'The great grandfather' of larches remains safe

The Chilean government has canceled construction of a highway through the Alerce Costero National Park, a reserve of ancient larch trees that is home to some of the oldest living trees in the world. The initiative of scientists and people has protected the rainy ecosystem with species of flora and fauna unique in the world.

About 15 kilometers from Alerce Grandfather, which may be the oldest living tree in the world, the road threatens to cut through the forest of Alerce Costero National Park. A few days ago, the Chilean government canceled a project of the Ministry of Public Works started in 2008 in response to a strong mobilization of scientists and environmentalists.

The highway would connect the towns of Corral and La Unión, in the south of the country, and in one of its sections it was planned to recreate the old T-720 logging route, which had no longer been used since the 80s. The initiative threatened more than 4.000 larches (Fitzroya cupressoides), a tree native to Chile that grows very slowly.

In a letter to Science, several scientists warned that the road would increase the risk of fires, illegal logging and habitat fragmentation in the park, home to endangered species such as larches, chilote foxes (Lycalopex fulvipes) and remnants of the temperate rain forest. Furthermore, according to the authors, the project would violate the Biodiversity Treaty signed by Chile at COP15.

Some 5.000 signatures were collected after a public statement of scientists and citizens against the construction of the highway sent to the President of the Republic, Gabriel Boric.

The project is very controversial

The real consequences for the park were never clear. The first version of the 2019 Ministry of Public Works (OIT) Environmental Impact Study estimates that Part 2 of the project, which covers a 9 km long protected area, will have a direct impact on 178 larch trees and an indirect impact on 1.212. And he admitted to having cut down 102 pine trees between 1,5 and 9 meters high.

After several project reviews in 2022, the MOP updated the number of affected trees to 796 directly and 3.512 indirectly. The report said that no more trees would be felled and that the 796 trees would be replanted.

A citizen movement to protect coastal larch trees has questioned the effectiveness of the removal and the true purpose of the road, which is due to the logging industry's interest in accessing Puerto Corral.

Although the clear objective of the project is tourism, the document estimates that in 2030 the T-720 line will transport an average of 7 heavy vehicles per hour, including trucks with more than two axles and buses.

In 2014, deputy Enrique Jaramillo celebrated the completion of the first phase of the project and highlighted the role of the road in the future biological corridor: ““Argentines are the main interested parties in the transportation of goods through Corral,” he ordered.

Last July -nine years later- the Minister of Agriculture, Porken Valenzuela, in a statement ruled out intense traffic through the Alerce Costero National Park.

Scientists propose an alternative route

To achieve the desired improvement in communication between Corral and La Unión, Alerce Group scientists Rocío Urrutia and Alejandro Miranda proposed an alternative route. Their proposal, which involves improvements to other existing routes, would increase the distance from the national park route by just 7 kilometres.

Last week, a representative of the president of the Los Ríos Region, Carla Peña, informed the mayors of Corral and La Unión that routes T-60 and T-400 will be promoted as an alternative to the closed expressway.
These are the suggestions of scientists

The popular movement for the protection of coastal larch asked that the mobilizations not be canceled until the alternative road project is fully developed.

Red: route of the road cancelled. Green: road proposed by scientists and that will be reconditioned / Alejandro Muñoz

The importance of protecting larch trees

The conifer Fitzroya cupressoides, native to Chile and Argentina, is one of the longest-lived species in the world. Its growth is extremely slow, which allows it to live a long time. While a pine takes 20 years to mature and reach a height of 20 meters, a larch takes between 300 and 400 years to reach the same height.

In addition, they play an important ecological function. “They grow in nutrient-poor soils and provide the first tree cover for the growth of other species.”explains Tomás Catalán, CONAF ranger.

Some studies show that the cold tropical forests of southern Chile can store more than three times more carbon per hectare than the Amazon, especially in the soil. And storing carbon dioxide requires trees to last as long as possible. “Larch can sequester carbon molecules for an average of 1.500 years”explains Professor Jonathan Baricivic, researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France and expert in larch forests.

Finally, larch trees themselves function as mini ecosystems, since their canopies contain habitats that host biodiversity and help retain water in the forest, store nutrients outside, and regulate microflora.

However, overexploitation of valuable wood and slow growth have brought this "evergreen" tree to the brink of extinction. Today less than half of the larch forests that existed in 1850 remain.

"Despite their heritage, economic and scientific importance, and available legal protections, larch trees remain critically endangered.”, mentions the Ministry of the Environment on its website.

Is Larch as old as the pyramids of Egypt?

When forest ranger Marcelo Delgado first came to see the oldest tree in the forest, he did not dare approach it. Then he was still a child, and his grandfather Aníbal Enríquez, the park's first ranger, discovered a very old larch tree on the edge of a ravine, deep in the forest.

The boy felt that “there was someone down there” and this fear prevented him from visiting the tree. And he had his reasons. In the imagination of the Mapuche, the indigenous culture of this Chilean region, certain elements of nature are considered “ngen”, guardian spirits, and are honored with gratitude and respect.

Now, after twenty years as a CONAF park ranger, Marcelo remembers his first failed encounter with Lañilawal (ravine larch, in Mapuche), as the family of his Enríquez-Vivanco guardians call him. However, history reveals a cultural tradition that has a different relationship with nature.

In 1993, Professor Antonio Lara's research identified a 3.600-year-old larch in the Andes. This turns the Fitzroya cupressoides in the second longest living species in the world, after Pinus longaeva.

Last year, a paper published in the journal Science about ongoing analysis suggested that Lañilawal may be more than 5.000 years old, surpassing the age of the Methuselah pine, the oldest living tree ever identified. Behind this latest discovery is the scientist Jonathan Baricovich, also nephew of Aníbal Enríquez.

Barichivich collected a sample of 40% of the tree trunk, the age of the rings is 2.400 years. Taking into account the impossibility of reaching the center of a 4 m diameter tree, the numerical model calculated that the tree would be more than 5.000 years old. The scientist is currently investigating other additional dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating, with the aim of publishing the results.

“Age is probably the least important thing. It is important to protect these unique creatures. Especially when they mean so much to so many people,” Baricivic explained.

The impact of tourism on pine trees even when there are no roads

Although the highway project was cancelled, isolated larch trees in Coastal Alerce National Park are still affected by tourism. Lañilawal's reputation grew and trees were damaged, forcing CONAF to close the park for several months.

Currently, Lañilawal can only be visited accompanied by a park ranger. Tourism also affects trees. "There used to be a thick layer of moss on its trunk.”explains Delgado.

Tourists view the tree from a platform three meters high. According to the Alerce Group, of which Baricovich is a part, the project has a negative impact: “It covers its last living roots and reduces the rain that hydrates the tree by 50%. Must move 25 meters"warned the researcher. To further ensure that tourists do not touch or hug the tree, they suggest installing a low net as a curtain.

The road closure is a success for the Alerce Costero National Park. However, there is still the problem of protecting endangered larch species. ““All trees must be protected, not just those that are 5.000 years old”said Marcelo Delgado.


With information of: https://www.agenciasinc.es/