Antonio Lara, a Chilean forest ecologist, reached into the back of his pickup track and pulled out an orange STIHL chainsaw. He stepped onto a grassy field littered with enormous stumps and walked toward one of the last surviving patches of alerce trees in Chile's central valley.
The green-tufted alerces to which Lara headed rose straight above the surrounding canopy. Lara stopped at a massive stump, four feet high and eight feet across, before reaching the forest. The stump was gray and weathered, presumably rotten inside. But Lara's four quick chainsaw cuts revealed a gleaming red wood just beneath the exterior. Dead for fifty years, the wood reside made it look as if the stump were still alive.
This enduring alerce wood provokes conflicts that the Chilean government at times has struggled to mediate. Conservationists see a giant alerce tree, whose life span can surpass three thousand years, as an untouchable legacy. Loggers and builders see alerce wood as an invaluable resource capable of both maintaining local economies and withstanding wet conditions. A growing group of scientists, including Lara, see the alerce as a one-of a-kind testament to the climate history over the last several millennia.
These long-simmering tensions erupted last May into a national scandal involving illicit logging of alerce forests. A broadening investigation is probing claims that public officials and politically connected landowners exerted influence on the government in its management of the alerce tree. Though little evidence has been released to the public, the scope and seriousness of the investigation have alerted many Chileans to a situation that advocacy groups have complained about for years. Despite a nearly thirty-year-old decree meant to conserve the alerce trees, alerces are still being cut, sometimes in large quantities, and often with explicit government permission.
Alerce, whose scientific name is Fitzroya cupressoides, is the only species in its genus, meaning it is genetically one-of-a kind. It is also distinctly Chilean. The conifer's historic range is limited to isolated areas of temperate rain forest in a rectangle almost entirely within Chile, roughly 215 miles long and 125 miles wide. (In a few areas alerce coverage extends across Chile's western border with Argentina.) The approximate center of the rectangle is Puerto Montt, capital of Chile's Tenth Region, seven hundred miles south of the country's capital, Santiago. This region, which forms the northern border of Patagonia, is more commonly known as the Lakes Region, named for a series of glacial lakes formed some eleven thousand years ago.
The Spanish who colonized the region in the mid-sixteenth century needed neither genetics nor geology to understand how exceptional the alerce was. They used the conifer's soft reddish wood to build roofs, which staved off the more than ninety inches of yearly rain that falls on some parts of the area, double that of Seattle, Washington. The alerce wood was so fundamental to these colonizers it was adopted as currency.
Today, alerces are government-declared "national monuments" in Chile. It only took me a few moments in an alerzal milenario, the local term for an old-growth stand where the ages of trees reach into the thousands, to see why. I arrived at the premier alerzal in Alerce Andino National Park, twenty-five miles southeast of Puerto Montt, after a day and a half of scaling steep, muddy patios. Here, alerces, nearly two hundred feet tall, towered into the sky. Hummingbirds fed on copihues, a red flower hanging from the alerces' reddish-gray trunks. The biggest trunks were almost as wide as two-car garages. It was sunny when I left Puerto Montt, but now everything was wet. Drops of water covered large ferns on the forest floor, and the barks of the alerces were moist and soft to the touch.
In 1993, Lara counted 3,622 yearly growth rings on a circular cross-section chainsawed off a stump left by the cutting of an alerce tree in 1975. …