American Douglas Tomkins, the founder of the Esprit clothing line and a prominent global conservationist, has bought more than 800,000 wilderness acres in Chile to preserve alerces and protect what's left of the temperate rain forest. Ted Turner, the communications magnate, also has bought land in Argentine Patagonia with an eye to conservation.
A young English botanist named Charles Darwin, the author of the theory of evolution, was the first European to see alerces, with trunks that had a circumference of 130 feet. He gave the tree its generic name, Fitzroya cupressoides, for the captain of his ship, Robert Fitzroy.
Argentina, pressed by the United States, Canada, the World Bank and other global lenders, rewrote its mining laws in the 1990s to encourage foreign investment. Mining companies received incentives such as 30 years without new taxes and duty-free imports of earth-moving equipment.
Argentina took in more than ＄1 billion over the past decade by granting exploration contracts for precious metals to more than 70 foreign and domestic companies. If the country were to turn away a major investor, the message to its mining sector would be chilling.
Residents also complain that Argentina hasn't given nature-based tourism a chance. “If the government invested in us a tenth of the effort they put into mining, things would be a lot different here,” grumbled Randal Williams, 73, who rents tourist cabins in Esquel.
Forest ecologist Paul Alaback, a University of Montana professor who studies the alerces, said Argentine authorities could gain from Alaska's successful nature-based tourism. “Nature-based tourism would mean less jobs immediately but would be sustainable. You'd be building on something that is going to grow, not going to go away,” he said.