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Sunday, January 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chile's Tierra Del Fuego -- Harvest With Care -- Washington Lumber Baron Backing Technique That Could Turn Logging On Its Ear

Seattle Times Science Reporter

At the tip of South America is an island the size of Ireland, its virgin forest a brilliant Irish green.

The explorer Ferdinand Magellan called it Tierra del Fuego, or the "Land of Fire." Cold and windswept, the island got its name from the fires the Fuegian Indians burned constantly to stay warm, fires they kept going even in their wooden canoes.

The Indians are gone, hunted down by Chilean and Argentine sheep ranchers who were paid a bounty for their ears. The gold miners and oil wildcatters are gone too, those booms played out. Nearly five centuries after its Spanish discovery, much of Tierra del Fuego remains as undeveloped as when Magellan coasted through the strait that bears his name.

Now a Bellingham-based company, with a subsidiary in Seattle's Columbia Seafirst Tower, is about to change that. Trillium plans to log one of the most remote places on the planet - and to do so in a manner it hopes could set a new environmental standard for the world.

Trillium's 825,000 acres of land in Tierra del Fuego is a dazzling, Alaska-like landscape of old-growth southern beech called lenga and coighue. The forest is broken by blue lakes and red muskeg marshes; it's bordered to the south by snow-capped mountains and to the north by windswept pampas. On a visit during November, the southern hemisphere's equivalent of Seattle's May, snow squalls chased brilliant sunshine as a reminder of the cold harshness of this land.

A year from now, this landscape's long isolation will likely end. If final permits are obtained, Tierra del Fuego will begin satisfying wood demand in Europe, North America and Japan. The trees there have become part of a $450 million empire that stretches to the Alaskan Arctic and has been assembled by a onetime Whatcom County farm boy named David Syre.

That a Bellingham company is going to the ends of the earth to find wood is not the most remarkable part of this story, however.

Rather, it is that exploitation of this largely virginal landscape - the construction of hundreds of miles of logging road, the extraction of millions of trees, and the erection of a large lumber mill - may be one of the best things to happen to the environment in the history of forestry: the largest sustainable logging operation in Latin America, and possibly the world.

"It will be an incredible model for the development of forestry resources," said University of Washington forestry Professor Jerry Franklin, the "guru of old growth" who led the scientific charge to preserve the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests. Now he has signed on as environmental watchdog over Trillium's massive plan.

"If they succeed," said Franklin about the radical recasting of logging that is being proposed, "how can other people in the timber industry argue they can't do these things?"

Syre (pronounced SIGH-ree) has more than Franklin on his team. The lawyer who led the fight against Syre's Bellis Fair mall in Bellingham has become president of Syre's company. A lawyer and professor at Bellingham's liberal Fairhaven College has written Trillium's new stewardship principles. A former director of the Chilean national parks oversees project planning in Tierra del Fuego. Claudio Donoso, Chile's version of Jerry Franklin, heads a panel of seven prominent Chilean forest ecologists backing the project.

For preservationists, however, the Rio Condor project smacks of ominous defeat. One has to travel to Antarctica to find a place more remote from world markets. If logging is economical in Tierra del Fuego, what does that imply for virgin forests elsewhere?

"For us, the project is completely unacceptable," said Adriana Hoffman, a Chilean environmentalist based in that country's capital of Santiago. She heads an organization called Defensores del Bosque Chileno (Defenders of the Chilean Forest) and complains that Trillium is "coming to the very, very last corner of the Southern Hemisphere."

In August, Hoffman traveled to Bellingham. "I was speechless," she said. "Your environmentalists gave me a list of 100 recent clear-cuts by this company in your state. Why don't they show the world what they can do in their own forest?"

One reason is that, in Chile, Trillium can afford to try good forestry.

Syre got a bargain in South America. The 825,000 acres cost $42 million, or an average of $51 an acre. Even though only half of that is commercial forest, it was a steal. By comparison, an acre of old-growth or mature second-growth forest land in Washington state can cost $20,000 to $30,000 an acre, said timber consultant Bruce Lipke.

