Trees to profits responsibly Odd bedfellows: Some environmentalists and a U.S. corporation operating in Chile have entered into an unusual relationship that both sides hope will bear fruit.

Sun Journal

November 08, 1995|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, Chile -- Mary Kalin Arroyo steps off a new dirt road and into a pristine forest. Towering overhead are beech trees older than Shakespeare or Columbus. At her feet is a carpet of up to 75 species of moss and 140 types of lichens.

Ms. Kalin, a botanist from New Zealand, is chief of a wary advance guard pledged to help transform this landscape in the name of progress, profit and the inevitable.

Her team, including nearly 100 botanists, zoologists, ornithologists, archaeologists and accountants, has been hired by the Trillium Corp., a private forestry and real estate development company from Washington state. During the dry months of this year, they searched for the least harmful way to turn these trees into money.

Designed as a showcase of responsible corporate behavior, Trillium's project in one of the world's last great forests shows how public pressure across national boundaries has begun changing the conduct of U.S. firms. While that change is still far from enough to suit most environmentalists, they hope that the pressures will grow.

"This project is an aberration," said Rand Jack, a Washington state environmentalist hired by Trillium to monitor its work. "What makes it important is its potential to create a model."

The key word, everyone agrees, is potential.

In 1993, Trillium bought more than 700,000 acres on this remote island shared by Chile and Argentina. About half of that land, mostly on Chile's side, is covered with nearly virgin forest, consisting primarily of lenga and coigue trees, both temperate hardwoods of the beech family.

Over the next five years, a Trillium subsidiary, Bayside Ltd., plans to spend at least $200 million on "sustainable" farming of the trees, exporting the lumber to the United States, Europe and Asia. The project is the largest in all of Chile to involve native woods, when the rapid destruction of such forests is becoming a national controversy.

Both Mr. Jack and Ms. Kalin are convinced that today's environmentalists must find ways to work with corporations that, with or without the environmentalists, will have an impact on places such as Tierra del Fuego. Others -- believing the best way to treat great wilderness areas is to leave them alone -- call that a devil's bargain.

"There's no right way to do the wrong thing," said Doug Tompkins, a former San Francisco apparel mogul who has been buying Chilean native forests to preserve them. He and Chile's most aggressive environmental activists charge that Trillium's project is simply a scheme to make logging seem environmentally acceptable.

Trillium owns 100,000 acres of Pacific Northwest timber, and manages and develops resorts and business parks elsewhere in the United States. Last year, echoing other U.S. timber firms, Trillium officials announced that they had cut back their Washington log harvests to almost nothing because new environmental rules, meant to protect the spotted owl, had cut too far into potential revenues.

Chile seemed more welcoming.

It has encouraged domestic and foreign logging firms to exploit its forests. Wood products have rapidly become the nation's No. 2 export, after copper. Last year, they brought in $1.6 billion, but the profits have come at some cost. Old-growth forests in the stunning landscapes of southern Chile are rapidly being replaced by pine plantations. Some tree species have nearly disappeared.

At Chile's national forestry agency, officials concede that the enforcement of environmental rules is left mostly to the loggers.

"We have 50 people assigned as inspectors for the entire country, and they aren't even doing that full time," said Fernando Olave, chief of the government's forestry control program. "We don't even have enough money to manage forest fires, and every year our budget shrinks."

Among the specifics in Trillium's plans that most worry environmentalists is a stated intention to build 40 miles of road on its Tierra del Fuego property annually for the next 25 years.

"That's a very serious problem, and ways have to be found to moderate it," Mr. Jack said. "Roads often cause more damage to forests than cutting the trees. They can break the forest in parts, since some animals won't cross a road."

Another concern is that Trillium's plans will inevitably draw more residents to the sparsely inhabited island. Bob Manne, president of the Bayside subsidiary, said the project will employ as many as 800 people. They in turn will create a demand for other workers to build housing.

Despite apprehensions, most of Chile's leading forestry experts have been won over by the promise implicit in Trillium's plans.

"If this works, it will show we can do sustainable farming," said Claudio Donoso, a nationally respected forestry scholar working as a Trillium consultant. "If it fails, there go our hopes."

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