Common Name: Alerce
Scientific Name: Fitzroya cupressoides
Categories: Endangered, Timber
Natural Monument of Chile
Alerce is an endemic evergreen conifer that may reach 5 m in diameter and 50 m in height. This species can live longer than 3,600 years, making it the second longest-lived tree after Pinus longaeva.
Why is this species important?
Fitzroya forests have a unique composition and structure and a high ecological value. In the past, the timber has been heavily exploited and was of great commercial use, but the economic importance of Fitzroya forests today is mainly linked to the potential for eco-tourism. F. cupressoides has extensive cultural and historical value, with generations of people linked to the exploitation and trade of the tree. The amazing age attained by specimens of F. cupressoides – the oldest known individual is 3,622 years old – gives an invaluable insight into the historical climatic conditions of southern South America.
Where is it found?
F. cupressoides grows in the temperate rainforest of southern Chile and adjacent parts of Argentina. Specifically, it occurs in Chile in the Coastal Range (39° 50’S - 43° 30’S), Central Depression (41° 20’S – 41° 50’S) and Andes (40° 30’S – 43° 30’S). In the Chilean Andes F. cupressoides is strongly associated with large-scale natural disturbance of various types such as lava flows, volcanic ash deposition and landslides. In the Chilean Coastal Range, the forests have originated on areas historically affected by fire.
How do people use it?
Since the sixteenth century Fitzroya cupressoides wood has been highly valued for its beauty and durability. As a result, it has been extensively used as facing material (boards or shingles) on buildings in southern Chile. Owing to its fine, homogeneous texture, the reddish brown wood is used to make barrels, furniture, musical instruments, pencils, and handicrafts.
Why is it threatened?
Owing to the high value of the timber, F. cupressoides forests have been extensively destroyed and degraded over time. Repeated human-set fires and heavy grazing have also contributed to the species’ decline. Although it was placed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975, forbidding all international trade, and was declared a national monument in Chile in 1976, outlawing the cutting of live trees, enforcement of these laws has been problematic, and illegal harvesting is still an important threat in many areas in Chile. In Argentina it has been protected since 1945, and logging is almost non-existent.In Chile, 47,400 ha (17%) of a total of 264,993 ha of Fitzroya forests are protected within National Parks and National Reserves. The remaining 83% of Fitzroya forests are largely within private properties.
What conservation action is needed?
To stop the current decline in the species the development of alternative uses for F. cupressoides forests, such as the utilisation of non-timber forest products and eco-tourism, is necessary. Ecological restoration and the creation of new protected areas are also urgently needed. In the Chilean Coastal Range between 40º S and 43º S, the expansion of protected areas of Fitzroya is an agreed national priority. In particular, the Fitzroya forests with very old, giant trees growing on fragile sites around the Reloncaví Estuary in the Chilean Andes should be declared a Protected Area. Small patches of young Fitzroya populations in the Central Depression of Chile are an extreme case of habitat fragmentation and are highly threatened by urban and suburban expansion.It is also very important to increase the resources of the Chilean Forest Service and to improve the judicial procedure, in order to increase enforcement of the existing legal protection for the tree. The Global Trees Campaign is developing initiatives to restore and conserve the remnant forests in the Central Depression and Coastal Range of southern Chile, including the propagation of F. cupressoides plants. The campaign has also started to support research on the amount of F. cupressoides wood that comes from illegal cuttings or from areas that were burnt before 1976. This information will be essential to provide new tools for improving the legal status of Fitzroya cupressoides.
The Global Trees Campaign is developing initiatives to conserve this species - please see the project pages.
Corporacion Nacional Forestal, Comision Nacional de Medio Ambiente, Universidad Austral de Chile, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidad Catolica de Temuco. (1999).
Catastro y Evaluacion de los Recursos Vegetacionales Nativos de Chile. Informe final. CONAF-CONAMA, Santiago, Chile. 88pp.
Cortés, M. (1990). Estructura y dinámica de los bosques de alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides (Mol) Johnston) en la Cordillera de la Costa de la Provincia de Valdivia. Tesis Ing. Forestal, Facultad de Ciencias Forestales, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia.
Donoso, C. (1981). Tipos forestales de los bosques nativos de Chile. Investigacion y desarrollo forestal. Documento de trabajo N 38. CONAF/FAO, Santiago, Chile. 82pp.
Donoso, C., Sandoval, V. and Grez, R. (1990). Silvicultura de los bosques de Fitzroya cupressoides. ¿Ficción o realidad?. Bosque 11 (1): 57-67.
Donoso, C., Sandoval, V., Grez, R. and Rodríguez, J. (1993). Dynamics of Fitzroya cupressoides forests in southern Chile. Journal of Vegetation Science 4: 303-312.
Farjon, A. and Page. C. (1999). Conifers: status survey and action plan. IUCN/SSC Conifer Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
Lara, A., Donoso, C., and Aravena, J. (1996). La conservación de los bosques nativos de Chile: problemas y desafíos. In: Armesto, J., Villagrán, C. and Arroyo, M. (eds). Ecología de los Bosques Nativos de Chile. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, pp. 335-362.
Lara, A., Fraver, S., Aravena, J. and Wolodarsky-Franke, A. (1999). Fire and the dynamics of Fitzroya cupressoides (alerce) forests of Chile's Cordillera Pelada. Ecoscience 6 (1): 100-109.
Lara, A., and Villalba, R. (1993). A 3620-year temperature record from Fitzroya cupressoides tree rings in Southern America. Science 260: 1104-1106.
Veblen, T., Burns, B. Kitzberger, T., Lara, A. and Villalba, R. (1995). The ecology of the conifers of southern South America. In: Enright, N. and Hill, R. (eds). Ecology of the Southern Conifers. Melbourne University Press, Australia, pp. 120-155.
Institution: Universidad Austral de Chile (UACH)
Contact: Professor Dr. Antonio Lara
Telephone: (56-63) 221228; Fax: (56-63) 221230
Institution: Instituto Argentino de Nivologia, Glaciologia y Ciencia sAmbientales (IANIGLA)
Contact: Ing. Dr. Ricardo Villalba
Telephone: (54-61) 287029; Fax: (54 61) 285940.
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