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Los Alerces National Park (PNLA) is in the Futaleufu department of the province of Chubut.
It is part of the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) administered by The Administración de Parques Nacionales (National Parks Administration) under Law Nº 22,351 of 1980. It has an area of 263,000 hectares and was created in 1936 with the object of protecting the stands of Lahuán (erroneously called “Alerce” – larch) Fitzroya cupressoides of hundreds and thousands of years of age (APN 1997).
PNLA is in the southern Patagonian Andes, a unit with rocky outcrops of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.
Here grow the most aged and well-preserved stands of the Lahuán (Fitzroya cupressoides), a confer endemic to South America. It is the second longest-living species on earth after the Californian Sequoia or redwood (Pinus longaeva) with some individuals aged at over 3600 years (Premoli et al. 2000). Further, it is the largest species in our Valdivian temperate forest and can have a diameter of some 5 metres and a height of 50 metres (Veblen et al. 1976; Lara 1991; Lara and Villalba 1993).
In total PNLA has some 7,407 hectares of virgin ancient Lahuans (Kitzberger et al. 2000). Predominating in lake and riverine habitats, they coexist with other less frequent habitats such as those dominated by herbaceous communities (bogs and/or grasslands), and high mountain rocky areas.
PNLA is an especially important ecological and singular genetic-evolutionary area at the southern and eastern edge of the Valdivian forest in Argentina, preserving the last portion of the continuous Andean woods, interrupted further south by incursions of the Patagonian steppe. Here live the southernmost popùlations of various species of flora and fauna such as the cordilleran cypress (Austrocedrus chilensis), tall evergreen beech (Nothofagus dombeyii), lahuan (Fitzroya cupressoides), colihue cane (Chusquea culeou), arrayan myrtle (Luma apiculata) and a marsupial (Dromiciops gliroides) (Burkart et al. 1997; Fasola et al. 2008).
The landscape here has been sculpted by a series of successive glaciations giving rise to several and varied geological formations such as moraines, glacio-riverine deposits, glacial-lake deposits, cirques, strings of lakes, roches moutonées, U-shaped valleys, glacial striations. These landforms of glacial depositions and erosion are over pre-quaternary deposits, in some cases well-preserved and in others effaced by later fluvial erosion (Córdoba 1999).
Soils are of glacial deposits and more recent volcanic ash, subsequently solidified which mostly produced Andosols with a dark horizon developed as from a uniform layer of ash, or Regosols, pale soils that result from volcanic material modified by transportation and mixed with sands and river and/or land-slip (coluvial) silts (Burkart et al. 1997).
The National Park is located in the Yelcho or Grande or Futaleufú river’s watershed, headed for the Pacific Ocean. The watershed harbours a complicated system of rivers and a chain of lakes that regulates the drainage of the abundant precipitation (snow or rain). The bodies of water are of several colours or hues that go from green, turquoise and blue, especially the Arrayanes and Frey rivers, and lakes Verde, Rivadavia, Cisne. Futalaufquen, Krüger, Stange and Menéndez, this last having the Torrecillas glacier at its head. As well as the natural bodies of water, within the park lies the Futaleufú hydro-electric dam and the Amutui Quimei lake it holds. Thus the park is an important reserve of fresh water and its protection contributes in ensuring the quantity and quality of the water in the water-shed.
Phytogeographically the park is within what is termed the Patagonian (or Andean-Patagonian) Woods ecoregion according to Burkart et al. (1998), also called the Valdivian District, Subantarctic Domaine, Antarctic Region (Cabrera 1976). At the global level the protected area is in the Valdivian Temperate Woodlands (Dinerstein et al. 1995). It is part of the North Patagonian Andes Biosphere Reserve as declared by UNESCO in 2007 to contribute in ensuring the conservation and sustainable management of the Valdivian Corridor (APN et al. 2007).
The Temperate Valdivian Woods are located in the south of Chile and Argentina, covering an area of 166,248 square kilometres. The Valdivian ecoregion encompasses the woodlands and other ecosystems between latitudes South 35º and 48º on the South American continent constituting one of the most diverse temperate biomes in the world (Armesto et al. 1997). It is one of the five temperate woodlands in the world, the only one in Latin America and Caribbean. It has been classed as Vulnerable (Dinerstein et al. 1995). WWF includes this region in the list of the 200 vulnerable sites worldwide (Olson and Dinerstein 1997), while Conservation International has it as one of the 25 “hot spots” of world biodiversity (Myers et al. 2000). The woodlands in this region represent about 50% of the total surface covered by temperate woodland in the world; its importance for conservation has been recognized by the World Resources Institute (WWF 2001).
