eremias Cardenas trudges down a muddy path
through a forest thick with moss. He pushes aside fern fronds and bamboo shoots that spill across the trail. He crosses wooden bridges over rust-tinted streams. All the while, he talks, pointing out the wildlife in a mix of English and rapid-fire Chilean Spanish. Hear the bird whose call sounds like a stuttering laser pistol? That’s a chucao. See the myrtle with smooth reddish bark? Its leaves can help wounds heal faster. And on and on.
After an hour of sweating and swapping languages, Cardenas finally stops and points. “Here we are.”
Land of Superlatives
Chile’s Valdivian Coastal Range, like Chile itself, is long and narrow: a rugged strip of green mountains running parallel between the snowy wall of the Andes and the southern coast of the Pacific. It’s because of this geography and its inherent protection that the region was spared the ice of the last Ice Age and thus served as a refuge for all sorts of unusual species. The range is filled with superlatives—smallest deer, third-largest woodpecker, oldest marsupial, second-longest-lived tree species. And all these rarities live in the world’s second-largest temperate rainforest.
It used to be even larger. Some experts estimate that there were once more than 50 million acres of the damp, craggy woodlands. But by the 1990s, nearly half of the forest was already gone to logging and development, and much of the rest was on the chopping block or destined to be paved over by a planned coastal highway. Less than 3 percent of the 1 million acres that remained was protected. Still, the World Wildlife Fund identified the area as a conservation priority—some of the most biologically significant terrain on Earth—and encouraged scientists and other groups to take action to protect this rare gem.
When a timber company with large land holdings near the town of Valdivia went bankrupt in 2003 and put the timberland up for public auction, The Nature Conservancy saw its opportunity.
Purchasing land to protect it is a hallmark of the Conservancy. So from the beginning, Conservancy officials aimed to follow this tried-and-true method, buying up nearly 148,000 acres to create a reserve. They even saw this purchase as a possible incentive to encourage the Chilean government to create a new national park adjacent to the reserve. But the organization was struggling with how to make such a purchase palatable to the local people and to the country at large. It had been only about a decade since a wealthy American environmentalist had purchased enormous parcels of land in Chile and Argentina—reportedly more than 2 million acres—to create protected areas. The purchases essentially divided Chile in two and created a huge controversy. Chileans, even those who favored greater land protection in their country, were outraged that a foreigner would come in and buy up so much of their land.
Some of that furor had died down by the time the Conservancy entered the picture, prepared to buy land in the Valdivian Coastal Range.
Early on, the Conservancy realized that raising money for the purchase wasn’t going to be the hardest part of the Valdivian Coast deal. The hardest part was going to be winning over the Chilean government and the local people.
Cardenas is pointing at a wall of gray bark, 10 feet wide and mottled with knobby growths and twisted limbs. Then he points higher—and higher. The alerce tree is South America’s answer to the sequoia; it can grow 165 feet tall and live 3,600 years, making it the second-longest-lived tree species in the world, just behind the Great Basin bristlecone pine.
Nearly half of the Valdivian Coast’s woody plants—including the alerce and the ancient olivillo tree, which can live 300 years—are found nowhere else on Earth. And that’s just the plants. The region’s riverbanks, rocky coasts and dense understory are home to many remarkable animals—puma, river otters, and other rare and unique creatures, from the 18-inch Magellanic woodpecker, one of the world’s largest, to the beagle-sized pudú deer, the world’s smallest.
Cardenas has the sure-footed stride of a timber worker and the strong hands of a fisherman, both jobs he once held. Now he leads hiking tours through this grove of primeval towers, which were spared the chainsaws. In fact, he is the president of an association of eight local hiking guides who operate here, 525 miles south of Santiago. This tourist destination is now part of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve.
After the Conservancy bought the land—13 percent of the remaining coastal forest ecosystem—it created the reserve, which opened to the public in 2005. But that was just the starting point of an ambitious conservation strategy. The plan included discussions with the government about a future national park, talks with universities about creating research opportunities in the reserve, and, perhaps most important, conversations with the local people about how they could continue harvesting the reserve’s natural resources, such as timber and fish, in sustainable ways.
“The community needs to feel that the reserve belongs to them,” says Francisco Solis, the Conservancy’s country representative in Chile, “that the value and the resources of the area are going to their benefit.”
Relations with local communities are always fragile in large conservation projects in Chile, adds Alfredo Almonacid, who serves as the reserve coordinator. “There’s always some suspicion, especially with foreign organizations. You have to be very transparent with information.”
