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My world is to have a tiny island that will periodically be inhabited by a person or small group of people. By tiny I'm using a fuzzy yardstick: 1-50 hectares. When people are here, they will be conducting basic bushcraft and foraging. But at this scale, felling even a few trees would be a major pull on the local ecology. And this is the constraint we need to work with: people will come and they will chop stuff down. It's not permanent though, there are periods when the island is uninhabited: they stay no longer than a week at a time, a few times per year.

But, all is not lost. Everything else, short of magic, can be brought to bear on the situation. I doubt nature alone can handle this, so solutions involving genetic modification are in scope.

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Question

What kind of scientific methods and/or land management techniques would allow a tiny island to recover quickly from periodic spikes in resource extraction?
**Note:** Budget and pre-planning timeframe is unlimited. All that matters is that after enough time and money have been thrown at the problem, the result is a very robust tiny island.
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    $\begingroup$ When people are there, how long do they stay? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 2 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ I won't require exact numbers like trees felled per day or days spent on island. Aiming to keep the discussion as high-level as possible. If we agree to split hairs on a number, maybe a few times a year. But that's just an arbitrary number. Ultimately, we can say that's configurable. A possible quality metric could be robust to longer stays. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe I wasn't clear: when they visit the island, do they stop for 1 day, 1 month, 1 year? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 2 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ I say none. With a resource pool as small as a timy island, it's too easy for humans to mine it out, provided trees fail to produce seeds before getting chopped. If there would be seeds left on the island, and some extra influx of fertilization (nesting birds for example), the probable recuperation rate would be several years, depending on trees species. Still there will be time needed for a tree to grow large enough to be worthy of chopping. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Aug 2 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Can also be configurable, but no longer than a week at a time, a few times per year. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 8:45

8 Answers 8

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What you need is a fast type of ecology something where the plants and animals grow and cycle quickly. To aid this add lots of energy so a tropical or subtropical island with plenty of rainfall would be best.

Start with the fastest growing plant:bamboo. Bamboo should suffice for most needs but if you really want trees then how about the empress tree?

It’s a very fast-growing tree that produces good quality wood and has huge leaves. It can grow 3 times taller than a man in a year and it also flowers and drops leaves to aid nitrogen fixation.

Add in any other subtropical or tropical species that are very fast growing or that might be useful such as sugar cane, elephant grass, sweet potatoes, tropical vines etc

Animals should be small with a relatively rapid life cycle, would preferably be edible and live off of a diet of bamboo and similar. The ideal creature would be the bamboo rat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_rat

They normally live at an altitude of 1200 -4000m but can probably survive at sea level just fine as is. If not, a little artificial selection and even genetic manipulation should generate a subspecies that can.

Then add in insects such as ants, beetles, and bees for pollination and perhaps a few small birds and you should be ready to go.

I would avoid the very smallest area within your range and attempt to create a range of habitats, perhaps with a large rocky outcrop and some marshlands with mangroves. This way it is more likely that species will be able to find an ideal niche and it might provide shelter in less accessible spots to aid in regeneration, although to be frank unless your visitors arrive mob-handed with flame throwers, poisons and chain saws they will struggle to kill everything.

If you want to aid something a little nasty you could try giant hogweed. Not sure it would survive in the tropics but it might well with a little modification and it likes growing by water. Very prolific and unpleasant (or as Hagrid would say it's just misunderstood...)

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  • $\begingroup$ thx for the edits vinzzz001 $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Aug 2 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ this answere is gud, took away 3 or 4 of the things i was going to write down. so yeah, saved ne about 10 minutes of my life, @slarty $\endgroup$
    – clockw0rk
    Aug 3 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Add a lot of birds (feeding on fish), to add fertiliser. $\endgroup$
    – fishinear
    Aug 3 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ What prevents the bamboo rat from eating all the bamboo? $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Aug 4 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ A good point. I suspect that a natural balance might still be achieved despite appearances, by competition for mates, fights for territory etc and by a growth rate of upto 1.5 inches and hour for bamboo, but if not it might be necessary to genetically modify the rats in some way to "hobble" them a little. Perhaps make them particularly aggressive and territorial. Or put a small part of the island beyond rat reach with a cliff that seeds could drop down from but rats could not climb. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Aug 4 at 20:29
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Ecosystem with the sea

It is easy to think of an island as an isolated ecosystem. Yet this is far from true. Especially on islands we can expect that a lot of the ecosystem is connected to the sea. The island would be in real trouble if this wasn't the case. At the drop of a hat it could crumble. But much of the life and nutrients is wrll connected to the sea. Removal of some trees and other life will at worst just create a temporary shortage. It'll balance out. If some creature or plant suddenly is reduced in numbers, generally thing reliant on them does the same. Each can be composted and reused. A tree falling down and being used as housing can actually help. Many forests get healthier when a big storm throws a lot of trees down. The extra space gives many plants and creatures new opportunities.

