Local tropical forest restoration strategies affect tree recruitment more strongly than does landscape forest cover.
Developing restoration strategies that accelerate natural successional processes and are resource-efficient is critical to facilitating tropical forest recovery across millions of hectares of deforested lands in the tropics. We compared tree recruitment after a decade in three restoration treatments (natural regeneration, applied nucleation/island tree planting and plantation) and nearby reference forest in the premontane rain forest zone in southern Costa Rica. The study was replicated at 13 sites with a range of surrounding forest cover, enabling us to evaluate the relative influence of local restoration treatments and landscape forest cover on tree recruitment. Density of small-seeded (<5 mm), animal-dispersed recruits was lower in natural regeneration than in applied nucleation, plantation or reference forest plots. Species richness, species density and density of medium (5-10 mm)- and large (>10 mm)-seeded, animal-dispersed recruits were greatest in reference forest, intermediate in applied nucleation and plantation and lowest in natural regeneration plots. Recruit composition differed substantially between reference forest and all restoration treatments. In general, plantation recruit composition was more similar to reference forests and natural regeneration least similar; however, there was high within-treatment variation. Models suggested weak support for the effect of surrounding forest cover on tropical tree recruit density and composition, as compared to restoration treatment and site conditions (e.g. elevation), in this intermediate forest cover landscape. Synthesis and applications. Applied nucleation appears to be a cost-effective strategy as compared to plantation-style planting to accelerate tropical forest recovery regardless of the amount of forest cover immediately adjacent to the site. However, even with active restoration interventions, forest recovery is a multidecade process that proceeds at highly variable rates.