Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

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Josh Kelly
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Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

Post by Josh Kelly » Thu Mar 21, 2013 11:39 pm

Chile Trip: Part 3 Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

After returning from Lago Todos Los Santos on March 3rd, I checked the weather. The prognosis was for one more day of sun, followed by a week of rain. Our plan had been to spend March 5-9 in the spectacular scenery of the Cochamo Valley. Becky and I made the decision to alter our plans, since backpacking for five days in heavy rain didn’t seem that appealing, though I regret this because it really does look like a beautiful area, and there are two Alerce stands to check out (http://www.cochamo.com). I also fear that Cochamo will become an absolute tourist zoo in the next few years because of all the publicity its getting and the already heavy traffic of tourists.
Alerce Andino
Alerce Andino
Our alternate plan included renting a car for two days so that we could more easily visit Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, Chile’s first park dedicated to the preservation of alerce (Fitzroya cuppressoides), the largest and longest lived tree in the Valdivian Rainforest. After the two day trip to Alerce Andino, we planned to take a bus north to Parque Nacional Huerquehue to experience auracaria forests first hand.
Alerce Andino
Alerce Andino
Alerce is a member of the cypress family and resembles bald cypress to some extent, though alerces are evergreen and grow on upland as well as wetland sites. Alerces are rumored to have once reached heights of 80 meters and diameters of five meters or more. These claims are hard to evaluate because alerce forests have been so decimated by logging of its valuable, rot resistant wood and even more so by repeated fires in the colonial era. Many older buildings in Southern Chile, some impressively large, are shingled and roofed with alerce wood. http://www.flickr.com/photos/niallcorbet/451467781/

After exploring southern Chile, I believe that the best Alerce sites were long ago logged and burned, and most of them were converted to agriculture. Most of the remaining Alerce stands are above 600 meters, but there is historical evidence for large trees at much lower elevation. I saw young trees as low as 80 meters in elevation, which leads me to believe that there were once lowland alerce forests and that these may have grown larger specimens than the sites where old-growth alerce still exist today. Alerce is probably most famous for being the second oldest documented tree species, with one cross-dated individual confirmed at over 3,600 years old.
Spiral grain on ancient alerce
Spiral grain on ancient alerce
spike topped alerce
spike topped alerce
Parque Nacional Andino Alerce was created in 1975 out of the larger Reserva Nacional Llanquihue. National Reserves in Chile are analogous to National Forests in the U.S. and do not afford full protection to forests, and because it was acknowledged in the 1970s that alerces were already quite rare, Andino Alerce National Park was formed. Today, Andino Alerce is one of the best known places to see old-growth forest and alerces in Chile. The area receives more than 2,000 mm of rain annually and is witin 30 km of the Pacific Ocean. Elevations range from 600-1600 meters. Tree line occurs above 1400 meters.
A chunky Podocarpus nubigena
A chunky Podocarpus nubigena
The hike to the most impressive grove of Alerces is 9 km, one way, and we had planned to backpack in 4 km to a campsite to lessen the roundtrip the next day. We found out at the park entrance that camping was no longer allowed in the park due to fears of wildfire. In 2010, thousands of hectares of forest had burned Torres del Paine National Park due to an untended campfire. The ecosystems and rainfall in the two parks are totally different, but I can understand the concern and protective feelings for Chile’s best public preserve of alerce. Luckily, there is an affordable, rustic cabin that runs 5,000 pesos/person at the park entrance that is a reasonable option for visitors the park.
Laguna Saragosa
Laguna Saragosa
We didn’t have too much daylight on our first day so we went for a short walk to the Alerce Rodal trail, which exhibits a pure stand of straight, young looking, by alerce standards, trees. The CONAF (National Forestry Corporation) officials I had spoken with, and many sources on the internet, boast of Alerces over 60 meters. An otherwise quite knowledgeable CONAF forester told me that “nearly all” of the alerces at Andino Alerce were over 60 meters tall. I began to seriously doubt this when we entered the forest an every species there was much shorter than at Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales. Nothofagus dombeyi didn’t even exceed 40 meters. Sure enough, upon reaching the Alerce Rodal and measuring the tallest and largest trees I could find the biggest individual measured 1.53 meters (5’) dbh and 36.9 (121’) meters tall. The tallest tree was 39.3 meters (128.9’) tall.
1.53 meter dbh x 36.9 meter alerce - yes, that is midslope dbh
1.53 meter dbh x 36.9 meter alerce - yes, that is midslope dbh
A thrifty young stand of alerces
A thrifty young stand of alerces
I wasn’t that surprised by the small stature of these trees. First, the soils at Andino Alerce were noticeably less productive than other areas I had visited in Chile. The bedrock is granite with evidence of recent glacial activity, and the soil was very rocky – not deep volcanic soil. Other species were quite short, and the shrub layer was dense and ubiquitously covered by native bamboo. This led me to consider whether the dense shrub layer was an indicator of more acidic and nutrient poor soil, as it is in the Southern Appalachians. I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect a correlation.
Bamboo in the Alerce Catedral
Bamboo in the Alerce Catedral
The composition of the forest was distinctive. Manio (Podocarpus nubigena) was abundant. Alerce occurred in pure stands in places, but was more often part of a mixture including Nothofagus dombeyi, P. nubigena, Weinmania trichosperma, Laureliopsis philipiana, and Eucryphia cordifolia. As I mentioned, bamboo dominated the shrub layer, making off-trail exploration quite intimidating.

