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Source: Vanity Fair
In Chacabuco Valley a flock of upland geese rose in unison and hovered over the steppe like washing flapping on a line, and the Andes behind rippled in morning mist. A solitary condor described circles in the sky. It was the end of the world, almost: the place where mountains sink into water.
Chilean Patagonia is still an awfully big adventure. The land splinters, obliging ferries to take over from the road. Sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes, smaller and less well-known than its Argentinian counterpart, the region starts about two-thirds of the way down the world’s thinnest country. I drove for five hours one day without seeing another car or passing a place to buy fuel. The ratio of people to square kilometre is 1:1. In the UK, it’s 274; in the US, 36.
The name comes from patagon, which means “big foot’’ in the language of 16th-century sailors who first encountered a native Tehuelche. The mariners marvelled at how tall the hunter was—which is mystifying, as other indigenous groups then were short. The canoeing Yaghan who lived off shellfish harvested from the fjords that striate Chilean Patagonia had a monosyllabic verb that meant “to unexpectedly come across something hard when eating something soft’’—like a pearl in an oyster. The tribes were the real pioneers, and the grasses of the steppe sing a threnody to those vanished men and women.
In 2004, Chacabuco Valley, in the transition between southern beech forest and Patagonian steppe, was at the centre of one of the greatest land buys in history when Doug Tompkins, the US co-founder of The North Face outdoor wear (and much else), fell for the cadmium mists and purple grassland. The Belgian owners of Chacabuco sheep ranch were not turning a profit, so Tompkins bought their land. It was overgrazed and in bad shape—the consequences for the soil are still evident. Tompkins’s love affair with the region had begun decades earlier. He had first visited in the 1960s to do some ski-race training in the off-season. Seven years later he drove from San Francisco to climb Mount Fitz Roy, and that, according to his wife Kris, sealed “his love of that part of the Southern Cone”.
Kris herself grew up in a ranching family in California and for 25 years worked, latterly as CEO, at the outdoor clothing company Patagonia (the name is a coincidence). When she married Doug in 1993 they uprooted to Chile, a country she had also fallen in love with. “At the start we just bounced around in a plane.’’ (Doug was an accomplished bush pilot.) Kris has described herself and Doug at that time as “two opinionated hotheads”. They set up experimental farms to see if it were possible for people to make a living without burning forest or overgrazing. “We wanted,” says Kris, “to explore new ways of being in this landscape.”
The Tompkins founded Conservación Patagónica, an NGO that develops projects to create parklands, restore biodiversity and promote ecological agriculture. At Chacabuco, for example, they proceeded to implement an ambitious rewilding programme. The strategy was to buy land and turn it over, protected, to the nation. They set about piecing together plots that would eventually become Parque Patagonia and Parque Pumalín. I don’t think the two Americans ever thought of themselves as owners. They were stewards.
The Tompkins’s work alongside each other continued until Doug died of hypothermia in 2015 following a kayak accident on Patagonia’s Lago General Carrera. He was 72. Kris described the event, for her, as “an amputation”. She has kept going with their work; she had to. Many in the conservation field in South America told me, “Kris took on a huge backpack when Doug died.” (It’s a common expression, and an apt one.) “The point,” Kris still says, “is to act.”
I travelled on the fabled Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, which is the only road there is. It unravels 1,240 kilometres from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. (It changes its name at the northern terminus, but basically you could keep rolling till you reached Vancouver.) Around Mallin Colorado the carretera turns into a dirt track, and between Coyhaique and Puyuhuapi into the brutally snowy one-lane Paso Queulat. I was frightened there, and lonely, with no phone signal and no hope of a friendly rescuer if I slid into a drift. Around Chaitén, the Pacific appeared—one had almost forgotten it was there. At the snow-filigreed pass south of Balmaceda I saw shaggy huemuls, the endangered South Andean deer. The natural beauty was a redemption of sorts from the solitude of the open road, and from everything.
Parque Patagonia begins at the confluence of the Chacabuco and Baker rivers, extending east to Paso Roballes and the Argentine border, some of it above the tree line. At the baronial park headquarters I talked with blue-eyed vet Cristián Saucedo, head of wildlife conservation. “When the Tompkins took over the park,” he said, “we removed hundreds of miles of fencing and barbed wire. Local people viewed us with suspicion, asking ‘Why isn’t Tompkins doing this in his own country?’ They were concerned that conservation efforts might eliminate gaucho culture, and that predators might increase—especially the puma population.” The conflict between the community and animal habitat is a familiar one. While these fears have not gone away, according to Saucedo “more Chileans understand the value of national parks now, and accept that our work is good for the region. It’s an ongoing process.”
