint Helena National Trust, describing the island as it looked when humans first arrived.

Covering just 122 square kilometers (47 square miles), an area smaller than the New York borough of Brooklyn, the island once supported at least five distinct ecosystems and more than 79 plant species found nowhere else, along with 420 invertebrates. Its remoteness — 1,950 kilometers (1,210 miles) west of Africa’s southwestern coast, and 4,000 kilometers (nearly 2,500 miles) east of Rio de Janeiro — protected its native flora and fauna.

In 1502, everything changed. Humans discovered the little island and introduced goats, rats, cats, rabbits and other invasive species; prior to this, the island had no mammals, reptiles or amphibians. Some 150 years later, the British set up the first permanent colony, and cut down every tree they could reach. Denuded, the island began suffering from erosion, while the plants that did thrive were often non-native. Less than 1% of St. Helena’s original ecosystems survived the centuries-long onslaught.

Enter Rebecca Cairns-Wicks in 1999: “The island [population] was invited to submit ideas for how to celebrate the millennium on the island, so that was the impetus” for its first major restoration.

Cairns-Wicks, who was then the environmental coordinator for the St. Helena government, proposed an idea both ambitious and community-oriented: What if the Saints (as the island’s 4,500 inhabitants call themselves) came together to reforest a portion of the island once known as the Great Wood with native species? That project was one of just two selected for the island’s millennium celebration.

The eroded, degraded land where the Great Forest originally stood before colonizers cut it down, and prior to modern replanting in 2000. Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.
The forest is very slow growing. Here it is about two years after the first planting. Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Today, the Great Wood is slowly returning, notes Cairns-Wicks, now coordinator at the St. Helena Research Institute, as formerly bare and eroding soils are cloaked by a thriving forest that boasts numerous native species. Although small in size (about 16 hectares, or 40 acres), and with the slow-growing trees reaching only 1-2 meters (3-6 feet) after 20 years, today’s Millennium Forest punches above its weight as one of the world’s most unique reforestation projects due to its rare native species found nowhere else on Earth.

The forest’s uniqueness arises partly from its island locale. Forest restorations on remote islands often pose problems not encountered in mainland projects, with the ocean isolation of plants over many centuries often resulting in the evolution of species found nowhere else. So, when endemic island plants are cleared by human colonizers and invasive species brought in, native species can vanish fast, with remnant specimens and replacement seeds hard to find. In St. Helena’s case, one formerly dominant tree was thought to be extinct until 1980, when two shrubby individuals were found clinging to a remote cliff. A volunteer lowered by rope collected their seeds, saving the species from oblivion. This tree, the St. Helena dwarf ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus), grows in the Millennium Forest today.

Endemic St. Helena dwarf ebony seedlings cultivated in nurseries. Image courtesy of the St. Helena government.

A forest by and for the community

The tropical island of St. Helena marks the craggy summit of an inactive shield volcano sitting atop the mostly submerged Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Colonized by Britain in the mid-17th century, this remote igneous rock claimed its 15 minutes of world fame when deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here until his death under the watchful eye of the British after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo.

John Turner, the editor of an island information site, says living on St. Helena today is “very much like living in a U.K. village, except that the next village is 700 miles [1,130 km] away, and the nearest big town is 1,500 miles [2,400 km] away.”

The Millennium Forest as originally envisioned was first and foremost a natural oasis intended to benefit this little community, according to Cairns-Wicks, becoming a place where locals could hike, walk their dogs, or simply enjoy the views. Although biodiversity and carbon sequestration were always goals, the people of St. Helena came first.

St. Helena, once colonized, “never had any forests that were just public spaces for pleasure, for conservation, beyond the traditional conservation areas,” Cairns-Wicks explains, noting that conservation areas existing in 1999 were not accessible to the populace, given the island’s extreme topography. St. Helena is characterized by deeply etched valleys, where most people live, and highlands, rising steeply to 820 m (2,690 ft) above sea level.

Seen from space, the extremes of St. Helena’s stark volcanic topography appear dramatic, with sharp peaks and deep ravines that create a climate gradient and diverse habitat for plants and animals. Image by NASA Earth Observatory via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

The Millennium Project would be different — with road access and easy mobility.

“It’s about doing something that the public could participate in, and take ownership of, and create a space … to enjoy and basically be part of creating,” Cairns-Wicks says, adding, “A legacy.”

