Subantarctic Forests, fragile and monumental

From La Paciencia Valley one has one of the most stunning views of the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego island: two almost endless cords of green mountains, covered by the monumental Nothofagus forests of Karukinka, and in the background, the waters of Lago Deseado (Desired Lake) running towards Lago Despreciado (Despised lake), which serpent through the colored peat bogs of the valley, until they finally reach the ocean at Bahía La Paciencia (Patience Bay).

The emerald green forests that cover these mountains are the most extended and best-preserved subantarctic temperate forests under latitude 54. They cover almost half of Karukinka’s surface and form one of the purest subantarctic ecosystems left. They are primary Cathedral Forests, which have not suffered logging by human hand, and are characterized by old, gigantic specimens. This is why they are called cathedrals forests.

Only five percent of the temperate forests of the world are in the southern hemisphere and the great majority is located in the southernmost areas of the Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia. In Karukinka the vast extensions of intact, mature forest of millenary lenga beech form an exuberant green carpet that extends for over 1,200km and its importance at the global scale is vital for the accumulation and capture of carbon in these territories. Likewise, their associated extensive peat bogs are essential for the biodiversity of Tierra del Fuego and constitute one of the most significant wetlands in the world.

However, few conservation efforts have concentrated on these subantarctic forests, compared with the wide attention destined to tropical forests. Despite the solitude, their surface has been affected by anthropogenic activity, since pre Hispanic times, and also by beavers, a foreign species introduces in Tierra del Fuego by mankind in the fifties.

The effects of beaver activity on the biodiversity of Karukinka are devastating. They have destroyed, for consumption or flooding, much of the protection forests, which help maintain the balance of water in the basins. From the air, the forests are crossed by stripes as gray ribbons: those are still standing dead trees, the devastating legacy of beavers.