image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 6, Aug 30, 2007


Motivation Behind First Trip to the US and Career Influences

I want to speak a little about, as I perceived, the reasons and the state of conservation at the time of our beginning, let’s say in the 1960s. In order to understand that, we have to go a little bit before, and repeat here, that in a country that was less than a million people with more than 70% in forest in the 1940s, conservation per se, or the ugly face of destruction, of environment and pollution and all that, wasn’t evident and present. It wasn’t. It was after the 1950s. I remember still the day the child citizen number 1,000,000 was born. We celebrated that. We called him El Niño Millón. And there was an expectation as to who was to be El Niño Millón. I remember that. That person must still be alive. [That individual] must be ten years younger than me maybe. I remember that day

So that was not an issue in the 40s, but it was in the 1940s that the government created a first national park, up the road to the Talamancas, precisely the road my father speaks a lot in his biography, of its beauty, of the huge old oak trees, etc., of the quetzals, that were later destroyed. The bill creating that national park was later taken by us to Congress asking Congress to eliminate that, because the park declaration was never implemented. The only reason I can think now that it was not implemented was because there was nobody to implement it. It was simply a good gesture on the part of Congress and a government who didn’t know what to do about it. So it didn’t do anything. It just continued the logical and intelligent and good thing of taking the forest down to put plantations and coffee there and cows. That first attempt, or if there were other attempts in the past, I don’t know that right now. Definitely, that Parque de Los Encinos, the name of that park, didn’t function. The next attempt was in 1957, when the congress created the Tourism Institute. In the same piece of legislation, declared that all vocanic craters, two kilometers around, a perfect circle, were declared national parks. That bill hasn’t been deauthorized. It’s still there. The only thing that didn’t happen was again that nobody managed these national parks. I do know that the Tourism Institute put a cement viewpoint at Irazu Volcano, because I remember the ruins of it when the volcano exploded in 1963. So it was not like managing a national park, but putting up a viewpoint for tourists to see the crater. So we have two failed attempts.

Which is the first attempt that remains today? That is, the only of the first area in the country that was declared, paid for, cleared of humanity, and managed properly, and that is Cabo Blanco Strict Biological Reserve. Who managed it? It was promoted, the fund raising, and even the managing for ten years, pro bono, was done by Nicolas Wessberg and Karen Mogensen who came from Sweden and Denmark, and settled in Montezuma, Guanacaste, very close to Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve. They saw the beginning of cattle ranching in Guanacaste. Nicolas said that is the beginning of the ruin of Costa Rica. They fought to save that piece in Cabo Blanco. They talked to ITCO, the agrarian reform people back then. They talked to President Orlich from San Ramon, got money from Philadelphia Conservation in the US and another conservation organization in England and were able to deal this package with the administration of President Orlich and remained there, overseeing one or two rangers until the Park Service was born in 1969.

The only other piece that was... an effort was made to conserve was a historic site called the Santa Rosa Historic Building, in Guanacaste. In 1966, Congress declared the historic house at Santa Rosa a national monument, the house with a thousand hectares around it. Then in 1968, the Tourism Board, the Instituto de Turismo, purchased from Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua, 10000 hectares around the historic house. When I came into the picture in 1970 as a volunteer right after the passage of legistation for parks in November 1969... in December I came in as a volunteer to Santa Rosa, I realized that the ICT had bought the house and 10000 hectares, and not a 1000. Why? Because ICT had asked Kenton Miller, who was then a professor at CATIE, to do a management plan for Casa Histórica, a historic building, and Kenton did a management plan for Santa Rosa National Park and recommended to buy 10000 hectares and more. That’s why ICT bought that much. When I came as a volunteer in 1970, that had been paid, yes, but it had not been managed. So it had 40 families of squatters inside, inherited from the Somoza time. They were squatters to Somoza that the government hadn’t solved as a problem for the park, and there were a lot of other problems [due to] lack of management of Santa Rosa. But it eventually survived and became the 150,000-hectare national park [of] today. Chronologically, [there was] Cabo Blanco, Santa Rosa and then the rest.

I want to speak a little about the main characters around my life, around me, let’s say in the late 60s and getting into the 70s. A very important first character I have already mentioned is Pedro Leon. Pedro, whom I met at the university while studying biology, both of us, and I share a deep love for all the courses we took together. We really enjoyed taking the course on insects, for example. In those years as a student, were years when we actually learned the animals of a particular place. For example, if we went to Tortuguero, we went to learn about the wild life of Tortuguero. So we were learning how different ecosystems were still present in my country. I was comparing things, what things were here and what [species] were here, plants and animals, and having lots of fun doing that. I remember when we discovered these long worms, Oncophora I think they’re called, that are so rare that in the class the professor gave us 300 points if we found one of those animals. I think it’s Onychophora, very hard to find, a very strange animal. I think I was with you when we were shown one at Las Cruces; I don’t remember the English name for this particular order of animals. Going back to the real issue here is the exposure to ecosystem differences and having lots of fun, diving or simply collecting animals, which was later of course seen as a problem, collecting animals as if they were never going to go extinct. Many students and professors did a lot of unnecessary collecting just for the sake of science.

