The giant conifer, Fitzroya cupressoides (Mol.) Johnston, or Alerce (ah-laír-say), which is native to southern Chile and Argentina, has been intensively exploited for its durable wood since the European colonization of southern South America. Today, it persists only in relatively small stands mostly in very remote and inaccessible areas. While location in national parks provides most of the few remaining Alerce stands in Argentina with effective protection, Alerce continues to be exploited in Chile. Conservation of Chile's largest and longest-lived trees is complicated by inadequate ecological knowledge of Alerce, as well as by the socio-economic conflicts that are often associated with protection of rare but commercially valuable species.
Following exploitation, Alerce regenerates extremely poorly, though for reasons which are still unknown. Possible explanations include (1) inadequate seed production or seedling establishment in all but unusually favourable years occurring at intervals of at least ten years, (2) deterioration of the soil due to the potent leaching effect of the coniferous litter, or (3) a directional change in the climate of southern Chile since the time of establishment of much of the once-extensive forests of Alerce.
Historically, Alerce has played an important role in the economy of southern Chile since the late sixteenth century, and it continues to be commercially important. The great scientific and cultural importance of Alerce justifies giving it total protection with the status of a national monument.