PUERTO MONTT, CHILE — Chile is home to one of the world's last great stands of temperate rain forest, but the mountains of wood chips made from these trees are getting bigger each year.
Already, Chile is the third largest exporter of wood chips in the world after the United States and Australia. Chile's wood chips are destined for Japan and the US for the production of paper products.
Now the sustainability of Chile's forest exploitation is being called into question as never before. The nation is poised to more than double its annual native forest exports with the addition of two giant timber projects proposed by the Trillium Corp., based in Bellingham, Wash., and the Boise Cascade Corp., based in Boise, Idaho.
Trillium's Rio Condor project is set to exploit more than 350,000 acres of ancient forests of lenga (often referred to as Chilean cherry) in Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America. The company received government approval of its environmental impact study in May 1998, and after almost three years of court battles with Chilean environmental groups, only one lawsuit remains to be decided. The company already has some of its timber management plans approved and intends to start logging this month.
"Greenpeace is still suing the government, challenging its approval of our project," says Steve Brinn, vice chairman of Trillium. "I think even they expect to lose, but apparently they feel the Chilean Supreme Court's unanimous rejection last September of a similar case, which raised the same issues, is not enough."
Greenpeace and other environmental groups don't believe Trillium's claims that its project will be environmentally sustainable.
Carlos Weber, a regional director of Chile's forest service (CONAF), says he doubts that forests can grow back on Trillium's property. Mr. Weber says any mistakes made by Trillium in Tierra del Fuego "might be forever, until the next change in global climate patterns."
"While there are places in Tierra del Fuego where lenga grows back like grass, there are other places on the island where it does not grow back at all," says Weber. "No one knows for sure why lenga grows in some places and not in others, it could be because of wind, soil, climate, the sequence required for regeneration of lenga in the far south is still not known."
But Boise Cascade's Cascada Chile project is a "super-Trillium," says Adriana Hoffmann, national coordinator of Defenders of the Chilean Forest, an environmental group.
In late January of this year, the Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA), awarded its approval to Cascade Chile's environmental impact study, prompting lawsuits and protests to stop the project from a broad-based coalition that includes salmon farmers and the nation's tourism industry.
The proposed Cascada Chile project will be located just outside of Puerto Montt, 630 miles south of the nation's capital, Santiago, in the middle of popular ecotourism areas known as the Lake District and northern Patagonia.
The company will buy its timber from 35,000 small and medium-size landowners, affecting some 5 million acres in the region, in order to annually produce and export to the United States more than 600 million sqare feet of oriented strand board (similar to plywood). In addition, it will produce more than 12 million cubic feet of wood chips for export primarily to Asia.
"I know of no other mill in the world that is as large," says Doug Bartels, Boise Cascade's communications manager.
Ms. Hoffmann of Defenders of the Chilean Forest says Cascada Chile's export numbers add up to twice the amount of native forest trees that are currently exported each year from Chile.
She and other environmentalists also point out that Chile's forests are globally rare. Only 0.2 percent of the earth's land area originally contained temperate rain forests, and today half are destroyed. Chile is home to more than one-third of those remaining temperate rain forests.
Chile's rain forests are also rich in bio-diversity, and scientists estimate that 90 percent of the plant and animal species are found only in Chile.
According to a recent study by economist Marcel Claude, ecotourism is three times more valuable to the economy of the forested regions of southern Chile than is timber extraction.
"Nobody in Chile's government wants to acknowledge what is happening to Chile's forests," says Mr.Claude. "Its absurd. The economy would gain more from conserving forests for ecological services like watershed and soil protection, ecotourism, and value-added products such as furniture."