Really, the main characters besides Pedro that got me into conservation as opposed to biology, were the characters that I encountered at the meeting in 1968, called a Round Table on the Mass Media and Natural Resources. Who put it together? I don’t remember. I was invited. I was actually sent by the Mountaineering Club to attend this round table to which the Club had been invited to send a delegate. So the Club said, “You are studying biology, you go to that round table.” So I went. It was a god-sent decision because at that meeting is were the real big players into conservation began to be met by me. One of them was Mario Boza. Mario was at that round table. That’s where we met. Archie Carr personally was not there, but he sent a representative don Guillermo Cruz, Billy Cruz, who was the face of Caribbean Conservation Corporation for Costa Ricans. He was the legal etc. representative of the CCC in Costa Rica. Through him, I got to be a volunteer with Archie, his wife Marjorie, and his children for a full month in Tortuguero in the next year, the next nesting season in Tortuguero, which must have been July and August 1969. I met Billy Cruz the year before and Mario Boza. At the end of that round table, we had a field trip. In the field trip, we got the surprise to meet the entire don Pepe Figueres family. By entire family, I mean his wife, Karen, her parents the Olsens, and her three children, Christiana, Mariano, Jose Maria and Kirsten, four children of doña Karen. Don Pepe had two other children with his first wife, previous to Karen.

The participants in the seminar, of which I only remember now Mario and the Figueres and don Billy Cruz, I don’t remember the rest, we all went to Tortuguero. We took a bus first to Siquirres, then we took a regular train from Siquirres to a certain point, then we took a burro train, “burrocarril”, a burro pulling a train. So we had to move from a bus to a train, from train to mule train, then from the mule train to a boat, and then we went through the Tortuguero canals, ended up in Tortuguero when it was not a national park, it just was Archie Carr’s Caribbean Conservation [Corporation] Turtle Research Station, which had been there for several years, since Dr. Carr started studying the turtles in Costa Rica, trying to reproduce them [by] taking eggs from Costa Rica since the 1950s. So, Archie Carr begins to become a megaplayer for me, and I will explain, but the best thing probably that happened for conservation in Costa Rica was getting to know doña Karen. Not so much don Pepe, but doña Karen, because don Pepe became the president for the third time in May 1970. We met a year before and became very good friends, not don Pepe, doña Karen. We were known by don Pepe, but don Pepe couldn’t remember many names right after he met them. I heard an anecdote, where one of his ministers came in, and he asked somebody else “What is his name?” So you can imagine he was forgetful, at least at that moment. Doña Karen became our fairy godmother during the third administration of don Pepe from 1970-1974, which were the first four years of Mario’s and my saga with the government in conservation. Archie Carr came later, but maybe Archie was already there to meet us when we came to Tortuguero with the Figueres.

Anyway, I did finally work with him in Tortuguero and that is when Archie somehow caught an eye on me, if that is the correct way to say it, and immediately started pushing me, along with Mario Boza, to go to the US to take a short course on national parks. It was actually called the International Seminar on National Parks and Equivalent Reserves. He found the funding, he found the space, I guess Mario complotted everything. For some reason, they both wanted me in, to be part of the conservation movement. The Phipps family, which was the strongest major donor of the CCC, came up with the money for me to attend that seminar in August 1969. I remember I didn’t want to go, because my mind was somewhat still set on finishing my bachelor’s degree in biology, but Pedro pushed me, Mario pushed me, Archie pushed me, everybody. The room was there, the money was there, all I had to do was drop [out of] the school for one semester. It was kind of a difficult decision for me to make. I am glad I finally gave up and went. That’s why I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree in 1969 when I should have. It was postponed one more year, after taking the squatters out of Santa Rosa, then I felt like I should go back and finish my bachelor’s degree.

I have already mentioned the critical characters at that moment. I began to meet at least one character from each of 25 nations because that’s what we were at that seminar. I met this charming lady from Poland, the son of a king in Africa, Bing Lucas from New Zealand, Peter Ogilvie from Australia and you name it. They were all pioneer leaders in each of their countries. This was the end 60s when national parks were beginning everywhere, except for the US, which had a good 100 years of experience with some of the parks. Having been to that workshop, or seminar, it broadened my vision and broadened my sense of urgency. It taught me what land management is all about for conservation. It gave me contact with rangers, the kind of rangers that are hard to find today, really motivated rangers, people who thought and acted as if the fate of the world was in there hands. I remember very well Bill Wendt, who was the chief ranger at Grand Canyon when I met him. He was so inspirational, so tough, so skillful, so smart and motivated that there was no way you couldn’t get impregnated [by] his thinking and his actions. It was then the Park Service had a different attitude. The US Park Service had a different attitude towards the world back then. What they called the International Affairs Office of the US Park Service was definitely decided [on promoting] national parks anywhere in the planet and tried to do so. That is not happening these days. It had a lot to do with the individuals in charge at the moment. I remember the director of the US Park Service. He was revered by his rangers as a god. I literally felt throughout my one, two, three months visiting US parks, the reverence of everybody toward Mr. Hartzog, a legendary director. So being with motivated rangers, with rangers who respected their leader, they were very proud of their work. Looking at all these people around the planet, equally motivated, equally trying to overcome all obstacles to do a park system in their country, was the final touch that I needed to come back and say, “Hey, what are we waiting?” We have the biodiversity, we knew that. We now know that we have to manage it. Let’s go for it. We are not alone. That was very very important...