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The Future Patagonia National Park

November 7, 2009

Laguna Seca in the late afternoon.

Since the last post was on the harsh side, I should counterbalance it by pointing out that, on the whole, Conservacion Patigonica´s project here is an important and singular effort. Earlier this week, Director of Conservation Christian Salcedo gave my fellow volunteers and I an overview of the origin and vision of the organization’s work here in the Valle Chacabuco.

Conservacion Patagonica decided to acquire the land after it was identified as a unique conservation opportunity by a Chilean governmental panel of ecological experts. The ecosystem encompassed by the park lies, both physically and ecologically, between the high mountainous climate and littoral areas of Chile, a type of habitat that is currently underrepresented in the protected areas of Chile. Thus, the goal of turning the land into a park was not motivated by vague ideals but instead by specific factors that made this land of greater conservation value than other areas, which is significant in the Chilean political context.

In 2004, Conservacion Patagonica bought the land, known as the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, from its previous owners, a Belgian family that raised sheep in the long valley between a ridge of mountains and Lago Cochrane. For over 100 years, livestock has grazed the land in numbers far exceeding its sustainable carrying capacity. Unsurprisingly, this continued overuse of the landscape has resulted in significant degradation of the ecosystem’s health. Conservacion Patigonica’s immediate goal, therefore, is to restore the land to a state as close as feasible to its original pristine condition.

In pursing this goal, the organization has done everything possible to assure that the change would not adversely affect the local population. All employees of the previous owners were offered jobs and many have made the transition from working to exploit the land to working to preserve it. Gauchos who used to manage the tens of thousands of sheep on the land now monitor restoration efforts and the environmental health of the land. One man who used to hunt pumas for sport now helps researchers capture and tranquilize them in order to fit them with radio collars that enable the study of their feeding habits, garnering valuable new knowledge about the ecosystem. In divesting the land of its livestock, the organization took steps to make sure that the animals were sold in a manner that did not affect local prices and thus the livelihood of nearby ranchers. In broad terms, Conservacion Patagonica hopes the park will serve as a model of ecotourism that could provide locals with an alternative to the current ranching model, which is in fact becoming less and less profitable.

Conservacion Patagonica´s ultimate goal is the integration of the Estancia Chacabuco land with the adjacent national parks, Tomango National Park and Jenimeni National Park, to form Patagonia National Park, what would be a 750,000 acre protected area, larger than Chile´s internationally popular Torres del Paine National Park. This park would have infrastructure and access points for various recreational activities while also being designed in a manner that minimizes the adverse effects of recreational use. While political concerns will play a significant role (an issue I’ll discuss in another post), Conservacion Patagonica hopes to achieve this ultimate goal in the next 15 years.

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