Originally created 12/04/01

School considers tropical land buy



ATHENS, Ga. - When teaching future developers and landscapers about design and land conservation, University of Georgia professor Allen Stovall says it helps to have a landscape handy, especially a picturesque one. As luck would have it, one of the best views in the world is up for sale, and the university might have a shot at purchasing it.

"This site is invaluable because of its rich vegetation, and also the richness of the visual landscape," said Mr. Stovall, describing valley farms, cloud-capped forests and cascading waterfalls at the Ecolodge San Luis and Biological Station in Central America.

Mr. Stovall and other University of Georgia researchers are hoping the school will add a cloud forest in Costa Rica to its growing list of land holdings. Annexing a tropical paradise is far from a pipe dream for the Athens campus. The university has received private donations that will be put toward purchasing the ecolodge and biological station for semester-long courses and university research.

The rustic development, nestled in the San Luis valley of Costa Rica, is already a destination for university researchers and students from across the country, and school administrators say owning the site would be a boon to University of Georgia research and a prime destination for students interested in learning about Central America from the confines of a stable democratic republic.

The still-undisclosed purchase price is a "bargain," and the university could play an important role in conserving an area that attracts more tourists by the day, said Kathryn Costello, the university's senior vice president for external affairs. Also, the university's master plan calls for increasing the rate of students studying abroad to 25 percent by 2010.

But there's a catch.

The university hopes to pay for the site with private donations, which would be used in part to "eradicate any debt" associated with the property, Ms. Costellos said. "It's not worth borrowing in these particular times," she said.

The university's real estate foundation is barred from seeking tax-exempt bonds to finance international property. Members of the university's Foundation Board of Trustees have been pitched the idea of purchasing the tract, but have not bitten yet.

Foundation Chairman Pat Pittard called the site a "great opportunity for the university," but he emphasized the need for caution. "I think there is possibly a role for the foundation in it," Mr. Pittard said. However, he said "there's going to be lots of opportunities. We have to prioritize."

Still, there's no lack of supporters on campus for the project. For the past several years, University of Georgia researchers in ecology, environmental design and other disciplines have been making the trip to the verdant, 162-acre biological station, studying plant and bird life, examining agricultural practices and introducing summer-school students to a region where tension between wildlife and subsistence coffee and banana farming is a daily struggle, not an academic question.

When the property came up for sale, they wasted little time calling the university's attention to the tract. Features of the development include housing, a working tropical farm, a laboratory and a steady clientele of ecotourists who could provide cash flow while the university builds academic programs there.

"It will certainly pay for itself operationally," Ms. Costello said.

The property, in one of the regions few remaining tropical forests, borders the Children's International Rainforest and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, a popular destination for ecotourists.

"If you start at another site, you're starting from scratch," said Mr. Stovall, an environmental design professor who has led several student trips to Costa Rica and helped devise a proposal for a year-round study abroad program there.

For design students, some of whom might work later in resort development, Mr. Stovall said the area is invaluable as a cross-cultural experience that also teaches students sensitivity to native environments.

"It's in an area that's going to undergo change as tourism becomes more monetarily important," he said.

The property was developed in part by Milton and Diane Lieberman, who hold part-time appointments at the university's School of Marine Sciences and the Institute of Ecology. They have developed a Maymester program in ecology there, among other programs.