Guardian of Earth's treasure trove of trees

For 50 years, Britain's Peter Ashton has been studying – and trying to preserve – a wealth of diversity in Asia's tropical forests.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Over a simple supper of quiche and salad on a mild spring evening, Peter and Mary Ashton are debating how to give away their money.

It's not as simple as it seems. Mr. Ashton, an eminent professor of forestry and former director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, has just won $415,000 from a Japanese foundation for a lifetime of work in Asian rain forests. He wants to sponsor a new generation of botanists to build on his ground-breaking study in forest ecology. His wife has other ideas.

"We have already given $100,000 for a scholarship fund within the Arnold Arboretum," Ashton says. "I'd like to leave in my will another $100,000 for the fund, but," he glances at Mary, "this is, um, not decided yet." A pause.

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"I'm more interested in street children in Mumbai," Mary suggests.

"There you have it," says Ashton. "Mary's interested in people, I'm interested in trees."

Peter Ashton has been interested in trees for a long time and in a big way. He knows more about – and has done more to understand – the bewildering array of rain forest trees of Asia than perhaps anyone else alive. In his native England, he is all but unknown. Not so in Asia, where they've seen this rugged, engaging professor stomping around their beautiful wildernesses for 50 years.

It all began in World War II when, as a schoolboy, Ashton wandered through the less exotic woodlands of southern England, marveling at clouds of butterflies that had migrated from the wastelands of Normandy.

"Those were crucial years for me," Ashton recalls. "At that age, kids are looking for patterns. I used to walk out in the woods and got very interested in butterflies and moths. That's where my interest in natural history started."

It was a very different conflict – between humans and rain forest – where Ashton made his mark. The globalization that has transformed the postwar world has not been kind to nature. A voracious demand for timber, combined with unscrupulous companies and ineffective governments, has decimated the Asian rain forest.

Today, Ashton notes sadly, the areas of pristine Asian rainforest are almost exclusively restricted to legally protected parks and sanctuaries. If it isn't protected by law (and sometimes even when it is), it is cut down. Particularly vulnerable is the Dipterocarp family of trees (known collectively as red mahogany to most), which dominate the canopy of lowland Asian forests. These, Ashton notes, are the trees that have produced more than half the timber for global markets for the past couple of generations. "And, needless to say," he adds, "there aren't many left."

Ashton isn't against logging per se. But his life's work has been to understand how different trees in the rain forest perform so that humans can harvest them sensibly and sustainably, rather than just tearing them down and moving on.

"If you want to sustainably manage a forest for timber production, you have to know your trees: How fast they grow; what soils they grow on," he says. "The forest needs to be handled in different ways. It needs to be felled with different intensities and treated afterwards in different ways."

When he first stepped into a rain forest, in Brunei in March 1957, little was known about the trees that grew there. These forests thrum with diversity. "Species rich," scientists call them. Just how rich, Ashton was about to find out.

Ashton spent five years documenting trees for the Sultan of Brunei, disappearing into hostile terrain for weeks at a time. "It made my life, really," he says, shrugging self-deprecatingly. His peers are more generous. "To do what he did involved tremendous persistence but also physical toughness," says emeritus professor Peter Grubb of the University of Cambridge. "He goes into the forest and lives on nothing much for weeks on end."

But it was the academic, not the physical, challenge that initially bewildered Ashton. "There are around 35 native tree species in Britain, around 350 to 400 in the United States. In Brunei," which is less than half the size of Connecticut, "there are around 3,000. How do you manage 3,000 trees?"

Ashton aimed to find out. He set up small plots to establish which kinds of trees thrived where. He documented 30,000 trees from almost 1,000 species. He returned to write up his findings, teach at Aberdeen University in Scotland and at Harvard, and ponder how to set up something more ambitious.

What was needed, he resolved, was a broader regional or even global network of rain forest plots to provide truer measurements of how different trees perform. With collaborators like the now-eminent ecologist Stephen Hubbell and impressive funding from public and private sources, Ashton led the establishment of Forest Dynamics Plots, a global network that now includes 18 permanent plots of about 125 acres each, mostly in Asia, that provide data on almost 4 million trees.

It was for this work, launched in 1986 and still growing today, that he received his Japan Prize citation from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan, which commended his "significant contribution toward solving the conflict between human beings and the tropical forest ecosystem though his long and prominent career." It was presented to him in Tokyo last week.

"[Ashton] was an exceptional man from the time he was an undergraduate," notes Professor Grubb, who has known Ashton since the 1950s. "He has created an engine of research which has already yielded a number of interesting results. He quickly built up a knowledge of the species in Southeast Asia, confronting a very intimidating forest, which was a remarkable thing to do."

Grubb adds that it's unfair to judge Ashton by the poor state of today's rain forest. "Most of us feel we are dealing with corrupt governments and worldly people not remotely interested in the preservation of the future of their country."

Ashton says the problems of the rain forests revolve around money and public relations. While climate change has suddenly attracted huge interest, investment, and international attention because of the telling impact it has made on the public psyche, biodiversity struggles to grab public notice.

We should pay more attention, says Ashton. "Bio­diversity gives us the option for our future not just for 2­0 years, but for 200 and 2,000 years," he says. "Once a species is destroyed, it cannot be recreated, it's gone forever. Can we afford to do that in the long-term interest of humankind?"

"It may sound nebulous if you're starving," he adds, "but most of us in the rich world should think seriously about that. Oil palm has only been known as a crop for 50 years; the rubber plant was only discovered as a commercial crop 130 years ago. Do you mean to tell me that ... this sort of thing is never going to happen again?"

All this bounty, he says, is teeming in the trees of the rain forest, where each organism can have hundreds of other species dependent on it. Of all the life on earth, more than half is in the tropics and three-quarters of that is in the rain forest, Ashton says. "And the rain forest is owned by poor people and poor governments," he says. "Cannot we afford in our wealth to pay a rental to maintain those forests? It is us who are the beneficiaries; it is our industry that will avail of these opportunities."

So trees or people? By now it has become clear that for Ashton it's not either-or.

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