After an early night we woke at dawn to hike to the Alerce Catedral, the grove in Andino Alerce with the largest trees. Unfortunately, shortly after breakfast Becky’s boot came apart and we spent valuable minutes on an impromptu glue job to put the boot back together. The weather was overcast and the forecast called for rain starting in the afternoon. Luckily the glue job worked, and we were off on the 18 km (11.25 mile) round trip to the Alerce Catedral.
"Alerce of approximately 2500 years"
"Alerce of approximately 2500 years"
About 3 km in, we crossed a ridge with scattered, very impressive Alerce. These were old beasts, for sure, with signs by the park service boasting of their age. I measured the largest of these trees, which had a sign claiming more than 3,000 years of age. The size stats on this tree are as follows: dbh - 2.45 meters (8.04’); height to first branch – 22.7 m (73.5’); height 34.1 meters (111.8’). The taper of the trunk was slow, and the diameter may actually have been larger at 22 meters than at breast height. The height was rather unremarkable and reinforced my notions of exaggeration of alerce heights in folk lore.
2.45 meter dbh x 34.1 meter tall alerce
2.45 meter dbh x 34.1 meter tall alerce
2.45 meter dbh x 34.1 meter tall alerce
2.45 meter dbh x 34.1 meter tall alerce
On the subject of age, it is a common theme in literature about alerce that it has a constant, slow growth rate and that age can be extrapolated by size. I’m sure most of you reading this post are skeptical of that notion, and you should be. The trail cut alerces that I saw had slow, but highly variable growth rates. Notably, trail cut Podocarpus also had very tight rings and slow growth, and I believe Podocarpus nubigena could also reach great ages. It’s co-occurrence with longer lived Fitzroya probably makes it obsolete for dendrochronology purposes, though.
A large snail
A large snail
After hiking through some beautiful scenery and seeing some interesting wildlife, we arrived at the Alerce Catedral. It is a very special place. A sense of quite pervades the place. Like many rainforests, all sounds seem muted. I found myself talking in hushed tones and feeling quite humble in the presence of larger and more ancient beings.
The Alerce Catedral
The Alerce Catedral
The Catedral consists of a grove of several dozen alerces over 1.5 meters in diameter, many over 2 meters in diameter. The grove extends from the terrace above a stream, up a gentle slope for more than 100 meters in elevation. I began prospecting for heights, and was disappointed not to find any trees exceeding 37 meters. I then focused on diameters. The largest diameter I found was 2.71 (8.8’) meters, but this tree tapered quickly. What appeared to be the largest volume tree I found was 2.49 meters dbh and around 37 meters tall. Getting an accurate height measurement on trees in evergreen forests is pretty difficult, so I proceeded up slope to attempt a better measurement, but was quickly distracted by a quartet of tallish looking trees.
2.49 meter dbh alerce
2.49 meter dbh alerce
The roof of the Catedral
The roof of the Catedral
I began measuring this quartet and immediately the laser indicated that the nearest tree was significantly taller than any I had measured in Chile. It had both the longest distance and the highest angle of the three trees, and its base was well below my vantage point. After working diligently on this tree from two different locations in order to have a view of the top and the base, which was obscured from most locations by bamboo, I came up with a height of 54.1 meters (177.4’) tall. I declined to fight through the undergrowth and measure the diameter, which I estimate to be between 1.5 and 1.8 meters. Shortly after I measured this tree, the rain started, and we began our long, wet hike back to the trailhead.
Quartet of alerces
Quartet of alerces
The top of the 54.1 meter tall alerce
The top of the 54.1 meter tall alerce
Alerce Andino National Park was the only location, out of three on my itinerary, where I was able to see alerces. While this location is highly regarded in Chile, I doubt this is where remnant alerce trees reach their maximum size. My guess is that, like Nothofagus dombeyi, they reach their largest size on deep volcanic soils with high precipitation. Some areas that seem promising to me are Vicente Rosales National Park, Pumalin Park (http://www.parquepumalin.cl/content/index.htm, Doug Tompkins’ 600,000 ha private park), and Hornopirien National Park, near where there is what appears to be a legitimate four meter in diameter tree (see http://andespatagonia.cl/ “alerce cathedral”), though I doubt it is very tall.