Land taxes have been suspended to encourage the Tierra del Fuego development, and the government of the region even offers a subsidy to foreign companies that hire local workers.

Syre can cut slowly and carefully and still make a good profit.

But Trillium as a world leader in forest stewardship? In 1990, after it made a series of large clear-cuts on Whidbey Island, no logging company in the state had a worse reputation. Can it set a new standard?

KEY QUESTIONS

The debate over the Tierra del Fuego project rests on a split in visions among the world's environmental community. One view advocates simple preservation of the last untouched places, a hands-off, anti-management approach rooted in the philosophy of deep ecology. The second supports sustainable development, a theory rooted in the belief that there aren't untouched places left to save and that the only long-term solution is to encourage economic development that turns from exploitation to stewardship.

Which leads to a fundamental question environmentalists and businesses are grappling with: Is sustainable development possible, both economically and environmentally?

Trillium's Rio Condor project is the test. "Every environmental group in the world has been crying for a sustainable project," said Robert Manne, a former Plum Creek Timber executive who was recruited by Syre to run Bayside, the Seattle-based subsidiary that now actually owns and runs the Tierra del Fuego project. "Now I'm giving them one."

A second question is even deeper: Is a businessman and developer like David Syre capable of learning from his earlier mistakes, and setting an inspiring example? Are people capable of change?

"LEADERSHIP, ARTISTRY, HOPE"

Syre is a farmer. He was 13 when his father gave him his first acre, and he hired his friends to harvest it. He's been in love with farming ever since, from raspberries to trees. Understand that first.

He is a doer. Student body president in high school and law school. Headed Bellingham's United Way campaign and, as a young banker, was president of the city's Chamber of Commerce. Now 55, he has a $450 million empire stretching from Alaska to the tip of South America.

Syre is very smart - and very lucky. He has a near-photographic memory and an uncanny knack for buying low and selling high. He bought his timber empire in Tierra del Fuego on a weekend, based on a telephone call two of his foresters placed from Punta Arenas, Chile. He moves fast.

And Syre has made his own luck. Over his whole life, he has taken messy, complicated financial situations, straightened them out with tireless persistence, and made a fortune as a result.

Two events in his early life were formative.

The first was a 1945 flood of the Nooksack River that nearly wiped out his family's farm near the Canadian border. The resulting poverty made a deep impression and, like Scarlett O'Hara at the ruins of Tara in "Gone With The Wind," Syre was determined never to be poor again.

The second was polio, which he contracted at the age of 4. His battle with the disease resulted in a steely determination to overcome obstacles. At age 37, he started running; by age 40, he had completed the Vancouver marathon. He was recently diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, a progressive degeneration of the nerve endings of his legs, and he remains blind in one eye from a childhood accident.

As a student at Washington State University, Syre was heavily influenced by "green revolution" pioneer Orville Vogel, the scientist who developed new wheat varieties to help feed the world. Technology was good, Vogel said. Development was good. And land was good. It was the source of food and fiber.

With that philosophy, Syre's business persistence developed early. He cleared family timber to start a farm. He bought land embroiled in tribal-trust disputes and unsnarled the mess, on one tract earning $70,000 from a $3,000 purchase. After this success, he took a couple of brief detours into banking and law but soon became a developer full time.

His first big success was a 176-unit condominium complex called Snowater near the town of Glacier. Shrewd enough to realize that soaring land prices around Vancouver in the 1970s made recreational property in Whatcom County a bargain, Syre put together a project so complex he had to form his own water and fire districts. By 1976 he had broken even financially and was ready with an ambitious 10-year plan.

He wanted to build a shopping mall in Bellingham that he would call Bellis Fair. He wanted to create an adjacent business park, called Cordata. He wanted to develop a first-class resort near Blaine called Semiahmoo.

He did all three, and beginning in the early 1980s he acquired timberland in northwest Washington, buying from Georgia-Pacific when the timber industry was in a slump.

When prices came back, he started clear-cutting.

He also picked up, at fire-sale prices, large chunks of downtown Denver; Vancouver, B.C.; Ketchikan; and Anchorage. Additionally, he used the luxury of sole ownership to pick up some unrelated companies: Seattle's Gargoyle sunglasses, for example, or Pro-Tech bicycle helmets.

