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Wisconsin

Restoring the Forest for the Trees…And More Water

By Nick Miller, Director of Conservation Science
The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin

My children have acquired a fondness for murta berries, which taste a bit like strawberries, or is it guava or passion fruit? They grow in abundance in southern Chile and few other places in the world.

My wife Emily and our four children have joined me in Valdivia, a small college town located in southern Chile’s coastal range and our home base for the remainder of our trip. We are on a voyage of discovery, trying new foods like murta berries, hiking the trails in the forest behind our home, exploring the coastline, gawking at sea lions and soaking up the late summer sun.

Valdivia is the gateway to the Valdivian Coastal Range, where The Nature Conservancy has been working with local people since 2003 to protect a portion of what remains of the world’s second largest temperate rainforest (only the Pacific coastal rainforest in North America is larger).

The Valdivian Coastal Range is the most biologically rich region of Chile. Once more than a million acres in size, today about one fourth, or 275,000 acres, remain. Here, giant alerce trees can live to be 4,000 years old and olivillo trees grow to 65 feet.

Several rare plants and animals are found here, from the pudú, one of the three smallest deer species in the world, to the Darwin’s fox, a critically endangered species. The rare fox was believed to occur in only two locations in the world, both in Chile until this June, when a coalition of partners, including the Conservancy, sighted the fox in the Valdivian Coastal Reserve and the adjacent Alerce Costero National Park.

Restoring Forests to Produce More Water

In 2003, the Conservancy bought 148,000 acres of temperate rainforest in the Valdivian Range at auction from a timber company and established the Valdivian Coastal Reserve. That purchase and the eventual transfer of 23,000 acres to the Chilean government led to the creation of the adjacent Alerce Costero National Park in 2012.

Before it went bankrupt, the timber company had been cutting down the native forests and planting eucalyptus, a fast-growing, non-native tree that is used for many things from firewood to paper and biofuel.

Eucalyptus requires a lot of water to grow compared to native trees, and the Conservancy has worked with scientists from the Southern University of Chile to determine how much water is produced by restoring eucalyptus plantations to native forests. It is substantial.

Now that we have this information, the next step is determining what size and type of restoration in which areas of the Reserve will produce the most water for people, fish and other wildlife.

I am serving as a link between researchers at the Southern University of Chile and Nature Conservancy forest management and restoration staff in Chile. We are working together with Conservancy freshwater ecologists in the U.S. and staff from the Natural Capital Project to develop a research partnership that will help our staff in Chile determine the most effective and efficient forest restoration strategies, how best to monitor results and measure success, and how to share lessons learned at the Valdivian Coastal Reserve with forest managers throughout this temperate forest region.

Conservation Benefits Local Communities

One of the benefits of removing eucalyptus and restoring native forest will be more water in the streams that flow through the forests in the Reserve. We’re donating some of this water to people living in Chaihuín, a small community bordering the Reserve that has a poor supply of clean water.

The Chilean government has committed to providing the pipes, meters and other infrastructure needed to deliver this water to Chaihuín. And the local community is supporting the effort by agreeing to pay a little more for their water, which will help maintain the system and provide environmental education materials to community members.

The Conservancy recognizes that to truly protect this special area, local people must be involved in conservation and see the benefits in their own lives. So, staff are not only providing much-needed water to local communities, but engaging them in many projects that involve harvesting the reserve’s natural resources in sustainable ways from fish and timber to tea and honey. It’s a win for nature and for the people who call this magnificent place home.

As I write this, The Nature Conservancy and BHP Billiton have just announced a $20.4 million gift from BHP to the Conservancy to permanently conserve the Valdivian Coastal Reserve and continue our critical work with local communities.

Last Month: Wisconsin Nature Conservancy scientist Nick Miller arrives in Santiago, Chile, and experiences a water “blackout” caused by mudslides in the mountains.

Next Month: Nick wraps up his Coda Global Fellowship in Chile and the Andean Region, shares stories, lessons learned and a few more great photos of the people and places he has been fortunate to meet and see along the way.

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