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    $\begingroup$ A key part of the combined ecosystem are the nutrients from fish. This is a big part of the reason that the Pacific Northwest is so productive. People and animals eat the fish, and the discards enrich the soil. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Aug 2 at 14:23
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I think you can achieve something without magic provided that:

  • the island is located in a equatorial climate, with frequent rain equally distributed across the year
  • wooden vegetation is made of species which grow quickly and can regrow from root only, provided they are left in the ground
  • non wooden vegetation has also a quick life cycle and is mostly made of edible species. Edible sea plants like kelp would also help.
  • pollination for the plants is mostly anemophile, so that insects are not strictly needed.

With the right combination of plants, I think your island can reach a point where the scorched land caused by the visitors is actually needed to let new vegetation grow, similarly to how in certain regions wild fires are needed to help new growth.

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    $\begingroup$ Pollination vectors are an interesting part of the mosaic, good to flag that $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 9:24
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Tropical island should manage it.

Most trees are actually useless for felling. Things like coconut are useful for the nuts and leaves, not much else. So people will and do harvest the nuts from small islands, but there's no point felling the palms or breadfruit or just about any of the other trees except the hardwoods. They're not even good for firewood, coconuts are (once the flesh is removed), but not the tree trunks.

You're not going to have a valuable rainforest on a 400 hectare island. You'll have mostly palms on the edges and bush and shrubs in the interior. Everything grows fast and will recuperate quickly.

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50 hectares is a lot. If the island was round it would have ~400m radius. Felling a few trees would be fine.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coppicing - a rather old method of forest management.

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    $\begingroup$ Seems my readout for 50 hectares is .2 miles. That assumes shape would be a square, which is not realistic, but still small I reckon $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ 50 hectares is .2 miles^2 regardless of shape. Typically there are hundreds of trees per hectare. 200-400 easily. Coppicing would solve all their problems. Or you could just give them geothermal energy and forget about the trees. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    Aug 2 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ 50 hectares of woodland is about 5000 mature trees. This allows sustainable forestry harvesting about 200 mature trees per year, yielding maybe 400 cubic metres of good timber. At current prices, that would be some 40,000 US dollars worth of wood per year. Fifty hectares is a lot of land. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 2 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That seems a little high. 200 trees per year would allow for only 25 years from planting to maturity. Most tree species need more like 30-60 years to grow to maturity. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Aug 2 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidR: Most species do need more than 25 years. Some species get the job done in 20. Guess which ones get planted in managed plantations? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 2 at 14:49
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You might need some plants that grow fast in a tropical climate that produce sustenance for people and the animals they can hunt. One of those plants can be the papaya tree that will mature in six to nine months and produce delicious fruit. Fungi that grow in the small 'forest' can also be food as well as tomato plants as nutrient-dense food if you have some non-shaded areas. Also, as mentioned by others, you can eat food from the seas. Many forms of seaweed are edible, so some seaweed can grow around the island or wash-up on the shore to be eaten. Primitive fishing methods can be used to catch fish for food too. If there is a large enough beach, some people won't even need to use much wood for shelter - they can create basic sand pit shelters with driftwood, branches, or any general flat material only being used to create basic roofs for these shelters.

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Entada gigas

Entada gigas, also known as "sea heart" is a liana and is notable for having large seedpods (12 cm width for up to 2m long !) that can travel oceans for 2 years before dying ! Say your island is at the crossroads of multiple strong ocean currents and that a lot of seedpods (from Entada gigas or any plant you might invent) wash up on its beaches. That way, even if you burn your entire island (which is very good for the soils by the way), life may still rise again very quickly.

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First, I'd place the island in a sweetwater lake. This has the main advantage that the full area of the island is a fertile ground for all kinds of plants and trees. Another advantage is that there is no shortage of seeds: They can fly with the wind over the lake or travel with the water and reach the island easily.

Felling some trees and even felling all the trees (think of coppice/shrubbery) on the island does not create a severe problem as long as the soil is kept intact and not washed to the lake—always maintain a layer of grass and other plants below the trees.

Second, I expect the people visiting the island to act responsibly: The island may be the private property of a family of farmers that perform a sustainable cultivation of their property.

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