Technological innovations are often the precursors of emerging areas of science. The development of equipment and methods for safe and non-destructive access to the forest canopy was the vehicle by which the diverse and important world of tree crowns came to be explored by humans. Although people have been curious about canopy-dwelling biota for centuries, they were largely restricted to the forest floor – gathering fallen canopy plants and animals, making observations through binoculars, or awaiting treefalls or large-scale forest felling to enhance canopy knowledge and collections.
Canopy biologists must often dangle for hours to find out such basic data as where ants horde epiphyte seeds; chart the pathways of lianas to sunny spots; trace the passage of nitrogen from tissue to tissue; and, watch for weeks in aerial blinds to observe the feeding preferences of birds.
There is growing concern about how humans who visit the canopy – researchers, recreationists, and activists – might affect canopy-dwelling biota. For example, little is known about short-and long-term effects that human footprints and rope-marks have on epiphyte mortality and recolonization, or the effects of the sound and sight a large tower crane might have on wildlife behavior or nesting. Such information is being accumulated and will be synthesized and used to determine best practices in the future.
Safe and non-destructive access to the forest canopy is a primary precursor to nearly all canopy studies. Over the past two decades, canopy researchers and recreationists have developed many tools to overcome the difficulties and hazards of climbing trees. The best methods provide access that is safe, reliable, and appropriate for the objective of the climber. They reduce or eliminate damage to the tree and attendant organisms, which are extremely fragile.
Beginning in the early 1970′s, a number of canopy pioneers began applying mountain-climbing techniques to scale large old-growth trees in temperate and tropical rainforests. Other innovations, such as the use of hot-air balloons, towers, collapsible cots, and portable catwalks helped give canopy researchers the access they needed to make observations and collections within the canopy.
The advent of the construction crane as a tool for near-total access to a large area of forest has made major differences in the types of research that can be done; instrumentation for delicate experimental work in tree physiology has become routine; making long-term observations of canopy-dwelling animals also easy to do at any time of the day or night, and under all but the most extreme weather conditions.
Visit the Big Canopy Database for more info.
Canopy Walkways offer a view into the treetop environment without the effort of climbing the tree itself. Walkways provide a unique tool for scientists, recreationists, and eco-tourists by allowing them safe and easy access into the high-up world of the forest canopy. Once in place, canopy walkways can offer scientitsts opportunities for long-term study sites.
ICAN has worked with Selvatura, a leading canopy eco-tourism company in Monteverde, Costa Rica, to provide scientifically-sound natural history interpretive materials to visitors. Selvatura also offers zip-line canopy tours, for the adventurous tourist.
The Evergreen State College is looking into building a canopy walkway on its campus. Click here for more information on the proposed project.
For information on the construction of canopy walkways, visit Greenheart Conservation Company, Ltd.
Safety and Training
To date, the study of forest canopies has been remarkably free from incidents involving injury or death to climbers.
For some study sites, training in canopy safety is available, but in most cases, individuals are responsible for learning and promoting a strong safety ethic and methods.
All access methods must be used with care and safety foremost in mind. Although safety standards exist for certain aspects of canopy access, the state of the art for canopy safety is still in its formative stages.
The Global Canopy Programme offers certified courses in double-rope canopy access in the UK, Borneo, and Brazil.
The US Forest Service operates the National Tree Climbing Program, designed to train and certify in canopy access.
For more information on canopy access, training, equipment, and safety, visit The Big Canopy Database.