Along the way to business empire, he went from obscurity to notoriety.

Controversy came when he committed the cardinal sin of a timber operator: He cut where people could see it. In 1988 he started mowing down about half his 2,800 acres of trees on Whidbey Island at a time when prices and demand were at an all-time high. As a result, he received a blistering letter of reprimand from state lands commissioner Brian Boyle.

Syre, Boyle complained, was making the entire industry look bad.

Elsewhere, Syre's plan to build a model farm and agricultural theme park to be called Hollyhock Farms in Skagit County was blocked by community opposition. In Bellingham, his mall and business park was attacked by critics who complained he was turning their city into a clone of car-congested Lynnwood or Kent.

It's little wonder, then, that some environmentalists loathe him. They've dumped sawdust in his lobby. Picketed his headquarters. Held a group vomit in Bellis Fair. One spit on him while he was paused at a stoplight in his car.

To extremist greenies, Syre is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the present-day Northwest.

Far from the intimidating business dynamo one expects, however, David Syre is a surprisingly gentle and affable host when visited at his Bellingham headquarters: a 6-foot-3, lanky, quiet but confident man who remains a bit puzzled and hurt that not everyone agrees with or understands his vision.

Syre's office is plain, his house nice but modest by today's mega-mansion standards, and his tastes simple.

His company motto is, "Leadership, artistry, hope."

Artistry? "Good art tends to be enduring," he said.

Hope? "There's no risk without hope."

"If you just want to make money, there are lots of ways to do it," said Syre, who readily acknowledges he has more money than he needs. "Our values are not rate of return."

Those who know him say they don't fully know him.

"He's a very complicated guy," said Rand Jack, the liberal lawyer and college professor whom Syre recruited to write "stewardship principles" for his company's Chilean project.

"The smartest thing environmentalists could have done," Jack said, "is be nice to David Syre. By attacking him, they have done a tremendous disservice to the environment. If they had supported and encouraged him, he would have gone a long ways towards putting his vast resources into doing things in an environmentally responsible way."

Evidence of this evolving consciousness came earlier in the decade when, under the urging of some the bright young tycoons he brought in to run his company, Syre started balancing development with preservation. For instance, he has exchanged 20,000 acres of Trillium timberlands on Chuckanut Mountain and at Lake Whatcom near Bellingham for state timberlands elsewhere in order to preserve views, watersheds and wildlife habitat.

Most important, perhaps, is the company's move to start a stewardship review of its own Northwest forest lands led by John Gordon of Yale University's School of Forestry. The result should be improved management on a par with what Trillium is already proposing in Chile.

In Chile, Syre has voluntarily opened his plans for Tierra del Fuego to more public scrutiny than any big timber operation in history. "I don't think there's another timber company in the world which would have done that," Boyle said.

Still, his wealth, his success and his fundamental belief - that developing the land improves it - irritate some environmentalists like fingernails on a blackboard.

Said another long-term observer: "Syre's problem is that he wants to be rich and loved at the same time."

FIRE ISLAND CHERRY

Syre's interest in South America began as the Northwest's timber industry was still grumbling about old-growth preserves and spotted owl restrictions. In the long run two things govern wood demand, he knew: population growth and global affluence. The richer people are, the more paper they consume, the bigger the houses they build and the more furniture they acquire. Both trends were soaring while timber investment opportunities in the United States were not. It was time to look abroad.

The first possibility was Canada, but most timberland there is owned by the government. To Syre, that spelled uncertainty. He decided to take his money elsewhere.

Next to be considered was New Zealand, but other American companies had beaten him to it.

Plans to invest in Siberia ended when his business contact was assassinated and stuffed in the trunk of a car by Russian crime lords. Russia was too unstable.

The fourth possibility was Chile, a country slightly larger than Texas but 3,000 miles long. Chile is North America's West Coast stood on its head: Its northern province is the driest desert in the world, reminiscent of Baja California, while its southern reaches resemble Southeast Alaska.

