- Madden Forest Preserve
The Panama Canal Review - July 7, 1961
The air is warm
and humid, the sun virtually obscured by the intertwining jungle growth, the thin red soil
underfoot soft and slippery, and it takes little imagination to see pack mules and Spanish
soldiers trudging along, laden with the riches of the New World, or bringing supplies to
the Pacific outpost of Panama.
This is one impression of the Madden Forest Preserve, a tract of more than 3,000 acres of relatively undisturbed tropical forest which borders Madden Road most of the way between its intersection with Gaillard Highway at one end and the Boyd-Roosevelt Highway at the other.
In this tract of land, protected against the heavy hand of man by order of Canal Zone authorities for more than 30 years, and scarcely touched before that, hundreds of thousands of trees and millions of other plants and animals thrive and renew themselves and die, maintaining this tropical fastness much as it has been for hundreds of years.
Within these undisturbed precincts live many of the animals native to the Isthmus: the sloth, the coati-mundi, the iguana, the boa constrictor, the painted rabbit, the bushmaster, and many others, seldom venturing forth, from the protective cover of the palms, banana plants, wild figs, hog plums, espave, plantain, quipo trees, and other plants among which they dwell.
Here, too, the insects native to the Isthmus continue to lead their tranquil lives, undisturbed by the insecticides and other death-dealing practices employed in the inhabited areas surrounding the forest preserve to keep them useful for man's own purposes.
Former Canal Zone Governor Harry Burgess established the first formal protection for the area with an order issued on May 27, 1930, which designated the tract "a natural timber preserve."
Less than a year later, on April 29, 1931, he made it somewhat more formal by issuing a new order designating the area a "forest preserve" and stipulating that "the cutting of timber, the trimming, injuring, or carrying away of any trees, palms, or other plants in that area is prohibited." this order still is the basic foundation of the area's preservation.
Governor Burgess apparently
was influenced in his action by George Green, Municipal Engineer of the Canal zone for
more than 25 years, and Dr. Thomas Barbour, who was Director of the Museum of Comparative
Zoology at Harvard College at the time, and who had participated in the successful effort
to establish Barro Colorado in Gatun Lake as a nature study preserve.
Dr. Barbour had discussed the matter with the Governor previously and in a letter dated the same day as the 1930 order, he said, "It is the only bit of undisturbed mainland tropical rain forest ... with the exception of Barro Colorado Island and as such will be of interest to the naturalists of the country in the future."
The area is not truly a tropical rain forest, however, the rainfall being somewhat short of the level required by such a forest. It does have plants which are typical of rain forests, however, including some which live without benefit of the normal root system and store their own water for use during dry periods.
Today's protectors of the preserve, which comes under control of the Community Services Division, say the major purpose in the continued safeguarding of the tract is to maintain it for scientific study. They note that even removal of specimens from the area is forbidden to insure that no imbalance of nature is caused within the tract by unnatural means.
"Creating even a minor and temporary imbalance by removal or destruction of a single specimen conceivably could change the entire course of natural development," those in charge say. Qualified individuals occasionally do receive permission to enter the area to make studies, however.
Signs posted along the highway today offer no reason for the preserve, but merely assert the area is a "Government Forest Preserve" and stipulate, "The cutting removing, or destroying of any shrubbery, foliage, trees, etc., prohibited."
But even those who are not naturalists or who do not have any particular interest in the flora and fauna of the Isthmus probably would agree with the purposes which former Governor Julian L. Schley "In order to preserve the beauties of this forest area for the benefit of the public, cutting or injuring trees and plants therein is prohibited."
An incidental benefit accruing from the preservation of the Forest Preserve and its attendant condition is that a strip of the famous Las Cruces Trail is protected against the ravages of encroaching civilization.
Where this famous Isthmian trail crosses Madden Road it is marked by an ancient cannon on one side and a small roadside park on the other, both visible reminders - along with the concrete pavement between them - that civilization has forced its will on the bordering jungle, which nevertheless stands ever ready to reclaim its won if man should stop his constant effort to hold it in check.
A short distance south of the trail crossing, in a quiet jungle dell, another mark of civilization and its ways stands in silent tribute to the late Mr. Green. This is a simple stone and bronze plaque, set in this location because it was one of Mr. Green's favorite spots in the zone.
The famous Las Cruces Trail, ancient forerunner to the Panama Canal, still is discernible where it cuts through the Forest Preserve. the trail, which originally ran from Las Cruces, a village located along the Chagres River north of the present town of Gamboa, to Panama, was fairly well surfaced, according to Isthmian historians, and traces of this still can be seen today. Although the trail was broad enough in some places to permit the passage of carts, it is unlikely that wheeled vehicles ever were used over the entire 18 miles between Las Cruces and Panama.
It was over this trail that much of the treasure of Peru and other South American lands was carried across the Isthmus to be shipped to Spain. And this also was the trail followed by Henry Morgan and his buccaneers when they crossed the Isthmus to sack Old Panama.
Today, the function once filled by the famous trail has been assumed by the Canal, the Panama Railroad, and the trans-isthmian Boyd-Roosevelt Highway, while the once busy pathway is traveled only infrequently by nature lovers, Boy Scouts, or the curious.
And on each side of the trail, as it wends its way through the quiet jungle, the Madden Forest Preserve stands, silent virtually impenetrable in places, deserted by man and avoided by most, much the same as it stood in the days when the trail was the major route between the two oceans.
October 4, 1998