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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 Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2007


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.

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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.

"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."