Local Author Discusses the Need to Protect Chile’s Forests

by Al Hanners

To celebrate 26 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. The below excerpts are from the April 1997 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: The Whatcom County based Trillium Corporation purchased land in Tierra del Fuego, Chile to log the lenga tree — a type of beech tree found only in that part of the world. Environmental groups opposed the project and it eventually failed. Goldman Sachs stepped in, buying up 680,000 acres of Trillium’s assets. The Wildlife Conservation Society and Goldman Sachs have partnered to protect the land in perpetuity.

Book Review

Chile’s Native Forests
A Conservation Legacy
by Ken Wilcox
NW Wild Books
in Association with North Atlantic Books, 1996
148 pp., paper $16.95
ISBN I-55643-234-8
ISBN 0-9617879-2-9

Reviewed by Al Hanners

The most threatened forests in the world are temperate forests, a surprising finding of a recent study conducted by the World Resources Institute according to Nigel Sizer of that organization. Chile has nearly one-fourth of the temperate rain forests on this planet, and of the eight countries in the world with forests least threatened, Chile is not one of them.

That is not news to Ken Wilcox who wrote a manuscript on the world’s temperate forests. He is engrossed by them and considers them neglected by the media. However, unlike the World Resources Institute, Wilcox has been in the vanguard. He could not find enough interest to get that book published, though he did get enough support for a book on only the Chilean forests. The result was “Chile’s Native Forests” by Wilcox.

During a recent visit by the Chilean President to the United States, President Clinton hailed Chile as South America’s most extraordinary economic success story. Importantly, the Chileans did it by accelerating depletion of their natural resource assets, timber and copper. Ironically, a tree standing in a forest is of no value in conventional calculations of the gross national product. It must be cut down. Is the gross national product applied to natural resource depletion but a temporary feel-good phenomenon while a country actually becomes poorer?

Government subsidies expedite rapid destruction of central Chilean native forests and conversion to plantations of alien pines, most of which are shipped abroad as wood chips to feed foreign pulp mills. Wilcox thinks the central native forests are the most threatened, more so than the southern hardwood forests where Trillium has vast holdings. Wilcox is very knowledgeable concerning Trillium’s operations in Chile, but if you want information on them, his book on Chile’s forests is not the place to look.

Naturally, there is a great deal of conflict in Chile. On one side are environmentalists concerned about the long-term effects of the loss of their forests. On the other side are businessmen celebrating the booming economic activities of the moment. As Ken Wilcox walks readers through these beautiful forests, lays out the political and economic activities dealing with them, and much more, our botanists and environmentalists will feel instant kinship with their counterparts in Chile.

Forests are more than trees. Here in the United states, many of us are very worried not only by the loss of our trees, but especially by the loss of plant and animal species dependent on them. We are caught in a dilemma: Should we stick with the Endangered Species Act that is badly flawed because it focuses on individual species, not the habitat that they need; or should we tinker with the Act to protect ecosystems at the risk of losing everything?

In contrast, the Chilean Government already has taken a long step toward saving important ecosystems by the 1984 act creating the “National System of Protective Wildlands.” The objectives are these:

To maintain wildlands noteworthy for their uniqueness or representation for the country’s natural ecological diversity.

To secure the continuity of the evolutionary processes, animal migrations, patterns of genetic flow.

To maintain and improve wild flora and fauna resources and to rationalize their utilization.

In May 1991, 18 percent of the entire nation was included in that system. Only 15 percent of all protected areas are in the central and northern part of the country, but still it is a remarkable commitment.

In the United States, there is unrelenting pressure to reduce environmental protection. Nothing is sacred. A salvage timber law is gutting our forests and the inhabitants, and potential oil well drilling is threatening our arctic wildlife area. In Whatcom County, there even is a serious proposal by a county Councilman to log the county parks, and the head of those parks has acquiesced. As Chilean forests, too, become gravely depleted, it remains to be seen how successful their environmentalists will be in resisting the pressures that are sure to come.

Al Hanners was a retired geologist in 1996. He contributed over 100 articles, letters and book reviews between Oct. 1992 and Oct./Nov 2010.


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