Unlike other World ecoregions that show a greater diversity of species, the Valdivian ecoregion developed with a strong input of biogeographical insularity where important speciation processes occurred (Armesto et al. 1997). The biological importance of this ecoregion is mostly due to the presence of stands of woodland with an important degree of ecological integrity, a great variety of habitats and unique assembies of species (34% of the species of woody plants are endemic and 80% of these are in monotypic genera), some of them of relictual occurrence (Armesto et al. 1997; Dinerstein et al. 1995).
In the conservation unit, the dominant plant community in valleys and slopes is physionomically woodland of evergreens, mostly the southern ciprés (Austrocedrus chilensis), the evergreen southern beech (Nothofagus dombeyi) the Radal (Lomatia hyrsuta) and the Maitén (Maytenus boaria), and deciduous species such as the tall and the low deciduous southern beeches (Nothofagus pumilio and N. antarctica respectively). Noteworthy is the presence of species of flora of limited distribution such as Escalonia rosea and Deschampsia laxa, two species that in Argentina have only been found in the area of Lake Menendez; Griselinia ruscifolia, a very rare species of the Patagonian Andes of Argentina; Silene patagonica, strictly endemic to the mountainous areas of Chubut province that has been cited for the park; the Guaitecas cypress (Pilgerodendron uviferum), unique in its genus and the southernmost conifer in the world.
Because it belongs to the Subantarctic Domaine as far as phytogeography goes (Cabrera 1976), it shares species such as the southern beeches (Nothofagus spp) with Tasmania, New Caledonia and SE Australia, regions which are closely phylogenetically related. It also contains species of Neotropical lineage such as the south Andean cane (Chusquea culeou) and the arrayan myrtle (Luma apiculata) both of which reach the southern limit of distribution in the national park (APN 1997).
The park is home to the fauna characteristic of the Valdivian District, with as few representatives of the neighbouring ecotone, the Patagonian Steppe on its eastern fringes (APN 1997; Verblen et al. in press). The list of native fauna has 9 species of fish, 15 batracians (including one that is endemic and three that are rare), four reptiles, 121 species of bird (three of which are endemic to the region), many invertebrates, 520 species of plants (Ezcurra 2010), 15 species of fungi (SIB - Biological inventory – 2011)
Among the amphibians of the PNLA it is noteworthy to record Batrachyla fitzroya, a species that is strictly endemic to the conservation unit, and other amphibians that are exclusive to the region such as the graceful frog (B. antartandica), another (B. taeniata) and the golden-green frog (Hylorina silvatica) (APN 1997).
The National Park is considered an area important for birds (IBA) (Di Giacomo 2005). There are in it several areas that have the special conditions for nesting waterbirds, while land-birds are well represented by species that define the Valdivian ecoregion. Three species that are globally threatened are present – the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) and the spectacled duck (Speculanas specularis), as well as species that are limited in their distribution to the Southern Temperate Forests. Among those exclusive to the region and considered rare at a national level are the torrent duck (Merganetta armata), the magellanic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus) and the Chilean pigeon (Columba araucana).
As for mammals, there is a population of the Andean deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus), the only South America deer in danger of extinction (IUCN 2007). This population is held to be of great importance for the conservation of the species as there is yearly evidence of successful breeding – fawns and yearlings – and contact with neighbouring and Chilean populations. Other relevant species are the pudu (Pudu pudu), the smallest deer on the continent and the austral spotted cat (Leopardus guigna)
Of special note is the colocolo opossum (Dromiciops gliroides), a Patagonian endemic and considered to be a living fossil as the only surviving species of the Microbiotheria order of marsupials, an extinct lineage of tremendous scientific interest as it is considered the only survivor of the taxon that gave rise to all marsupials, both South American and Australian (Monjeau et al. 2006; Diaz and Teta 2008). The national park is the southernmost limit of distribution of D. gliroides (APN 1997; Fasola et al. 2008).
As for small mammals, there is a great diversity and number of rodents; their biomasa in the temperate woods is high when compared with other temperate or tropical woods (Verblen et al. in press). There is, further, a great richness among the invertebrates owing to the great amount of decomposing leaf litter. According to Verblen and cooperating authors (in press) the dominating invertebrates in the Valdivian forest are of the Acarina group and insects of the following families: Cryptophagidae, Cryptorhynchinae, Curculionidae, Melandryidae, Pselaphidae, Ptiliidae, and Staphylinidae. Centipedes, isopods and milipedes are also abundant (Verblen et al. In press).
