Patagonia Park's Conservation Vision

Tompkins Conservation

In Chile’s remote Aysén region, one of the world’s biggest grasslands-restoration projects is an ideal secluded base camp for travelers comfortable with do-it-yourself adventure.

Patagonia Park, located in a transitional zone between the temperate beech forests of Chile and the arid steppes of Argentina, is the region’s newest destination. The park is the recently debuted endeavor of former Patagonia clothing brand CEO Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her late husband, Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face and Esprit. Over the past two decades, the American couple had bought and conserved more than 2.2 million acres in Chile and Argentina. Patagonia Park, opened to the public in June 2014, is their crown jewel. “Beyond the beauty, there are practical reasons to create a very big and long-lasting park here,” Kristine told me. “All of the original species of the region are still in residence, which is rare.”

It’s not easy to get to the park. The first step is an hour’s flight from Puerto Montt to the two-gate Balmaceda airport, located southeast of Coyhaique, a city of 60,000. From here, it’s a long and bumpy 190-mile drive south on the dirt-and-gravel Carretera Austral. The drive can take anywhere from five hours (with a fast driver) to six and a half hours (with a cautious driver). According to Patagonia Park guide Sergio Urrejola, 90 percent of the park’s visitors arrive by road, 9 percent by a charter flight into Cochrane (a 3,000-person town 17 miles south), and 1 percent by Cessna, landing on an airstrip in front of the park’s restaurant, which is marked by a red wind sock.

In 2004, Conservacion Patagonica, Kristine’s organization that builds national parks in Patagonia, purchased a 170,500-acre working ranch that sat on the land. (Since then, smaller land acquisitions have increased acreage to 200,000.) The ranch, one of the largest in the region, was established in 1908. Over time, the land had become over-grazed by livestock, leaving it susceptible to wind erosion and eventual desertification, a problem that currently affects about 30 percent of Patagonia.

From a conservation standpoint, the land is important because it encompasses a variety of ecosystems—grasslands, riparian forests, and wetlands—that allow for biodiversity. It’s also strategically positioned between the Chilean-government-protected Jeinimeni Lake National Reserve to the north and the Tamango National Reserve to the south. The idea is that Conservacion Patagonica will gift its 200,000 acres to the state, provided the government’s two other landholdings are combined to expand Patagonia Park to 640,000 acres. It is a model the Tompkinses used to create Chile’s 726,000-acre Corcovado National Park and 715,000-acre Pumalín Park. “The offer to the government has been made,” Kristine said. Until the state accepts the gift, the park is considered private but open to the public.

A striking thing one notices while driving into Patagonia Park is herds of curious guanacos (Patagonian llamas) galloping free. Farther south, near Torres del Paine, meanwhile, it’s not uncommon to see guanaco carcasses splayed over fences; barbed wire splits habitats and prevents migration, with animals often becoming entangled as they try to leap over an enclosure. It doesn’t take long to realize that in Patagonia Park, there are no fences.

Shortly after Conservacion Patagonica purchased the estancia, the organization started its grassland recovery. “We had to buy the land with all of the livestock,” Kristine said. “We sold off the 25,000 sheep and 4,000 cattle over four years. That was hard work.” Volunteers from the world over helped take down 400 miles of fencing. The organization also started projects to recover threatened species and protect biodiversity. As the land has been restored, wildlife has returned. The park is now home to 2,500 guanacos, 140 endangered huemul deer (only 2,000 of them exist worldwide), and 25 puma, to name a few species. The complete restoration will take decades.

The well-appointed, ten-room Lodge at Valle Chacabuco (rooms from $350; Paso Internacional Roballos, km. 12; 56-65/297-0833; patagoniapark.org), open from October to April, makes the park accessible for stopovers. Like the park’s visitor center and El Rincón Gaucho restaurant and bar, the lodge is made out of stone, instilling a sense of permanence. The lodge’s interior has a residential feel, with a main living room that has a soaring ceiling, deep couches, and flickering candles. There is a no-shoes policy; guests are provided with knit slippers.

Maybe it was because I was the only guest at the park, but my impression is that the lodge caters to the do-it-yourself traveler. Unless you are an experienced hiker who would be comfortable, say, fending off a mountain lion, you should go hiking only with a guide. That said, arranging one took a bit of advance work and involved extra costs. A brown-bag lunch, which I found a little difficult to procure, is also an additional expense. There are no bottles of water on-site, and the lodge does not provide guests with reusable water bottles (and there’s nowhere to get food or bottles of water between the park and the town of Cochrane, a 30-minute drive away). It’s essential to have all of your needed clothing on hand because the lodge doesn’t sell or have any extra gear. These inconveniences, however, were a small price to pay in exchange for experiencing one of the greatest conservation efforts of the 21st century.

Kristine believes that to appreciate nature, you have to experience it. Thus the first thing she and her husband established in Patagonia Park was two trails, both accessible from the lodge. One is the 14-mile Lagunas Altas Trail, and the other is the 4.5-mile La Vega Trail to the park’s West Winds campground. (More trails are being constructed.) I did the fairly flat La Vega hike my first day, but I didn’t feel experienced enough to do the long and mountainous 14-mile trek the second day, so lodge manager Daniel Casado suggested I hike to the confluence of the Baker and Chacabuco Rivers. It recently became an official trail, and the location has special meaning: It was the site of one of the five proposed HidroAysén dams, a megaproject whose construction the Tompkinses and other conservationists successfully lobbied against for eight years. “To be part of something that changes the possibility of an entire region and country will go down as one of the highlights of our lives,” Kristine said.

Lodge guide Sergio agreed to hike there with me. From above, the Baker River’s churning turquoise water, with its milky-looking consistency, seemed out of a chemistry lab. The hike was 45 minutes downhill, the final 15 minutes of which were fairly steep. When we got to the riverbed, the beach was filled with small pebbles. We were the only humans for miles. We sat at the junction of the rivers and ate our brown-bag lunches (a turkey sandwich on multigrain bread, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, and an almond chocolate bar, all provided by the lodge). I pulled out a glass mug I had brought from the lodge and drank out of the glacier-fed rivers, which are some of the purest in the world. A condor flew overhead. Guanacos were running wild. To a soundtrack of the running water, I looked up into the sunny blue sky, and a heaviness filled my heart as I imagined what it would have been like if the dam had been built. Where I was sitting would have been deep underwater. Never in my 34 years have I been so moved by earth in its natural state of being.

At dinner that night in the park’s restaurant, I sat in the same booth as I had the previous two evenings. I had gotten to know the restaurant’s sole waiter, Nick, a Dane whom the Tompkinses had met while he was working at a sushi restaurant in Iceland. Glancing around the large, empty dining room, I could almost see and hear the ghosts of generations to come. I said to Nick, “Wouldn’t it be something to see this place filled up with people in 20 years?” Standing there, with a window behind him acting as a canvas for the dancing stars dusted like glitter across the black night sky, Nick said, “When it is, I’ll have your table waiting for you.”

Photos Courtesy: Tompkins Conservation

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