Chile's parallels to this region are many. A Pacific Rim country, it is booming from the export of natural resources, which support 88 percent of its economy. Wood, fish, wine and minerals dominate. Economic growth is booming, averaging 7 percent a year the past six years.

Puget Sound-based salmon fishermen are feeling the heat of Chilean competition. The nation has 500 aquaculture farms, 180 of them devoted to salmon. Chile's salmon exports have been increasing by an average rate of 58 percent a year.

But there are differences, too. Caught between the glittering skyscrapers of Santiago and the rural poverty of remote farms and villages, Chile is still a developing country of just 15 million people, one in four of them severely poor.

The result is a nation hungry for foreign investment. "Chile has one of the most open investment regimes in the world," explained Larry Memmott, the State Department's trade expert at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.

The country has a large number of national parks and is probably further along in actually enforcing environmental laws than any country in Latin America.

But regulations are new here, the country has endured four civil wars and 10 coups in less than 200 years, it emerged only in 1989 from the Augusto Pinochet's repressive, 16-year military dictatorship, and the division between left and right remains large.

Chilean companies have been rapidly liquidating native forest and replacing it with huge plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus and radiata (or Monterey) pine, used primarily for paper production. Native forests are being cut at a rate of about 300,000 acres per year. About two-thirds to three-quarters of that is being replanted with tree plantations that so far cover about 5 million acres.

As a result, Chile's forest exports have been growing over the past decade at an average rate of 22 percent a year. In 1995 their value was $2.2 billion.

When Syre arrived in 1993 Chile's central forests were already acquired, but he was shown a sample of a wood called lenga from an untapped forest in remote Tierra del Fuego. And the forest might be for sale.

Tierra del Fuego? If Americans ever thought about the island at all, they assumed it was ice and rock. Trees? Syre sent two foresters from his company to evaluate them.

Soon he got a call back from Punta Arenas, across the Strait of Magellan from the island. Not only was the forest a terrific value, he was told, but the company seeking to sell it was an hour's drive from Syre's Bellingham headquarters: Cetec-Sel of Vancouver had acquired most of the forest land.

Cetec-Sel's plan was to harvest the forest for chips to turn into wood pulp for shipment to Japan. But the company was out of money and bogged down in permit problems.

Wood pulp? To Syre, that was like using old-growth fir to make tissue paper. Lenga was a beautiful wood, he was convinced, worth far more as furniture and cabinets than newsprint. In a weekend Syre acquired 640,000 acres for $30 million, half of it forested.

The purchase was incredibly risky: Trillium was too small to develop the project without outside investors. It had to get permits from a foreign government. And lenga was a largely unknown wood on the world market, although Germans had used it under the name "fire island cherry." There was no mill, no port, no decent roads and no trained workforce. A publicly held company never would have gambled on it.

But Syre answers to no one but himself, and he had a dream. Suddenly he had a forest reminiscent of the cheap and vast holdings that Pacific Northwest timber barons had acquired at the turn of the century. Except this time foresters knew a lot more about ecology. This time, in theory at least, they could do things right.

Most Chileans in what is known as the Magallanes region of Chile around the Strait of Magellan were ecstatic. Here was American money to finally develop a remote area, to provide sustainable jobs and to properly reforest the land.

"This is an alternative that is important for the region," said Mauricio Jelincic Aguilar the regional interior minister. "There is enough lenga forest to insure this is not a species facing extinction. And this is feasible to do based only on natural regeneration."

Syre needed experienced management and more money, however. In February 1994 he called Manne, who had helped turn around the image of Plum Creek Timber after its square-mile clear-cuts along Interstate 90 stirred public outrage.

Now Syre was going to give Manne a bigger opportunity - a chance, in Manne's words, "to really make a difference in the managing of natural forests." Here's a whole forest, untouched. Harvest and regrow it right, Syre said.

In summer 1994, Manne flew to New York and holed up in a hotel room for a weekend. In and out the door cycled a series of potential investors who belonged to the Beacon Group, a $1 billion investment consortium that included millionaires from as far away as South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Manne's message was simple. Investors could make money and pioneer sustainable development at the same time. It's risky, but both kinds of payoffs could be big. You want your money to stand for something important? Sign here.