Los Alerces National Park has a cultural heritage in archaeological and historic values that is potentially significant. These are testimonies to the human settlement in the Lahuan (Fitzroya cupressoides) woods. In regional terms it is in a landscape with highly frequent archaeological sites and materials from prehistoric settlements. The main testimonies of the relationship between local resources and human settlement correspond to the site’s history as from the beginning of the XXth century.
Archaeological Cultural Heritage
Research in Los Alerces National Park to determine prehistoric settlement has revealed that the first occupation were very early for woodland areas – 3400 years before the present (b.p.), and successive dates until 1550 b.p.
There is a hypothesis that the Desaguadero valley was occupied by prehistoric peoples as part of a model use of various ecosystems according to their altitudinal variation: lake (mainly gathering), woods and high grasslands (hunting), rock shelters (art). According to this type of complimentary use, the settlements would be temporary and integrated into a wider system of production and settlement (Arrigoni 1991).
Within the park two archaeological sites have been found with rock art: the Shaman’s and the site on the interpretive trail.
The Shaman’s site has been dated by radio-carbon technique between 1460 and 1550 years before the present, the period according to Arrigoni (op. cit.) when one of the motifs of the paintings was produced. They are mostly in red or bichromal (red/yellow) and show schematic human figures, labyrinths, clepsides, joined circles united by a line or links, concentric circles, miniatures, etc. They coincide to a great extent with rock paintings registered for nearby Lake Puelo, Epuyen, El Bolsón and Nahuel Huapi. Arrigoni attributes these rock art figures to the Grecas style, defined by Gradín for the latter periods of Patagonian pre-history (from 700 to 1000 years AD and later). Revisitation studies have recently confirmed two periods of production of the paintings by the superposition of red white over red and by determining two chronological series (Caracotche et al. 2007, 2012; Fernández 2011).
Historical Cultural Heritage
The park has the results of research into the history of the area, especially about the processes of colonization of the region at the beginning of the XXth century; this includes both tangible and intangible evidence (Arrigoni 1992, 2000; Filkenstein and Novella 2008).
There is a group of buildings of historic interest, corresponding to the exMermoud settlement (1939) in the Lago Verde area, today Port Mermoud, and in the Toro settlement in the southern reaches of the park. Both are representatives of the historic colonization of the region, the buildings being made of shingles of lahuán and cypress, with wharves, corrals, pens for working with livestock, fences for vegetable gardens and whatever necessary for navigation on the lakes.
The lahuán (Fitzroya cupressoides) was at that time the principal raw material for the building of homes in the context of a particular cultural fashion in the northern reaches of the Patagonian Andes in Chile and Argentina, in our country spacially and temporally less widespread. Extant protected resources, including patrimonial buildings, sound archives, literature on the use of plants as medicines, and period photographs are all helpful in studying and spreading data on the social, economic and cultural interactions of the settlers in the early decades of the XXth century.
The Mermoud family, together with others such as the Tardones, Salinas, Braeses, Coronados and Rosales appear as the first settlers of the area of the park in the XXth century. The Tardones and Rosales were first to arrive between 1908 and 1910, living by pastoral and agricultural activities, and subsistence forestry. The area of the Desaguadero was the camp-site of carters and drovers and a small plot of cultivated land worked by one Carreras, a settler, as from 1910. Carts and wagons were then the means of transporting the products of forestry and saw-mills.
PNLA is an area of outstanding natural beauty. The system of interconnected lakes and rivers, of varied and multiple hues, framed in a backdrop of mountain ranges, with lush woodland on the lower reaches, glaciers and eternal snows on the heights – all this gives the area an exceptional scenic beauty.
At the same time PNLA is an area of great value for the conservation of biological diversity in these particular temperate woods and the world’s woods in general. The area has great ecological integrity thanks to the 74 years of formal protection. The ecological and genetic/evolutionary values of the protected area is shown by the presence of a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems, unique assemblies of species, relictual genera, threatened species and numerous endemics. Noteworthy are the thousands of years old stands of Lahuán (>3600 years) living witnesses of a significant world period for History and Man, and of great emotional, historical and scientific value; numerous endemic woody plants (34% of the woody plant genera in the ecoregion are endemic and 80% of these are in monotypic genera; the southernmost conifer in the world (guaitecas cypress); the smallest deer in South America (the pudu); the smallest cat of the Americas (austral spotted cat) and an arboreal marsupial considered a living fossil (colocolo opossum).
