Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Holding back a mountain

Earthquakes and typhoons plague Taiwan. Stories of the lives and property they sweep away are staples of the local media. Less frequently reported is what happens after the tragedy: the Herculean projects that, over months and years, painstakingly put back what took only moments to be destroyed. For Taiwan's Forestry Bureau, it's a drama that builds sapling by sapling and stone by stone. The bureau recently showed the Taipei Times a trio of reforestation projects in Chiayi County. We saw fields of dirt and piles of rock, but we learned a key facet of Taiwan's ecology: It's easy to move a mountain. What's really difficult is holding one back

Words and Photos by David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

"We set up the tree bank to protect old trees and unique trees that have been deemed worthy of saving," said Chen A-hsing (陳阿興), the Forestry Bureau's chief of reforestation and production.

Macbeth knew fortune would smile on him until "Burnam Wood to Dunsinane doth come," but in the case of Chiayi's Tree Bank, the moving of a forest is an auspicious sign.

The project includes a workshop that will serve as an ecological classroom, walking paths and a man-made lake now awaiting a good rain. There will also be a small parking lot since the Forestry Bureau envisions the Tree Bank doubling as rest area for travelers to Alishan.

But it's primary function is the protection of unique species of flora threatened by encroaching development, though a few of the bank's initial deposits came from the Naoliao Creek basin.

On the day of our visit, a Cockscomb Erythrina -- a type of jasmine tree -- had just been replanted from its original home in Yunlin County. It lived for more than a century in a plot of land that recently became a government construction site. Rather than fell the tree, the government brought it here, where it is the Tree Bank's newest deposit.

"Any tree that fits the criteria will be eligible for transplantation in one of the Tree Bank's two designated areas," Chen said. "[It will be] a permanent and a temporary sanctuary."

The permanent area will contain centenarian trees, large trees with a diameter of 1.5m or a circumference of 4.7m, and rare or unique species. The temporary area will house trees, like the Cockscomb Erythrina, that are in the path of public construction. Those trees will be withdrawn from the Tree Bank within a year of the construction project's completion and will be returned to their original location.

Because of Taiwan's dramatic difference in climate from north to south, only trees from Chiayi, Yunlin, Tainan, Kaohsiung or Pingtung counties will be deposited in the Chiayi Tree Bank. Another bank, in Ilan County, is planned for transplanting trees in northern Taiwan.

"The Tree Bank is one of the Forestry Bureau's proudest projects," Chen said. "It allows for sightseeing, conservation, education and, after the trees have matured, the government can transplant them in future public construction sites."

Coming down the mountain

On the western shoulder of Alishan is where it all begins. An average 286cm of rain falls on the several thousand hectares of the Naoliao Creek watershed. It drips off the needles of high-altitude pines, trickles down steep granite faces, joins forces in quick mountain streams and roars into the valley.

While it takes boulders to rein in the torrents at the lower stretches of the Naoliao Creek, in the upper reaches of its watershed, strips of bamboo suffice. The third project on the Forest Bureau's tour sits on a mountain saddleback about 2,000m above sea level.

The devastating quake of September 1999 shook a 3-hectare portion of this pine forest from its roots and sent it tumbling down the mountain. Unlike in other landslide areas, though, there was no domino effect. Rather, the uprooted forest was stopped by the trees and rocks below. As with an avalanche of snow, Forestry Bureau scientists saw this accumulation of debris as a grave threat. Should another large quake come or if the soil were to become saturated from heavy rains, the entire mountain face could be lost.

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