That is, until you reach the Sierra Madre Mountains
, at the heart of which is the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park (NSMNP). "Then you soar over unbroken forest for over an hour," says Christopher Holtz, a director in CI's Philippines program. "It's striking how different this area is from the rest of the Philippines."
The Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, or "Mother Mountain" in English, is indeed different. Close to 97 percent of the Philippines
has seen its original forest
cover felled. The NSMNP, however, is close to pristine. It protects much of the largest stretch of old-growth forest left in the country.
The Philippines' richest protected area in terms of habitat and species
, the park is 80 percent land and 20 percent coastal area along a spectacular, cliff-studded seashore. One of the reasons for the health of the park's ecosystems is inaccessibility from outside. To the east lies the Pacific, which is too rough for boats during part of the year; to the west, no roads cross the park or lead toward the populated, rice-growing valley, although there is pressure to build some.
CI and its partners provided the scientific justification for establishing the NSMNP. Biological surveys in the 1990s showed that the area contained 240 bird species – 78 of these are found nowhere else in the country. Biologists found several species of tree frogs previously undescribed by science. The park may contain 60 percent of all the plant species found in the Philippines.
The government of the Philippines decreed the NSMNP a protected area – the nation's largest – in 1997. In 2001, a new law granted it permanent protected status, precluding extractive permits.
As a permanent member of the Philippines' Protected Area Management Board, CI continues to provide scientific input to inform the planning process, as well as technical assistance and logistical support for park protection.
CI and its partners are also undertaking a variety of conservation projects in the park, including maintaining a 16-hectare biodiversity monitoring plot and conducting a pilot reforestation project. In addition, they are putting together an herbarium and working with communities
in agroforestry in previously logged areas within the park.
While most of the NSMNP is strictly protected, a small portion includes communities and is zoned for multiple use. Most of the residents in and around the park are workers or descendants of workers of the logging companies that operated on the fringes of the park area during the 1960s to late 1970s. They farm, fish and gather forest products. However, illegal logging
, hunting, and commercial fishing using illegal methods such as dynamite, primarily by people from outside the area, are threats
. Mining companies still have claims that predate the park's creation.
At last count, some 1,300 indigenous people, the Dumagat, live along the shoreline and riverbanks, hunting, gathering and planting crops.
CI is now working to protect the area to the north of the park, which would increase protected acreage by 20 percent. The longer term goal is to encompass the entire Sierra Madre range in a conservation corridor running from the northeast corner of Luzon to nearly as far south as Manila.
To this end, CI has been training regional and economic development planners to incorporate biodiversity and habitat data into their work. "They're now developing a 20-year plan for the region," says Holtz. "CI has provided global information systems (GIS) and other data on forests, watersheds and distribution of species-so they know where roads, for example, can be of most economic impact and least ecological impact."
Based on the recent work of CI-Philippines, a regional development council rejected a mining company application to operate in the Sierra Madre Mountains, and the local Protected Area Management Board rejected reopening a logging road through the park.
Country: The Philippines
Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park
890,000 acres (359,486 hectares)
Biodiversity hotspot: Philippines
Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources; local government units, both municipal and provincial; NGO for the Protected Area Inc.; Conservation of Priority Protected Areas of the Philippines; Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology; Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation; Plan International Philippines; University of the Philippines; Isabela State University; Leiden University; the Smithsonian Institution; Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University