PALO VERDE NATIONAL PARK – Driving down a one-way, dirt road, visitors are surrounded by dense, green trees entwined in curling vines. As the tunnel of foliage clears, a small building with several trucks parked out front comes into view. The sign on the door reads, “Organization for Tropical Studies.”
As the bus doors open, the wetlands air of Palo Verde National Park gives a sticky, still welcome. Complete with mosquito netting, bunk beds, and a self-serve buffet style dining hall, the experience is reminiscent of summer camp.
But the OTS Palo Verde Biological Station is not a vacation spot or summer get-away. Wetlands and a dry forest come together in this area of Palo Verde National Park, making it a unique ecosystem for scientists, students and volunteers to study.
The OTS program was started in Costa Rica in 1963 by seven universities to further research and provide education on the rainforest. Working out of Costa Rica with partnerships and schools from the United States, Latin America and Australia, OTS is now a consortium of more than 60 universities involved in research programs with the organization.
As OTS celebrates its 50th anniversary, staff at the Palo Verde research station are taking steps toward making it more ecofriendly and sustainable.
Besides Palo Verde, OTS has two other biological stations, La Selva and Las Cruces. La Selva was the original station in Sarapiquí in central Costa Rica and was awarded the “Bandera Azul Ecológica” certification in May. Las Cruces, located in the southern part of the country, was awarded the certification three years ago. The Palo Verde station is now working to receive the same certification by the end of this year.
Jonathan Giles, vice president for development of OTS at Duke University, said in a phone interview that while fundraising for OTS comes from various sources, the stations themselves work hard to be recognized as highly sustainable.
“I think it’s very important with the field stations and the type of courses we teach that we have an environmental mindset and conservation base of the way we look at how we approach our use of resources,” Giles said. “We’re all very proud that they do what’s required to get that certification.”
La Bandera Azul Ecológica, or Blue Flag program, is an international program that recognizes efforts to maintain certain levels of sustainability of beaches, marinas and other locations. Applicants must prove certain criteria each year to receive a blue flag and maintain the certification.
To receive certification through the Blue Flag program, the Palo Verde station must report its usage of gas, electricity and paper and then work to reduce those amounts within the year.
Sergio Padilla, who has worked at Palo Verde since July 2010 as a guide and researcher, noted that small changes have been made over the years to help conserve resources. The installation of faucets that concentrate water, the use of a solar clothes dryer, and the reduction of paper usage have all been part of the effort. The cost of water and electricity is a big factor.
In addition to making the station more efficient, Palo Verde must prove it is connecting to the community through educational programs. A public lecture series on topics the community was interested in was organized with the national park.
Rafael Ramirez, administrator of academic service at OTS and an aquatic plants researcher, has worked as an educator for the station for five years and believes that education is key in conservation efforts.
With researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, and volunteers coming to the station for various projects throughout the year, visitor cooperation in conserving resources is important. Ramirez gives visitors a welcome lecture about the station when they arrive.
“One of the mechanisms that I use to provide information about greening or asking for help in the greening efforts is the talk,” said Ramirez. “That is the door for delivering the message of conserving resources and asking for your cooperation to conserve those resources.”
Ramirez said that being eco-friendly at Palo Verde is crucial.
“(It’s about) having a respectable behavior with nature with us living here constantly. Number two, understanding our own politics of rational resource (and) constantly applying those politics on the station facilities,” he said.
The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and OTS also hosted a conference in San Jose in June where biologists discussed the research that has been made over the past 50 years and what future research might lead to.
Undertaking the initiatives to fund the station’s projects is a major effort. According to the OTS website, la Fundación Centro de Gestión Tecnológica, or CEGESTI, estimates that renovations of all three stations would cost about $350,000. Renovations of Palo Verde are estimated to be the least expensive, at $52,000.
Ramirez has more projects in mind for conserving resources at the station. He hopes to install a rock slide to act as a filtration system for the gray water from the laundry, create more natural lighting in the dorm ceilings and install solar panels.
“Everybody wants to see that we’re doing it right,” Giles said. “We’re the one place running a biological research station where people would expect us to be doing it right, and we are very cognizant of that.”