Saucedo refers to the Patagonia wildlife “Big Five”. The first is the huemul. The second is the puma, the third the Andean condor, and the fourth Darwin’s rhea, an ostrich-like flightless bird. Fifth come the guanaco. I saw hundreds of these llama-like beasts. As the mating season was approaching, the males were chasing one another, careering over the grasslands to nip one another, or worse (they like to bite off testicles). Saucedo’s team monitors populations. “We’ve helped farmers understand that pumas control guanaco numbers. If we get rid of too many pumas, guanaco numbers will explode, taking grazing land from the outskirts of the park. There is never a stable line in nature, always cycles, but we’re achieving a better balance with livestock issues.”
After leaving Saucedo, I climbed high and east in the crepuscular light, the road a slender silver precipice above luminous lakes. The shadow of a flock of black-necked swans flickered on a mountainside. I Skyped with Kris. I don’t know where she was, but she was sitting on a chintz sofa and wearing a mustard sweater. A youthful 68-year-old with long, honey-coloured hair, her commitment to the rewilding projects zinged out of the pixelated screen. “We have donated all our land now,” she said. “Last year we offered the state our final million acres if they matched it with their contiguous 9.3 million acres. They did.” Across the border, the foundation has given 800,000 acres to the Argentinian government. The Tompkins leverage conservation value by getting governments to donate land in tandem with their own. Both former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and her Argentinian counterpart Mauricio Macri met Kris when the land deals for the parks were signed.
Heading north from Parque Patagonia, I entered a moister, more temperate zone where ferns dominate the foliage and Chilean dolphins were fluking in the cold waters of the fjords. I saw a lot of salmon farms. The industry, mostly foreign-owned, is a huge employer and huger polluter. The business took off in the mid-1980s, and Chile quickly became the world’s second largest producer of farmed salmon after Norway. I was shocked to witness the rise in production since I first visited 30 years ago. Firms have plans to expand still more in the south of the country. Besides aquaculture, environmental threats include mining and hydroelectric dams (graffiti protesting against those pops up all over the place).
Parque Pumalín, pronounced Pumaleen, consists of almost a million acres of temperate evergreen rainforest spiked with mountains and glaciers. I hiked a trail with Erwin González, the park administrator. It was raining. That’s the trouble with rainforest. But it’s not like the Amazon rainforest here. Pumalín is an attenuated landscape with just 20 species of trees and 10 of mammals. Pablo Neruda, one of Chile’s Nobel laureates, wrote of the southern trees, “from their cold green eyes 60 tears splash down on my face … Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.” He came from a place just north of Patagonia, and also wrote of “the great southern rain, coming down like a waterfall from the Pole”.
González and I were looking at alerce, a rain-absorbing hardwood that is soft, everlasting and resistant to fungi. Its tiles were once widely used for construction. “Alerce used to grow everywhere north of here,” González said. Close to Fandango Bridge (they love their place-names) we saw a 3,500-year-old specimen. It was tall, its shallow roots spreading laterally. Now alerce only grow in southern Argentina and Chile, and the species is protected. Copihue bellflowers dangled like drops of blood. González touched the bark of the big tree. He seemed so much part of the landscape that one had the sense he was the 11th species of mammal.
At Caleta Gonzalo, on a wharf overlooking Reñihué fjord, I waited for a ferry to convey me and my car through a labyrinth of channels up to Hornopirén, a four-and-a-half-hour journey. On the grass next to the dock, huet-huet birds whooped among a flock of persimmon-breasted chucao.
González, originally from Santiago, has worked for Tompkins Conservation for 10 years. He waited with me at Caleta Gonzalo, and teared up while showing me sketches Doug had drawn when the two of them were planning Pumalín’s information centres. The pencil drawings depicted hexagonal buildings on pages torn out of a notebook. “Doug was my inspiration,” González said. “He was visionary. And he has passed his vision on to us.” We sat in silence and contemplated the man as the ferry approached.
Everyone in the Tompkins organization acknowledges challenges ahead. “Chile needs to recognize,” González said, “that she cannot only depend on natural resources like copper and coal. We must look also to well-managed tourism. We are getting there, poco a poco (bit by bit).”
The Chilean National Forestry Corporation, CONAF, is in the process of taking over the administration of Patagonia and Pumalín. In both I noted anxiety about this transition. The department has a small budget. Will it even pick up existing staff contracts? Nobody knows. As it stands the Tompkins foundation runs the cafes and campsites in both parks. When CONAF is in charge, it will put those services out to tender. As González noted, “That will be a very different model.”
The latest Tompkins project, launched last year, is Ruta de los Parques, a road (not a string of hiking trails, as has been reported) linking 17 national parks from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn. As Kris says, “There is still lots going on. It didn’t end when we donated the land. I am a bit of a Calvinist, and not very celebratory. Our goal as a foundation is to stay small and focused. I believe in hard work. I love projects where you start at zero.” And so the love story goes on.
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