Ecosystems in the Sky: Dynamic Processes of Old-Growth Tree Canopies in Chile and the Pacific Northwest

Dr. Christopher Still is an Oregon State University professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. Still and his colleagues at Oregon State University and in Chile are in the process of launching their project, Ecosystems in the Sky: Dynamic Processes of Old-Growth Tree Canopies in Chile and the Pacific Northwest. Still’s involvement with the Chile Initiative began in the spring of 2015 when he received word of a group trip to Chile planned by the College of Forestry. Still was immediately intrigued; he had always wanted to travel to Chile and was eager to become more involved with international work. The idea of a group trip conducted within the college appealed to him, and it wasn’t long before Still was on a plane ready to embark across the Pacific Ocean.

One of Still’s major areas of interest addresses the ecology of tree canopies and their relationships to microclimate, forest health, and species diversity. Still’s investigation of forest canopies involves using thermal images taken by cameras on towers and also from satellites to gather information regarding forest-atmosphere interactions. Still quickly realized that Chile’s native forests are a veritable Utopia for canopy explorations. A long and narrow country with areas of both mountainous and sea level elevations, Chile parades a full spectrum of forest environments and, in turn, forest canopies.

Also on the trip that spring was OSU professor Dr. David Shaw, who has extensive experience conducting canopy research. Shaw works in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management and is the Director of the Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative. An experienced tree-climber, Shaw spent considerable time in the nineties conducting up-close research on forest canopies and was one of the first researchers to thoroughly survey the biodiversity of Alerce canopies.

On their return trip from Chile in 2015, Still and Shaw were met with an eight hour layover in the Santiago airport. While waiting, they got to talking. It was then that the basis for the project Ecosystems in the Sky: Dynamic Processes of Old-Growth Tree Canopies in Chile and the Pacific Northwest was formed. The project seeks to conduct parallel research investigations into the forest canopies of old-growth Chilean Alerce trees and western red cedars native to the Pacific Northwest. "We have taken a focus in big, old trees contributing canopy soils and how they interact with biodiversity and ecology,” says Shaw. “[And] the fascinating thing about Chile; they’re just like us.”

Another principal investigator on this project is Dr. Steve Perakis, who is a professor by courtesy in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society and is a USGS research ecologist. Perakis studied Chilean forest canopies when he spent time conducting his graduate research on Chiloe Island.

Still, Shaw, and Perakis traveled to Chile together in March of 2016 to work with Dr. Camila Tejo, a Chilean researcher who has been instrumental in the organization and execution of Still’s project with the Chile Initiative.

“Camila has the perfect background for this project,” says Still. Originally from Chile, Camila graduated with her Ph.D. from the University of Washington after working with Dr. Darlene Zabowski and Dr. Nalini Nadkerni to conduct research focused on the canopy soil of trees in the Olympic Peninsula.  At the time of Still and Tejo’s first meeting during the College of Forestry’s Chile trip in March of 2015, Tejo had returned to Chile to conduct post-doc work investigating the role that native Alerce trees forests play in biodiversity and ecosystem health, in particular the role of canopy soils and epiphytes.

The Alerce tree is an iconic species in Chile with a rich history. Alerce can be very tall with a huge diameter, and is the second-oldest living tree species on earth. The Alerce has been used as a source of lumber for hundreds of years. Today, the Alerce is considered a national monument in Chile and is protected. While in Chile this last March, Still and his team got the chance to visit the oldest living Alerce, which is at least 3,650 years old. According to Shaw, not much research has been done on Alerce. Aside from the biodiversity surveys he did in the nineties and Tejo’s current research, very little is known about the nature of the trees’ upper canopies. 

Still, Shaw, and Perakis believe that the remarkable similarities in climate and forest ecology between Chile and the Pacific Northwest are crucial for study in this area. Both Chile and California are coming out of droughts that have spanned a notable amount of time, Chile’s lasting multiple years. And, despite being in different biomes, convergent evolution has resulted in strikingly similarities between Alerce and western redcedar canopies.

“[It provides] an interesting basis in ecological theory,” says Still. By collecting research on both species of trees in both parts of the world, Still expects that his project will lead to the advancement of knowledge in the realm of forest canopies, and in turn the health of forest ecosystems. The end result of the project is expected to also benefit timber management practices and the rural communities that live in and around native forests in the US and Chile. 

Still and his team are currently seeking funding for the long term. They are in the process of applying to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and National Geographic in order to generate interest in the project. However, the more immediate concern for Still and his team is finding viable research sites for western redcedar. 