I think there is still very much to be learned about Alerce. One thing that is certain is that any tangent measured height or estimated height for alerce is in serious doubt. If any NTS or other tree lovers visit southern Chile, bring a laser range finder and clinometer!
Attachments
Cauliflower top alerce
Cauliflower top alerce
Alerce Catedral
Alerce Catedral

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KoutaR
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Re: Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

Post by KoutaR » Fri Mar 22, 2013 7:32 am

Josh,

The report was so exciting that I read the strategic places by scrolling text up line by line! I admit that I am a bit surprised that the trees were not taller.

I compared Chile's rainforests with Tasmania. One difference is that there are no bamboos in Tasmania's rainforests. (But there are other things that make off-trail hiking rather difficult.)

Is Cochamo Valley in a national park or is it otherwise protected?

Kouta

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

Post by Josh Kelly » Fri Mar 22, 2013 9:21 am

Kouta,

As far as I know, the land in Cochamo Valley is not protected. The only real protection is that there are no roads into the valley. There are a number of dam proposals, including a 2000 km transimission line that threatens a large area of Patagonia and the Lakes District, including Rio Puelo and Rio Cochamo. There would be massive road construction as part of these proposals that would add more threats to the forests of the region. As J.R. Smith is fond of saying: see it while you can.

Josh

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Jess Riddle
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Re: Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

Post by Jess Riddle » Fri Mar 22, 2013 1:54 pm

Josh,

Another great report. Given their location in the mountain groves and on the east side of the Pacific, I had thought of alerce as something of a South American sequoia or redwood. However, the trees in your photos remind me kauri and western red cedar. The “spike topped alerce” in particular reminds me of the champion red cedar at Quinault Lake.

Podocarpus nubigena could still wind up being a valuable species for dendrochronology. Dendrochronologists are increasingly realizing the valuable of using multiple species in their climate reconstructions, and of course, cores from P. nubigena would provide information on that species. From a practical standpoint, P. nubigena might be easier too. If managers are very protective of the alerce, they might be more amenable to researchers coring the P. nubigena. It’s also a lot easier to core a 1 m dbh tree than a 2 m dbh tree.

I’m glad Becky’s boot held together.

Jess

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Bart Bouricius
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Re: Chile Trip Part 3: Parque Nacional Alerce Andino

Post by Bart Bouricius » Fri Mar 22, 2013 5:00 pm

Another fantastic report. It's nice to have someone provide a report that actually gives you an accurate sense of the environment that the trees grow in along with images of the trees that are comprehensive and show tops bottoms and the whole tree as well as people next to some trees for a feeling of the size, especially with a species that is steeped in mythology and hyperbole that has tended to cloud the reality.

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