John Muir, the renowned nature writer, scientist and conservationist, travelled alone to Chile in 1911, at the age of 73, because he wanted to see native forests of Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree. Few know about this trip because Muir never published anything about it before his death in 1914. In 2012 and 2013 two of us (B. Byers and J. Byers) used Muir's sparse journal notes and sketches to reconstruct his route to the site, now on private land adjacent to Tolhuaca National Park in central Chile, where he finally found Araucaria.
In April 2016 we held a workshop in Chile to outline the first steps for securing the recognition and protection this historically and ecologically important site deserves. The workshop brought together a diverse group of more than 20 people, including representatives from the Corporación Nacional Forestal, which manages Chile's protected areas and forestry sector; the private commercial forestry company that manages the land on which the site is located; academic ecologists and historians; and leaders of Chilean conservation organizations.
The first day of the workshop consisted of presentations and discussions that ranged from forest ecology and history to conservation policy and nature tourism in Chile. Chile's Araucaria forests, although under strict legal protection, face unique threats from land-use and climate change, and invasive species, and are underrepresented in the national system of protected areas. Araucaria forests exist in a dynamic relationship with fire, climate and human land uses such as grazing. Private protected areas in Chile offer a lot of flexibility in terms of what they are called, and how and for what purposes they are managed. One category is an ‘area of high conservation value’, and forest certification organizations recognize and reward forest owners who protect such areas. Around 70% of the property on which the site visited by Muir is located is native forest, and 30% is plantations of non-native species, mainly Eucalyptus. A group of nature and ecotourism operators in Malalcahuello, Chile, is interested in the Muir site being opened for limited access so that it can be added to one of the existing national Rutas Patrimoniales (Heritage Routes) in the Araucanía Region, and the National Tourism Service of Chile, SERNATUR, supports this idea.
The second day of the workshop involved a visit to the site where Muir camped and sketched. His sketches provide a unique record of an Araucaria forest at an identifiable site a century ago, and thus a baseline for understanding a century of forest change in the region. The Araucaria forest Muir sketched consisted of large old trees with an open understorey, probably the result of a stand-replacing fire at least several decades before his visit. We found old fire scars on several of the biggest Araucaria at the site, including one of the trees Muir sketched. After 1911 it seems likely that there was little or no fire in this area, indicated by the multi-aged stand of younger Araucaria now growing there, but grazing must have been intense to suppress the regeneration of Nothofagus species, the seedlings of which are eaten by cattle.
Following the workshop we are continuing to discuss options for a formal conservation agreement for the site with the private forestry company and other stakeholders. We are planning further studies to understand the fire history and forest dynamics that led to the current forest condition at the site, and we are also working on a plan for limited and regulated access so that local ecotourism operators can start marketing trips to the site to groups of specialized clients.