Criterium (vii): Los Alerces National Park is an area of exceptional natural beauty. It harbours majestic woods and other habitats only found within the protected area. An extensive system of interconnected lakes and rivers of transparent waters with extraordinary hues of blue and green, framed by ranges of mountain chains, with glaciers, eternal snows and abundant vegetation complete a unique and penetrating landscape and give the park outstanding scenic aesthetics, differing from the rest of the Patagonian Andes woodlands.
PNLA is home to the oldest and best conserved populations of Lahuáns (Fitzroya cupressoides), an endemic South American conifer. The Lahuán is the second oldest living conifer after the redwoods of California (Pinus longaeva), with some specimens dated at over 3600 years of age (Premoli et al. 2000). Further it is the largest species of the temperate Valdivian woods, reaching a diameter of 5 metres and a height of 50 metres (Veblen et al. 1976; Lara 1991); Lara and Villalba 1993).
Among the most picturesque river and lake landscapes, the Arrayanes river and Lake Verde stand out. The blue-green waters of the Arrayanes river some 50 metres across flow down a valley for three kilometres. On its banks grows luxuriant vegetation, the arrayan standing out with its cinnamon-coloured trunks and branches and delicate white flowers. Symmetrical Lake Verde covers two square kilometres and reflects spectacular colours varying between emerald and turquoise depending on the intensity of the sun’s radiation. The beautiful colours, the murmur as the waters flow between and over the stones, and the songs of the birds, all in a setting of imposing mountains and blue-white snows reach one’s very soul and reflect the magic of the natural world.
Criterium (x): PNLA is an area of great value for the conservation of the biological diversity of the temperate Valdivian woods, an ecoregion considered a priority and outstanding for conservation on a world scale (Dinerstein et al. 1995; Armesto et al. 1997; Olson and Dinerstein 1997; Myers et al. 2000).
PNLA is a protected area for viable conservation of natural characteristics over the long term, maintaining the structure of the biodiversity, the functioning and the self-generation of that woodland ecosystem at the southern and eastern extreme. The valdivian ecoregion developed with a strong component of bio geographical insularity, where important processes of speciation have taken place (Armesto et al. 1997). This characteristic can be noted in the wide variety of habitats and ecosystems, and in the presence of unique assemblies of species, relict genera, threatened species and numerous endemics.
The national park is dominated mostly by woods distributed in extensive riverine and lake habitats where other habitats coexist in smaller proportion such as those dominated by herbaceous communities (grasslands or bogs) or high mountain rocky areas. Because of its position at the extreme south and east of the temperate Valdivian woods, the flora and fauna include species typical of the region as well as representatives of the ecotone between the woods and the Patagonian steppe.
In PNLA at least 520 species of plants and 15 of fungi have been cited (APN 1997; Monjeau et al. 2006; Fasola et al. 2008). It is important to note the presence of numerous endemics at the level of family and genus of woody plants (34% of the genera are endemic and 80% of these are monotypic), some of relictual distribution (Armesto et al. 1997; Dinerstein et al. 1995). The presence of Escallonia rosea and Deschampsia laxa, two species that in Argentina have only been found in the Lago Menendez area, Griselinia ruscifolia very rare in the Argentine portion of the Patagonian Andes; Silene patagonica strictly endemic to the mountain areas of Chubut province has been reported for the park; and the guaitecas cypress (Pilgerodendron uviferum), the only species in its genus and the southernmost conifer in the world.
The national park contains the southernmost populations of several species of flora such as the austral cypress (Austrocedrus chilensis), the tall evergreen southern beech (Nothofagus dombeyii), lahuán (Fitzroya cupressoides), colihue cane (Chusquea culeou) and the arrayan myrtle (Luma apiculata) (Burkart et al. 1997).
Most noteworthy is the presence of thousand-year-old stands of lahuán, a threatened species of exceptional universal values as the second oldest living species on the planet (>3600 years) and for the genetic value of these populations for the conservation of the species. Unlike other lahuán woods where there have been indications of change by herbivoty and fire, the lahuán woods present in PNLA display an excellent state of conservation and as such allows for conservation of the natural stands of the species over the long term. Further, the greater part of the genetic variation in the species through its distribution in Argentina and Chile is concentrated in the population in the northern reaches of PNLA and in the immediate area outside which is not protected. So these populations as a group gain importance for the conservation of the species, representing at the same time refuges for genetic variation (Premoli et al. 2004).
