Chilean conservationists are struggling to conserve about 700,000 acres of forests, mountains and peat bogs that were once owned by Trillium Corp. of Bellingham.
Trillium's founder, David Syre, had envisioned the vast area of the remote island of Tierra del Fuego as a new model for sustainable forestry. But Trillium lost its Chilean holdings after environmental opposition and financial setbacks caused default on loans secured by the property. In 2004, Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs acquired title to the land and then donated it to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Today, the Wildlife Conservation Society is developing a management plan for the area - named Karukinka Natural Park - to encourage tourism while restoring environmental damage.
Barbara Saavedra, based in Santiago, Chile, heads that effort. She was in Bellingham Monday, June 18, to talk about Karukinka and her hopes for it. Saavedra said she and other Chilean environmentalists still have close ties with Bellingham because of the local environmental community's efforts to head off Trillium's logging plans for the area.
"We want to turn this land into a 21st century model for conservation," Saavedra said. "The lands we are conserving have global importance."
But as human logging plans for the area recede into history, Chilean conservationists are dealing with another kind of logger: beavers.
Twenty-five pairs of the energetic rodents were introduced into Tierra del Fuego by the Chilean Navy in 1946, in hope of starting a fur trade, Saavedra said. They went to work cutting down trees and reproducing.
"They found a paradise down there," Saavedra said. "No predators, no competitors, plenty of water and food."
In North America, the trees and the rest of the ecosystem are adapted to coexistence with beavers. Not so on Tierra del Fuego.
"They destroy the riparian forests and other ecosystems, and the forests never grow back," Saavedra said, estimating that 25 percent of forests on the island have been damaged by beavers.
The fur trade never materialized either. Saavedra said the climate on the island is relatively temperate, and the beavers who live there do not develop the heavy, valuable pelts that made them a mainstay of the North American and northern European fur trade in the 19th Century.
The fur trade exterminated beavers over vast areas of the Northern Hemisphere during that time. Today, no such economic incentive exists, but Saavedra is confident that a vigorous trapping program can get the beaver population under control or even eradicate it eventually. The governments of Chile and Argentina, which controls the eastern portion of the island, are cooperating in that effort.
A big part of Saavedra's job is convincing the Chilean government and the Chilean public that the preservation of Karukina has economic value. Part of that value involves maintaining healthy fisheries by protecting shorelines and forests. Another key economic value is tourism.
Saavedra said her group won a major victory recently in convincing provincial authorities not to open the Tierra del Fuego coastline to salmon farming, which is a major industry in Chile.
"The government of Tierra del Fuego understood that if they wanted to develop the tourism industry, that wasn't compatible with salmon farming," Saavedra said.
Karukinka is a remote spot, even for residents of Tierra del Fuego. Saavedra said her organization recently took 50 high school students from the northwestern Tierra del Fuego city of Porvenir to the southern forested portion of their home island, and only five had ever seen that forest before.
But Karukinka is not cut off from the world. Ferries from Punta Arenas, Chile, cross to Porvenir, and there is a road from the ferry dock at Porvenir to Karukinka. Some campgrounds, cabins and tourist lodges are available.
Punta Arenas is one of Bellingham's sister cities. Saavedra said she hopes the links between Bellingham, Punta Arenas and Karukinka can be energized in the months ahead, and that local residents can visit the area and get involved in efforts to preserve it.
"We are going to need a lot of help from the world," Saavedra said. "It should become one global challenge."
Bellingham-based Trillium Corp. still owns Tierra del Fuego forest lands on the Argentinian side of the border, and Trillium founder David Syre has expressed recent interest in an effort to create a trail from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the island.
But Syre may lose his Argentinian holdings in the debt reorganization plan he is now pursuing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In court documents, Syre has proposed selling his Argentinian holdings as a way of satisfying his creditors.
Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Politics Blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.
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