Managing the Forests of Remote and Pristine Tierra del Fuego A US Lumber Company Has Proposed a Controversial 'Environmentally Correct' Plan to Harvest Ancient Lenga Trees

Article excerpt

In an ancient grove at the bottom of the world, an American lumber company and a group of Chilean scientists are attempting a risky experiment: to see whether "sustainable development" will work in one of the few relatively unaltered ecosytems left in the world. The Trillium Corporation, a forestry and real estate firm based in Washington State, wants to harvest a pristine 10,000-year-old temperate rain forest in remote Tierra del Fuego, a wind-swept island only 800 miles from Antarctica. Chileans, meanwhile, are hotly debating the future of their country's fast-disappearing forests. In the past decade, scores of paper-pulp and lumber companies from the United States, Japan, and Europe have descended on southern Chile, clear-cutting thousands of acres of native old-growth trees they can no longer cut down at home and replacing them with imported species such as pine and eucalyptus. Amid this debate, Trillium has hired a commission of 100 of Chile's leading scientists to produce a $9-million environmental-impact plan that would permit the harvest of 350,000 acres of lenga forests with limited damage to the ecosystem. Commission members hope this rare project - Latin America's first major collaboration between scientists and business executives - will become a model for responsible corporate behavior on how the region manages its last native forests. Commission member Claudio Donoso, Chile's best-known forest ecologist, explains why some of the planet's most unique trees have to be cut. "The best solution to avoid their destruction is proper management," Mr. Donoso says. "And if we don't work with these people, there won't be any {trees} left." Experts say that southern Chile and the US Pacific Northwest are the only two temperate rain forests with large tracts of relatively unaltered ecosystems remaining in the world. With its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and deep bays, Tierra del Fuego is an ecological trove of 140 species of lichen, 65 species of fish, 30 types of insects, and 171 species of birds, as well as such exotic wildlife as the endangered red fox, flightless rhea, condor, and albatross. Trillium's interest, however, is in the island's potential cash cow: a reddish-brown hardwood from the lenga tree, (Nothofagus Pumilio) a type of beech. The company plans to spend $200 million to export finished wood, furniture, doorjambs, and window sills to the US, Europe, and Asia. To be sure, Trillium expects to profit by an international trend to buy "politically correct" wood. Company executives say that each product will carry a green seal of approval to show they were harvested in an ecological manner. Chilean government officials are well aware of the extent of forest destruction in recent years, as well as the fact that that lumber and paper industries have played a major role in Chile's economic miracle. These firms now represent the nation's second-largest export, after copper, earning more than $1.6 billion in 1994. In just the first four months of 1995, Chilean forestry exports rose about 60 percent, to $521 million, compared with the same period last year. Trillium executives, on the other hand, have pledged to refrain from clear-cutting or replacing the lenga with imported trees. They pledge to implement a permanent monitoring system and halt the venture if the lenga stops regenerating. Instead of clear-cutting, Trillium workers will shelter cut, whereby 30 percent of the forest is maintained in age, type, and distribution to allow the lenga to naturally reseed the ground. Commission research shows that the tree grows faster when selective cutting allows more sun into the groves. "I know it can work," says Mary Kalin Arroyo, a botany professor at the University of Chile in Santiago and coordinator of the Trillium science commission. "After all, we don't want to go down in history as the destroyers of these forests. There are a lot of careers on the line. …


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