The Beacon Group bit, and a new organization called Bayside was created, housed in the Columbia Seafirst Tower. Trillium owns 60 percent of it; Beacon owns the rest. Run by Manne, it has invested $15 million in research, roads, studies and sampling. It has yet to sell a tree.

THE "GREEN CERTIFICATE"

About this time it dawned on Syre that the forest he had bought did not stop at the Chilean border. He acquired 100,000 acres more across the border in Argentina for $12 million. His Argentina holdings later expanded to 185,000 acres.

What Syre did next was either heroic or stupid, with only history able to render a verdict. He had permits in hand to start harvesting the first several thousand acres and didn't use them. He was about as far away from environmental scrutiny as a timber company can get, and yet invited it. He was in a place that no one except its inhabitants gave a hoot about, and yet talked about his logging plans to anyone who would listen. He could have sold his trees as raw logs, but instead decided to pursue a "Green Certificate" from international environmental organizations, which will allow him to market the wood in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.

Chile did not even have a comprehensive environmental law until 1993 and had no regulations implementing the law when Trillium announced its plans. "So Trillium did it in a voluntary way," said Pedro Alwyn, the company's Santiago attorney. "Trillium became a visible target. When you want to do something in a responsible manner, people don't trust you."

In other words, said Trillium President Steve Brinn, a Yale law graduate who met Syre while fighting his Bellis Fair mall, "We feel we've drawn a bull's-eye on our chest."

Trillium was the first company in its region of Chile to ever submit an environmental-impact statement, the first in the country to sit down for hours with Chile's fledgling environmental organizations.

Skepticism is understandable. "We have doubts about whether the project is sustainable," said Jan Drogseic, who monitors the environment for the local Catholic diocese in Punta Arenas. "I am very concerned about reforestation. . . . (And) it is very easy in my country to cut trees that are not supposed to be cut because the fines are so small. It could be a temptation."

"The history of harvesting our native forest is not very positive," admitted Edmundo Fahrenkrog, a one-time director of the Chilean national park system who now heads Trillium's headquarters in Punta Arenas. "It is hard to convince people we are different."

The result of such doubts is that Trillium's plans for logging Tierra del Fuego - arguably the most carefully planned environmental development project in Chile's history - also became one of Chile's first truly controversial development projects.

Trillium made several key decisions early on it thought would mute the usual criticism of logging in developing countries. Among them was to harvest the forest on a sustained yield basis; the company would take only as much as can be replaced in time. It also set aside thousands of acres in permanent old-growth reserves and buffers around streams and lakes. Its harvest techniques, moreover, would not involve clear-cutting, but a method called "shelterwood cut" in which some mature trees are left standing to let younger trees grow below them.

To replace the trees, Syre said the company will not only reseed, but grow them for the first time artificially in a nursery, an approach that could cut reforestation time by decades.

"WHAT WE NEED IS WORK"

One side in this controversial project is represented by Sylvia Vera Perez, the governor of Chile's half of Tierra del Fuego. "This is an opportunity to conduct a model forestry project not only for Chile but for the world," she argued.

Her enthusiasm is not surprising. She represents Porvenir, an island town of about 4,000 people that lost 30 percent of its population between 1989 and 1992 as the oil and sheep industries of Tierra del Fuego slumped. An army base, a slaughterhouse and local government are the sole employers. The town looks visibly depressed, with the only apparent economic activity being a city program to construct sidewalks.

"What we need is work," said Mikel Andrade, one of the sidewalk workers. "Unemployment is the biggest problem here. Everything is very expensive and there is just not enough work."

The other side is represented by environmentalist Hoffman, who said logging is logging. "They're going to sell the forest," she said.

Perez countered that such criticism is uninformed and urban. "Our young people have to migrate because there's no work," she said. The project has been delayed "because of a few environmentalists I can count on the fingers of my hands."

The Chilean government is equally eager. Its half of the chilly island has only about 7,000 inhabitants, versus Argentina's 80,000. Trillium paid court to former dictator Pinochet, who at age 80 remains the nation's influential defense minister and who bestowed his blessing on the project.