The site was chosen for a number of good reasons: First, it was part of what had been historically known as the Great Woods until settlers cut it down for timber and firewood. It was also close to a couple of populated areas, had freshwater access, and was relatively flat on an island of extreme slopes.

“It’s one of the few fairly level expanses, so it means that it’s accessible for all,” Cairns-Wicks says.

At the start, the project focused solely on planting St. Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum), a tree once common to the island, including at the Millennium Forest site.  Found nowhere else on Earth, this gumwood, categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, is descended from the sunflower family and became rare after colonization. The choice of gumwood was also practical, as it was “one of the species that we could [successfully] grow [at the time],” Cairns-Wicks says.

Locals initiated the planting of 3,000 trees, with nearly everyone on the island at the time participating. But planting wasn’t easy.

Cairns-Wicks notes that the site was “incredibly eroded.”

“In fact, there wasn’t soil. [In] most places it was really quite rocky, and we actually used [mechanical diggers] to dig some of the holes. It was a very, very neglected area next to the island’s waste-disposal site.

Once launched, the project made the St. Helena gumwood locally and globally famous (at least among botanists). Today, the species thrives not only on the island, but is prized in botanical gardens in France, the U.K. and the U.S.

“It brought the gumwood into people’s hearts and minds, because actually, it was a species that most people didn’t know and didn’t recognize,” Cairns-Wicks says, noting that surviving St. Helena gumwoods at the time only stood on remote cliffs or peaks.

In 2002, the management of the Millennium Forest project was given over to the St. Helena National Trust, the island’s biggest conservation group.

A botanical drawing of the St. Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum), a small tree, growing to just 7-8 meters (23-26 feet). It grew solely on the islands of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha in the isolated South Atlantic — the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. The St. Helena gumwood’s closest plant relative lives in distant South Africa. Image by the British Library via Flickr (Public domain).
Watering some of the first St. Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum) seedlings. This rare plant was the first native tree to become resident in the Millennium Forest. Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Funding and expansion

After an exciting start, the initiative has since matured in fits and starts.

“It’s not like other projects where you can grow [plants] really, really quickly,” Cairns-Wicks says, noting that the gumwood is an extremely slow-growing tree. “And you can’t cover large swaths and talk about millions of trees planted, because it’s a much more organic process of growth without big funding.”

Still, over the past 22 years, the project has added more native species, including a number of endemic shrubs: the already mentioned St. Helena dwarf ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus), as well as St. Helena rosemary (Phylica polifolia), St. Helena tea plant (Frankenia portulacifolia) and the boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia), which was thought extinct until a surviving plant was discovered in 1999. The first three species are all listed as critically endangered. There are also several endemic and threatened tussocks, succulents and flowers found in the resurrected forest.

All this was made possible due to the island’s creation of seed banks and gene banks for threatened flora over the past couple of decades through the government’s Terrestrial Conservation Section and supporting groups.

“We have the ability now to propagate a much greater range of species,” Cairns-Wicks says.

The forest itself is attracting and adding more than plants. The habitat has become important for the St. Helena plover or wirebird (Charadrius sanctaehelenae), a small wading bird only found on the island and IUCN listed as vulnerable. The growing forest has also become home to the gumwood leafhopper (Sanctahelenia decellei), an endemic insect “now living there in large numbers.”

Seed pod and flower of the St. Helena dwarf ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus). Images by Xerantheum via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The St. Helena plover or wirebird (Charadrius sanctaehelenae), a wader only found on the island and IUCN listed as vulnerable. Image by Andrew Neaum via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The biggest, most pressing issue facing the forest’s future is a lack of consistent funding, says Martina Peters, with the St. Helena National Trust.

“There has been a number of projects delivered [here]. However, once they end, then so does the funding, which means a loss of staff (capacity and skills) and a lack of maintenance.” She adds that most funders don’t want to support long-term funding, which is what successful forest restoration projects require.

Peters says funding currently comes partly from the St. Helena National Trust’s core budget, the John Hellerman Foundation, and the local government. The latter has provided funds as mitigation for the recently built airport, the first on the island.

Plantings have continued sporadically over the years: visiting tourists can pay to plant a tree, while Cairns-Wicks says most St. Helena children also visit at some point during their schooling and plant a tree. There have been a few large plantings since 2000, including some that may have added up to 600 trees in one day. The forest is growing — just not as quickly as many hoped.

“It’s been a very slow progression,” Cairns-Wicks says.