To that end, the Conservancy promised to help provide training and planning advice for community-based projects. And the organization established a $300,000 fund that awards seed money to local entrepreneurs who develop sustainable business plans, many of them tourism related.
On a hillside higher up in the forest, everyone wears an orange hard hat, and it’s difficult to hear anything over the chainsaws. Before the timber company ran out of money, it had been busy cutting down native forests and replacing them with plantations of fast-growing, nonnative eucalyptus, for export to Asia as wood pulp. Now one of the main goals of the Conservancy’s conservation plan is to remove more trees—8,650 acres of eucalyptus—the first step to restoring the native forest.
More than 13 square miles must be cleared, as gently as possible, then replanted with native coihue saplings, which need to be tended until they’re well established. According to the Conservancy’s plan, the restoration project also must be economically self-sustainable—paid for by the sale of the eucalyptus. The project is the first of its kind in Chile, so the Conservancy started small, with a 135-acre pilot project launched in 2011.
Nevertheless, it’s viewed as a big challenge by Jorge Echeverría, who works for Masisa, the forestry company managing the bulk of the project. For one thing, Masisa’s job is to undo the work of the now-defunct forestry company that once employed many local residents. Masisa, a sustainable forestry company that uses industrial harvesting methods, still employs local people in its forestry work, and it contracts with local businesses for food and lodging.
Another project, though just 25 acres, is perhaps an even bigger experiment. Also a logging operation, this one is run by a forestry cooperative consisting of 10 local men who are former fishermen. The Conservancy helped set up the group, and Masisa trained the men to use what are considered traditional harvesting methods: They use chainsaws to cut the trees into boards and oxen to move the lumber.
The projects will be monitored by the Conservancy and the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia to determine the best methods for harvesting and restoring the land.
Regardless of the approach, “one of most important things is to show that forestry can be economically sustainable and friendly to the environment,” Echeverría says. “Here we’re creating the future of forestry in Chile.”
Local cooperatives like these demonstrate why the Valdivian Coastal Reserve is a “showcase for many things that people have been discussing in theory, in the abstract,” says the Conservancy’s Solis. “Those things are being tested on the ground in Valdivia, in a real-time environment.”
Beyond a Park
Many other real-time tests are being carried out in the reserve. Francisco Fontúrbel, an evolutionary ecologist with the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, has been studying the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides). The little mountain monkey, which is not a monkey at all, is the world’s oldest marsupial—considered a living fossil. Other scientists are studying the endangered southern river otter and the pudú deer. Dogs have wreaked havoc on both species by attacking them and spreading diseases. Conservancy scientists recently rehabilitated more than half a dozen pudú, fitted them with radio transmitters and released them back into the reserve. In addition, last year the researchers released into the wild the first pudú born in captivity.
Researchers here are looking at more than just species. They are close to implementing Chile’s first forest carbon project in the reserve, and carbon credits worth more than $4 million may be available as early as next year. A conservation plan for a 136,000-acre marine reserve along the coast—managed by local fishermen—is finished, and in June 2011, one of three cooperative fishing reserves along the reserve’s coast became the first no-take area in Chile.
“It’s a mixed model of conservation,” says Layla Osman, the Conservancy’s marine specialist in the Southern Andes. “We hope to export [it] to the rest of the South Pacific.”
Already exported is a model for creating a new national park in the region. During the Conservancy’s negotiations for purchasing the former timberland, the Chilean government agreed to consider creating a national park next door to the new reserve. To make that idea more attractive, the Conservancy pledged to transfer more than 23,000 acres of the reserve to Chile’s forestry and parks agency. And this year, the Conservancy made good on its promise, transferring the property rights after the Chilean government set aside 38,000 acres of protected land. This past February, Alerce Costero National Park was born, the first national park in the region.
“It’s an amazing thing,” says Solis, “that in the 21st century, when large and pristine natural areas are vanishing, we are still able to create a new park in the world.”
In a sense, says reserve coordinator Almonacid, the Valdivian Coastal Reserve is a big experiment, one that stands to equally benefit the environment and those who depend on it. Until now, no project has combined science-based conservation, strong community involvement and at least partial economic self-sufficiency like this in Chile. If it works, it could serve as a model for other countries.
“We’re working to show that protected areas help in the development and well-being of local communities,” says Solis. “This is not just about creating a new park.”