Not only would it boost island population, Pinochet told Trillium, but the logging roads would provide military access in an area so hotly disputed that Chile and Argentina almost went to war in 1979 over three small islands. That dispute was resolved only by the pope.

A SIMPLE ECOSYSTEM

In purchasing the forest and making plans to harvest it, Syre soon found he had an ecosystem even Chilean forest experts knew relatively little about. The lenga and coighue ecosystem is far different from the temperate forests here, and the idea of cutting it sustainably raised all kinds of difficult questions.

How fast would native trees grow back? How easily would they regenerate? What logging method was best? What species exist in the forest and how would they be affected? How much land should be set aside?

Syre's panel of seven forestry experts in Chile helped assemble a team of 100 scientists, technicians and analysts who in 1995 and 1996 systematically inventoried the forest.

The result was a series of reports, maps, studies, recommendations and forest preserves.

They found that the Tierra del Fuego ecosystem appears considerably simpler than that of either Washington state forests or the tropics. The species count is low. So far, there appears to be no equivalent of the spotted owl.

At least two prominent species seem forest pests as much as forest-dependent. Non-native beavers have killed trees on thousands of acres by damming creeks and forming new wetlands. Native guanacos (a llama-like grazer) have been pushed by ranches to the forest edge, where they graze on young lenga trees.

To a North American visitor, the biological mix is bizarre. A forest locked in snow much of the year also shelters native parrots.

Trillium appears to have learned from the old-growth forest fight in Washington. The company gave Franklin, the UW professor, a free hand in selecting about 10 percent of its harvestable timber for permanent old-growth reserves where no cutting would take place. Franklin took the biggest, best trees. "It was pretty painful," Manne recalled.

The company also decided not to cut on slopes steeper than 45 percent, lessening erosion concerns, or at elevations higher than about 1,000 feet. The tree line is low in Tierra del Fuego.

Still undecided is what to do about the guanacos and beavers, though fencing of the former and some kind of population control of the latter appears likely.

After completing their studies, the scientists took their work to Chile's young and largely untested environmental permit review process. The company has repeatedly won approval from government agencies, and just as repeatedly environmentalists have appealed. In Chile, the review process is every bit as Byzantine in its complexities as in the U.S., and the company is waiting for a final decision from the Chilean Supreme Court, which heard the case Thursday.

Both sides admit Trillium appears likely to win.

THE OTHER YANKEE

Still, opposition remains. And one of the bankrollers of the opposition has been another American millionaire every bit as unusual and controversial as Syre: an eccentric entrepreneur named Douglas Tompkins.

In 1990, Tompkins, co-founder of the Esprit clothing line who sold his stock for $125 million, bought a large ranch 600 miles south of Santiago and then quietly began purchasing adjacent tracts of land. He has acquired slightly more land in Chile than Syre has (about 700,000 acres) with the opposite intention: He wants to turn it into a forest preserve and national park.

When news of this scheme broke two years ago, it rapidly became more controversial in Chile than anything Trillium had proposed.

Tompkins' swath of land, which he calls Pumalin Park, stretches from the Andes to the Gulf of Ancud, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. It effectively cuts Chile in two. That a North American owns such a corridor has created deep suspicion in Chile. That he wants to give it away has caused even more suspicion.

He's been accused of any number of bizarre, secret plans, from creating a corridor for Argentine infiltration to starting a new homeland for Jews. His offer to give the park to Chile, under conditions, has been rebuffed. His latest land purchases have been stalled since March.

Tompkins, 53, has brought much of this on himself, both Chilean and North American observers agree. He has made enemies by criticizing the Chilean timber industry and Chile's government. He has sued its salmon industry.

He has raised suspicion by helping finance environmental groups such as Hoffman's Defenders of the Chilean Forest. He has even clashed with the foundation he set up to run his park. A Times request to meet with him in Puerto Montt, near the remote home he has built, was declined.

Syre has been tarred by the Tompkins controversy, but he has also benefited from the comparison. Three Chilean interpretations have emerged.

One is that Syre is Tompkins-lite: another North American with a lot of Chilean land and grand plans who could create headaches for Chile's forest industry - in Syre's case, by setting a standard other companies couldn't afford to meet.