Maintaining the forest requires support and vigilance. Given the dry conditions at the site, each plant is drip-irrigated for its first three years. “This water supply is gradually reduced so that eventually the plants will fend for themselves,” Peters says.

As with island restoration projects the world over, invasive species are probably the most difficult, continuous and costly problem. “Rabbit-proof fencing and traps installed are expensive, time-consuming and require ongoing maintenance, but these help to reduce losses,” Peters explains, adding that workers also regularly need to clear invasive plants.

Cairns-Wicks describes the Millennium Forest as a generational project. The gumtrees could eventually rise as high as 8 m (26 ft), but the canopy isn’t near that goal yet.

“It does look more like a shrubbery than a forest, but it’s getting there. So, you can stand in places in the forest now and you can only see [just] trees … It’s starting to take on a forest persona of its own,” she says, adding, “My hope was at the beginning, that one day, it’s big enough that people could get lost in it just like they used to get lost in the Great Wood.”

Tourists visit the Millennium Forest on the island where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled and lived out his final years. Image courtesy of the St. Helena government.

‘An island in recovery’

The whole island of St. Helena is undergoing a process of vast change. For centuries, free-ranging goats ruled the island — first left there by sailors to provide meat on sailing vessel stopovers — destroying vegetation everywhere they could reach. The last free-range goats were removed from most of the island by the 1980s, leading to explosive vegetative growth.

“Basically, it’s an island in recovery,” says Cairns-Wicks.

But it’s not turning back into what it was pre-discovery; instead, it’s becoming something new.

“[We’re] seeing massive recovery — rewooding and rewilding — but not with native species, [but] with a lot of the introduced species. So that we’ve got an incredibly dynamic ecology going,” says Cairns-Wicks, adding that with the goats gone, introduced rabbits are now the main deterrent to plant survival.

“What’s very, very obvious is how quickly the island is greening, and so I think it’s very easy to imagine a rich and lush landscape with rich and fertile soils and forests, given that it had millennia to develop and we are just witnessing what’s happening in a few decades.”

Of course, most of this greening will look very unlike pre-discovery St. Helena. But the Millennium Forest isn’t the only project that’s working to preserve a portion of the island’s original native flora. There’s also the recently started multimillion-dollar St. Helena Cloud Forest Project, seeking to preserve and expand the island’s cloud forest, an ecosystem that contains 250 species found nowhere else on Earth. This cloud forest, located on the island’s peaks, is also essential to the island’s freshwater sources.

Endemic trees and other plants must be watered at first, but become resilient over time in the dry conditions of the slow-growing forest. Image courtesy of the St. Helena government.

Escalating climate change poses a major threat to the world’s island ecosystems, and St. Helena isn’t immune. As temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change, forest species isolated by oceans — on flat Pacific atolls, for example — may not be able to move to safer climes. But with its near-adjacent lowlands and highlands, drylands and cloud forest extremes, St. Helena could be blessed, allowing climate-stressed plant species to reseed and move about the island in tune with a fast-changing and warming world.

“I’d like to think that one day the island can change the scale at which it works to restore lost dryland habitats, like the Millennium Forest … rewilding the island with more of its native and endemic species,” Cairns-Wicks says. “There’s growing interest and capability. The seeds of a vision and interest are there and when the time is right it will happen.”

The Millennium Forest is a model that larger restorations on islands could emulate. The most exciting thing here, says Cairns-Wicks, is the people’s “sense of ownership” of the forest — a community-based pride that could be transplanted to other places and projects.

“They’ve been able to see what their contributions have done,” she says, noting their “wide breadth of ownership” over the Millennium Forest.

“Parents and grandparents can take their children there and say, ‘I planted this tree.’ … It’s a legacy of who was here, and the commitment that they’ve made. They’ve had the vision to contribute their effort to … a forest [that] they’ll never see the full advantage of,” Cairns-Wicks says.

“But future generations really will. And for me, that’s the exciting thing … Future generations will realize the benefits that this generation has created.”

Promise for tomorrow: A flowering St. Helena boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia), a plant thought to be extinct until a surviving specimen was discovered in 1999. Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Banner image: Regrowing a gumwood forest where St. Helena’s Great Wood once stood. Image by Luke McKernan via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

See related about St. Helena’s rare species:

Can we save the spiky yellow woodlouse, one of the most endangered isopods? (commentary)