The importance of the park for the conservation of the lahuán lies also in the availability of more habitats that bare suitable conditions for the establishment of new specimens, specifically in riparian habitats. Contrasting with woods that are not by the water, where many stands are mainly of mature specimens, the riparian patches contain many patches where a high proportian of the trees’ trunks are of small diameter. This type of habitat is usually subject to frequent river disturbances that favour the establishment of lahuán saplings (Veblen et al. unpublished manuscript). It is also possible to find developing young stands of lahuán as a result of localized regeneration, starting from trees that survived in patches of burn on the banks of rivers and lakes, where the reduced intensity of the fire allowed a few isolated individuals to survive (Kitzberger et al. 2000)
The fauna of the national park includes 9 species of fish, 4 species of reptiles including the Valdivian snake (Tachymensis chilensis), and 15 species of amphibians – one endemic: Batrachyla fitzroya – and three species that are limited to Patagonia such as the graceful frog (B. Antartandica), B. Taeniata and the golden-green frog (Hylorina sylvatica). In the area there have been 121 species of bird identified, including 4 species that are endemic to the Valdivian woods, some threatened species such as the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) and the spectacled duck (Speculanas speccularis).
There are 20 species of mammals including the Andean deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) one of the species of South American deer in danger of extinction (IUCN 2007), and with a population in the depths of the park essential for the conservation of the species. The pudu (Pudu pudu), the smallest deer on the continent; the austral spotted cat (Leopardus guigna), the smallest feline with the smallest distribution in the Americas (Acosta and Lucherini 2008); and the colocolo opossum (Dromiciops gliroides), a Patagonian endemic and considered a living fossil as the only living species of the marsupial order Microbiotheria, an extinct lineage that gave rise to all marsupials on earth – both South American and Australian (Monjeau et al. 2006; Diaz and Teta 2008; Fasola et al. 2008)
There is a great number and diversity of rodents whose biomass is high when compared with otyher temperate or tropical woodlands (Verben et al. in press). Further, there is a great richness in invertebrates, dominated by Acarina and insects of the following families: Cryptophagidae, Cryptorhynchinae, Curculionidae, Melandryidae, Pselaphidae, Ptiliidae and Staphylinidae. Centipaedes, isopods and milipedes are also abundant (Verblen et al. In press).
PNLA constitutes a significant, representative and well conserved example of the Valdivian woods ecoregion. Belonging to the National System of Protected Areas administered by the National Parks Administration, supports its sustainability through time by actions designed for the conservation of its biological inventory, ecological functions, thus ensuring the viability of species, populations and ecosystems that occur in the area.
The record of management of the national park maintained through 74 years, with the natural lay of the mountain ranges and the bodies of water, have permitted that great swathes of the woods have been relatively isolated, thus maintaining the environmental integrity of the conservation unit.
The specific information on the state of conservation and integrity of the protected area is used today for the updating of the management plan.
Recently an initial evaluation of management effectiveness of APN’s methods and the results are being analysed, and will shortly be available. This information will permit the necessary adjustments to ensure adequate management of the protected area.
At present the list of World Heritage includes 104 woodland sites (http://whc.unesco.org/en/forests). However, an IUCN study (2006) concludes that in spite of the fact that woodlands are well represented on the list, some woodland biomes, with potentially exceptional universal value such as the woodlands of southern Chile and Argentina are under-represented. So the nomination of sites within these biomes, as is the case of Los Alerces National Park, ought to be a priority.
PNLA can be compared with other sites that belong to the temperate woods biome and contain the oldest and tallest trees in the World such as Yosemite National Park (USA) with its stands of sequoia, Redwood National Park protecting woods of redwood sequoias, or the Tasmanian Wilderness Site (Australia) that preserves woods of the huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii).
PNLA also shares other characteristics with some of the sites mentioned. For example Yosemite National Park is comparable in relation to the wide range of elevations, diversity of habitats, scenic beauty and the presence of exceptional bodies of water. At the same time it can be compared with the Tasmanian Wilderness site, as by its close position latitudinally it shares some plant lineages. With Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia it shares the great number of interconnected lakes of wonderful hues and surrounding temperate woods.