Prime property: Islander founds reserve to protect pristine slice of Belizean rainforest

The place is, in real estate terms, full of features.

Containing more than 6,000 acres of untouched savanna and dense rainforest, harboring more than 130 species of animals, 315 species of birds, four species of large cats, plus innumerable plants and insects (so many insects!), two rivers and about 50 caves chockablock full of artifacts — ancient paintings, pottery, tools, skeletons — Runaway Creek is truly a prime piece of property.

But sorry, folks, it’s not for sale.

That’s because Runaway Creek is a rainforest reserve located in the limestone karst hills of Belize, owned and managed by Bainbridge Islander Cindy Law, president of the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation.

The historic property once offered shelter to runaway slaves, was also used by Mayans to conduct important rites and rituals, and is now a successful research destination and essential piece of protected property within the Maya Forest Corridor, a crucial swath of habitat that allows native species to migrate.

Before becoming Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, the land was slated to become a gravel mine. However, the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, under the direction of Dr. Gil Boese, purchased Runaway Creek in 1999. Then, when Boese’s retirement and a shakeup in zoo management put the property at risk, Law, along with her late husband Larry, began negotiating for the purchase of Runaway Creek, having met Boese and his wife Lillian in 2004 and traveled with them numerous times to Africa and Belize and fallen in love with the land.

Though both Larry and Gil have passed away, recently the local government issued an official announcement saying the Maya Forest Corridor will be protected from mining and development.

And in light of that revelation, Law, who regularly takes small groups on tours of the property, took some time to chat with the Review, a kind of vicarious safari, about the importance of the land, the history of the reserve, and the work currently being done there.

Visit to learn more about Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, tour opportunities, and the ongoing efforts to protect the Maya Forest Corridor.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

BIR: What can you tell me about the very beginning of this? I understand you and your husband planned it together.

CL: I wanted to be Jane Goodall and Margaret Mead when I was growing up. I took National Geographic to bed with me, read by flashlight. On my first trip to Africa in 1972, I saw elephants in the wild, knowing they were endangered, and a light turned on. I always felt that I was supposed to be doing something, but life, work and raising children intervened. I just didn’t realize that I would be 70 before I found out what that something might be.

We met Dr. Gil Boese who was the director of the Milwaukee County Zoo, just happened to meet him in the interior of Belize, where we’d gone just on an independent trip, and started talking with him and found out that he and his wife took small groups to Africa. My husband and Gil stayed in correspondence and we ended up traveling to Africa [together].

He, as director of the zoo, had purchased this land in Belize that was in danger of being turned into a gravel pit. We ended up traveling with Gil a number of times, both in Africa and in Belize, became very, very close friends, and when the management of the Milwaukee Zoo changed and Gil was retired, the zoo didn’t want to own property in the country anymore. That’s when Gil was out

looking for a conservation-minded buyer and we watched several sales fall through.

Finally, one night I remember Larry and I were sitting in the living room and looked at each other and said, ‘This is crazy, but do you think there’s anyway we could help out with this?’

That started many years of negotiations. We formed a foundation in Washington and negotiated for forever to buy the property in Belize.

BIR: I’ve heard it can be rather complicated to buy land in a foreign country.

CL: Yes it is. Belize was British Honduras, so English is the national language and there’s a British banking system and business operations, but though it looks efficient, it’s unbelievable how long it takes to do anything.

BIR: As this was truly coming together at last, your husband passed away. Were you then more determined to press on and see this thing through? Did it become more important to you?

CL: I just knew that I had to move forward. It was important to both of us. I had to learn how to close a land purchase in another country, how to run a nonprofit, gain respect from a staff of all males, and establish some kind of credibility in the conservation world. I felt Larry on my shoulder one morning when I was feeling completely overwhelmed. He said to me, ‘Trust your instincts, make a decision, there aren’t many mistakes you can make that can’t be fixed.’

Believe me, I have made some mistakes but I have also had many successes. There is so much still to be learned and exciting experiences to be had.

This all started way back in my life. I was fascinated by ancient history and the Mayans and Larry and I went to Central America on our honeymoon and visited several Mayan sites. Then, later, I became a travel agent coming out of college, because I wanted to see the world, and I ended up going around the world by myself. That was the first time I went to Africa and was my first introduction to conservation.

So this had been an interest of mine, but then Larry began to share it over the years. Belize was of interest to me because of the Mayan connection and the wildlife, which is amazing.

When Larry died I didn’t even hesitate. This is something we both wanted to do and it needed to be done. It’s too important a piece of property to leave it in jeopardy.

BIR: I understand that just recently the government of Belize issued an official statement saying the Maya Forest Corridor, of which Runaway Creek is a part, will be protected from mining and development indefinitely.

CL: It’s the first step in protecting it. [The Maya Forest Corridor] is a coalition of private and public landowners. It’s not a sealed deal yet, but it’s a giant step forward in publicly recognizing that this property will be protected.

That’s the drive here, keeping corridors open in protected areas so that species can travel back and forth for mating and for food and for habitat.

BIR: I love the idea that there are both ecological and historical benefits to saving this specific piece of land.

CL: The uniqueness is the caves. We have over 50 caves and we haven’t even been in all of them. We’ve found Mayan artifacts, paintings, pottery, tools, skeletons in some — and it’s all just pristine, there is not a structure on the property. We work hard to protect it, and it’s opened up for researchers and scientists to come in with our staff accompanying them. We’ve spawned a number of PhDs off the property, including our staff.

And I take small groups down, too. Because, obviously, you’ve got to fund this thing. That’s a big drive.

BIR: Do you ever struggle with the potential similarities between your situation and imperialism, being an American and owning this property overseas and being able to dictate what is done — or in this case not done — with it?

CL: I don’t because Gil was so respectful of that. His philosophy was that the only way to conserve land is to have the local people involved. Runaway Creek has trained well over 20 Belizeans and our staff is made up of three Belizeans … and we’re now using their knowledge to go out and educate the [local] kids about the resources they have in their own country. So I feel more like a facilitator. And my goal is that if this land can be put into the hands of Belizeans, that would be my dream.

BIR: That’s your ideal outcome?

CL: Absolutely, whatever it takes to put it into the hands of Belizeans and have it operated by Belizeans and protected by Belizeans, which is what we’re really doing right now. I have a manager down there. As I’ve said, I feel like a facilitator, and hopefully somewhat of an inspiration, because I stepped into this without any experience, particularly in the scientific realm, but I’ve learned fast and we’re working well together and moving forward.

BIR: Looking back from where you are now, and in light of this recent announcement by the local government, do you feel proud?

CL: I do feel proud. It’s quite exciting, I’m learning a lot. I do stay awake at night trying to figure out how I’m going to keep this going. When I get people down there, usually we get support because they’re so amazed by the opportunity to go on a privately owned piece of property. We’re not like any other tours because we don’t take large groups at all. I take maybe 10 or 12 maximum at a time to visit the property and they got interact with our staff, the naturalists and scientists.