Another holds that Tompkins is a protector and Syre a despoiler of native forests.

A third says Tompkins threatens Chile's economy while Syre seeks to boost it.

Each man, in any case, has complicated the plans of the other, and only recently has Tompkins apparently been persuaded that Syre is sincere enough in his desire for sustainable development that the clothing entrepreneur has muted his criticism of Trillium.

On a higher level, the two men represent real-life examples of alternative paths for the 21st century.

Tompkins is the preservationist, using his millions to create a park where government will not and saving rare trees such as the alerce, which at 3,000 to 4,000 years old is the second-oldest organism on Earth after California's bristlecone pine.

Syre is the farmer with plans to sustain his forest but have it yield a steady income of wood and jobs.

Who is right? Both?

NOT NATIONAL-PARK CALIBER

What will Tierra del Fuego look like if Syre gets his way?

Not like Pacific Northwest forests. Patchwork clearcuts are not planned; instead a visitor should see a fairly unbroken green canopy.

Closer inspection will reveal big changes in today's virgin forest, however.

The forest will be drastically thinned. Plots harvested twice will have only a smattering of large old trees, with a green understory coming up.

About 40 miles of logging road will be added each year in Chile alone.

There will be a new dock and mill at Porvenir and a new nursery, all a considerable distance from the actual forest.

Instead of the trees living 250 to 350 years, they would live 90 to 120, depending on how successful nursery regeneration is, and be only about 20 inches thick, about half of what they can be today.

This new industrial forest would be interspersed with pockets of old growth and 10- to 250-meter buffer zones around lakes, streams and bogs.

There are two bottom lines here.

First, David Syre plans to turn a largely old-growth forest into a tree farm.

And, second, he plans to do it in an environmentally sensitive way that could set a pioneering example for Latin America and for his home state.

So should he be condemned or applauded? Is he the symbol of exploitation reaching into every global corner or of a new marriage between development and the environment?

Thoughtful people will disagree on that one.

After visiting Trillium's Tierra del Fuego lands, one comes away with several impressions.

One is that the Trillium lands on Tierra del Fuego, while beautiful, are not of national-park caliber. They are too remote, too cold, and above all, too ordinary to pretend eco-tourism is a viable alternative for the local economy. If you want to run a sustainable development experiment, the Trillium lands are probably as well-suited as any place in the world.

It's also possible to look deeper, at the sobering reach our civilization must make today to sustain itself. An enormous industrial complex has been built on Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic to provide oil, and now timber is to come from the tip of South America. We're a long way from achieving a sustainable balance on our planet.

A third impression, however, is that Trillium's sensible approach to forest management could do more good than harm if it sets a new standard for 21st-century forestry. Sooner or later, Tierra del Fuego must either be formally preserved or logged and if the latter is most likely, no other company is promising more.

Some environmentalists charge that Trillium is about to destroy a forest in order to save it.

"What the world needs more desperately than preservation," Trillium's Brinn countered, "is progress in understanding sustainable resource use." ----------------------------------------------------------------- `Shelterwood' cut: harvesting, preserving an old-growth forest

In its Rio Condor project in Tierra del Fuego, the Trillium Corp. plans sustainable logging of its 825,000 acres of old-growth forest. There would be no clear-cutting. Instead, trees will be logged and replanted over time.

First harvest. -- Up to 60 percent of the trees are cut; from a distance, the look of the forest canopy is preserved. -- New trees are planted in their place (by reseeding and from nursery stock).

15 years later -- Up to 30 percent more of the old-growth trees are cut.

Additional precautions . -- Buffers: About 10 percent of the timber is protected in reserves; buffers remain around lakes. -- Erosion control: Trees aren't cut on slopes greater than 45 percent or at elevations above 1,000 feet.

Published Correction Date: 01/31/97 - The Leader Of A Seven- Member Independent Scientific Commission In Chile Reviewing A Trillium Logging Project In Tierra Del Fuego Is Mary T. Kalin Arroyo. The Panel's Head Was Incorrectly Identified In This Story.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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