Thursday, February 28, 2008

Patagonia on Fire

On the outskirts of Argentina's Los Alerces National Park, west of the city of Esquel and near the border with Chile, an arson-set fire is threatening stands of the endemic alerce, the "Redwood of the South." Also known as the false larch, the alerce occurs in a narrow geographical range in the southern Andes, along both sides of the border, though a handful of isolated stands also occur near the Chilean coast. For centuries, it was a valuable timber species for its beautiful grain and resistance to rot; it's now protected in both countries, though there are legal loopholes that timbercutters have exploited, and also cases of clandestine cutting. Its presence on the Chilean side was one of the major reasons for the private conservation initiative at Parque Pumalín, but the potential loss of any alerce forests is cause for concern.

UPDATE: As of Friday, February 29, an unexpected heavy rain--the first since November--was helping firefighters control the blaze. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, only about 100 hectares of the 263,000-hectare park had burned, so it looks as if the worst case scenario has been avoided.

Patrick Symmes, author of Chasing Che, has a fishing cabin near the town of Trevelin, on the southern edge of the park. He writes me that "Helicopters and airplanes were coming in and out of Trevelin's little grass airfield all the time."

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