“There aren’t that many [red cedars] left,” says Still. Western redcedar is one the tallest tree species in North America with recorded heights similar to Alerce and base widths of up to 13 feet. Much like the Alerce, redcedar has been known throughout history for its many uses in the manufacture of wood products because of its size and resistance to fire, insects, and rot. The indigenous tribes of the early Pacific Northwest placed a considerable amount of spiritual significance in these coastal giants, using red cedar to make massive canoes, homes, clothing, ropes, and baskets. Today, redcedar is valued as a material for making everything from house siding to outdoor furniture. Due to logging, most redcedars today aren’t 1,000 year-old behemoths, but hundred year-old youngsters. This makes Still and Shaw’s task exceedingly difficult since they are looking to investigate canopies in old growth trees. 

Despite these complications, Still and Shaw have located several viable research sites in the Pacific Northwest. Ideally, Still and his team are looking to conduct research at two prospective locations: a nature preserve in Valdivia, Chile and the Ellsworth Creek Preserve in Southwest Washington by the Columbia River, both of which are owned by TNC.

Camilla has already chosen several large Alerce trees in the nature preserves outside of Valdivia. Now Shaw, Perakis, and Still are searching for comparable red cedars. Ellsworth Creek has communicated that they may have up to three red cedars suitable for the project. Conducting parallel research in the TNC nature preserves in Chile and Ellsworth Creek holds many advantages. Both sites are located in similar coastal climates, and are undergoing restoration efforts seeking to return the biodiversity of the area to its natural state. According to Shaw, when confronted with these similarities, conducting parallel research in Valdivia and Ellsworth creek “just [makes] a lot of sense.”

To secure access to these research sites, Still and his partners met with TNC in Portland in April with the goal of creating a proposal draft for review by TNC. Shaw explains that TNC is looking to fund research that can be related to global forest conservation issues. Therefore, working with TNC will ensure that Ecosystems in the Sky serves global forestry practices. They also met with Dr. Todd Rosenstiel, a professor in the Department of Biology at Portland State University and the Director of the Center for Life in Extreme Environments. Still and his team plan to collaborate with Rosenstiel in the project, recognizing that Rosenstiel’s expertise will make him an excellent resource.

Still’s long term goals for the project branch beyond canopy research. Still expects that the project will expand in the coming years to include the research interests of other departments within the College of Forestry. Still’s project will be a platform for research in the bigger picture of conservation and management of coastal temperate rainforests.

The project also includes broad educational aspects and opportunities to stimulate public involvement and awareness. Once the project is underway, Still and his team plan to create a Spanish/English website containing videos and a catalogue of the project and its mission. Still intends for citizens to become involved in the organization and participation of outreach events, and perhaps even assist in data collection.

Still, Shaw, and Perakis are also in the process of developing a course that can be taken for credit at OSU in the spring of 2016. The first eight weeks of the course will be spent at OSU, and the last 2-3 will take place in Chile. The goal of the course is to provide undergraduate students with international field experience. Still plans to lead his students “from the Andes to the ocean” in order for them to fully explore the diversity of Chile’s forest ecosystems. The students who participate in this course will also be given the opportunity to visit Still’s project research sites, both in Chile and at home, and interact with Chilean students with a shared interest in forestry.

Although students will be introduced to the research being conducted on forest canopies, Still and his collaborators explain that participation in the course will give students the chance to conduct their own research in pursuit of their own projects. The course will focus on the comparisons between the temperate ecology of Chile and Oregon and the ways in which these comparisons can be applied to broader topics in forest conservation and management. Still and his team envision the project creating opportunities for undergraduates, graduates, and faculty to conduct research abroad and make the course in Chile a permanent fixture in OSU’s curriculum.

The collaborative research done in Ecosystems in the Sky: Dynamic Processes of Old-Growth Tree Canopies in Chile and the Pacific Northwest will act as a platform for further comparative research opportunities and scientific cooperation between the top minds in forestry from the Pacific Northwest and Chile. Still and Shaw plan to achieve this in part by helping to host the International Canopy Research Conference in Chile three years from now. This conference will allow them to present the findings of their canopy work with the Chile Initiative, and link with organizations involved in global conservation, management, and preservation of biodiversity. In the long term, Still and Shaw’s project will strengthen the College of Forestry’s international ties to Chile and create a medium for OSU to become more involved with global forestry issues and global conservation. 


Written by Rebecca Leclere, CoF International Programs