Patagonia National Park Comes Into Focus

Patagonia National Park, under construction. Photo: Eli Steltenpohl

"Buying the land was the easy part," Kristine Tompkins told a packed house during a presentation at the San Francisco Patagonia retail store last week. She was referring to the 2.2 million acres that she and her husband Doug Tompkins have acquired in Chile and Argentina over the past 20 years as part of their Herculean efforts to conserve and rehabilitate the grasslands, forests, wetlands, rivers, high alpine, and biodiversity of the Patagonia region.

The slideshow the audience watched offered an update on the Tompkins' current project, Patagonia National Park, a 200,000-acre tract that includes the Chacabuco Valley and was formerly a major sheep and cattle ranching area.

The Tompkinses are outdoor recreation industry legends and environmental firebrands. She is a founder and former CEO of Patagonia—the company—and he started both The North Face and the clothing company Esprit. Doug Tompkins started acquiring land in Chile in the early 1990s, adding adjacent parcels until he had amassed more than 700,000 acres to form Pumalin Park, which he donated to the Chilean government. But this initial foray into private wildlands philanthropy was not a smooth process, as Doug Tompkins was met with much suspicion and a fair amount of hostility over the scheme. Some Chileans and Argentineans asked: How can this foreigner waltz in, buy up the land, and tell us what we can and cannot do with it?

"It was a difficult time for me, personally," said Kris Tompkins, referring to the Pumalin Park development. As we noted in this 2001 story about the couple, the shift to Kris at the helm was an effort to put a more diplomatic foot forward, for ongoing deal-making with the Chilean and Argentinean governments.

In 2000, she founded Conservacion Patagonica, the NGO under which the Tompkins are now developing parklands (Pumalin Park was developed through another organization, the Conservation Land Trust). The first Conservacion Patagonica project was the establishment of the 155,000-acre Monte Leon National Park, Argentina’s first coastal continental national park. In 2003, she and CP launched the Patagonia National Park project.

During the presentation, Nadine Lehner, Conservacion Patagonica's executive director, provided an update on the trail development and biodiversity programs being established in advance of Patagonia National Park's opening.

Employing volunteer help—both Chileans and foreign visitors—the group has removed more than 400 miles of fencing from the park (used for ranching) and are now well into trail building, having completed the 16-mile Lagunas Atlas loop that links to a campground in the area. Projects still under development include a trail along the Baker River on its western border. The leg of the Baker that runs through the park had been threatened by a major hydroelectric proposal that was rerouted. But the company behind the project, HidroAysen, has not abandoned its big plans to build five large-scale dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers. Conservacion Patagonica and other groups are fighting the project and hope that a trail along the river inside the park would help build opposition to the dams.

Conservacion Patagonica is putting a big emphasis on bringing locals into the project wherever possible, and one way it's doing so is by employing people who used to hunt pumas (as a means of reducing livestock deaths) and retraining them as puma trackers who work with biologists to support and grow the native population.

Part of that work involves capturing and GPS-collaring animals in the park in order to track them and determine whether they're subsisting on other wild animals or on livestock. The research has shown that the pumas are mostly eating guanacos, wild relatives of llamas.

Park staff are also tracking and studying the endangered huemul deer inside the park. The huemul is a key focus, Lehner pointed out, because Chileans hold the animal in high esteem—"it's like the bald eagle for Chile."

Photo: Doug Tompkins

Staff are also working to root out invasive plants and reintroduce native ones around the park—in areas where decades of grazing haven't led to desertification.

While the work is ongoing and the entire infrastructure is not yet complete, the park is already open to visitors, who can camp within its boundaries. Also, the lux Lodge at Valle Chacabuco is open from October to April every year. The current projects are scheduled to wrap up in early 2015, at which point there will be a proper grand opening.

The Tompkins' long-term plan is to donate the land to the Chilean government to be establishment as a national park. But those negotiations are still ongoing.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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