September 11, 2010 1:24 am

Back to nature in Patagonia

 
A wooden fence with Mount Lucas Bridges at the background, Patagonia Park

Mount Lucas Bridges in Patagonia Park

Amid the wild backcountry of southern Chile, in a landscape carved by ice and fire, a new nature reserve is emerging that is set to challenge Torres del Paine as the hikers’ favoured stomping ground in the Patagonian Andes.

Privately-owned Patagonia Park, located near the rough-hewn gaucho settlement of Cochrane in southern Aisén province, encompasses a 90km valley of startling beauty, where the Río Chacabuco cuts through a landscape of grassland savannah, wetlands and southern beech forest.

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The land forms a prime habitat for puma, guanaco, a wild and woolly relative of the llama, and the huemul, an endangered Andean deer. Moreover, it fills a strategic gap between the existing Jeinimeni and Tamango national reserves, together forming a contiguous, 300,000-hectare swathe of protected land, a territory as large and ecologically important as Yosemite National Park in California.

The park is centred on Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a 70,000-hectare former sheep farm surrounded by majestic glaciers, snow-capped volcanoes, raging melt-water rivers, temperate rainforests and two continental ice sheets. “Chacabuco is one of the all-time great estancias of Chile,” said Kristine Tompkins, president of Conservación Patagonica, a land trust that paid US$10m for the property in 2004.

Over the past six years, Tompkins has sold the farm’s 3,000 cattle and 20,000 sheep, encouraged the return of native fauna, and begun to shepherd the area’s return to wilderness. Each summer, hundreds of volunteer workers, mainly American gap year students, have helped to eradicate invasive plant species and tear down some 640km of fencing to encourage free-roaming wildlife. In the long term, Tompkins plans to donate the park to the Chilean government.

Estancia Valle Chacabuco is one of a string of large-scale acquisitions that Tompkins, 59, and her husband Douglas, 67, have made over the past two decades.

In 1990, Douglas pocketed $150m when he sold fashion clothing line Esprit and devoted much of the proceeds to the Conservation Land Trust, a non-profit outfit he established to buy vast swathes of South American land in order to save its wildlife-rich ecosystems. A self-described “deep ecologist”, he argues that environmental destruction is now so prolific that only a profound restructuring of modern society can halt its ravages.

Kristine, who for 20 years was chief executive of outdoor equipment maker Patagonia Inc, added much of her own wealth to the enterprise in 1999. To date, the couple have amassed land holdings of some 830,000 hectares across South America, roughly equivalent in size to Puerto Rico.

Yet the Tompkinses’ ambitions and strident views have caused upset in South America. Politicians in Chile and Argentina have accused them of throwing locals out of work, nationalists have objected to the sheer extent of their holdings, and ordinary citizens believe Patagonian land can be used responsibly but productively.

The Tompkinses argue that they develop sustainable uses for Patagonian land, increase public access to hitherto private property, and generate jobs in eco-tourism.

Yet their purchase of Valle Chacabuco still drew the ire of Chilean politicians, business figures and local media. “They swore they would keep the valley out of conservation hands at all costs,” said Kristine.

The estancia’s sale sparked controversy due, in part to, its rich history. The farm was hacked from Aisén’s inhospitable backcountry by Lucas Bridges, Patagonia’s best-known pioneer. Born in Tierra del Fuego in 1874 to an English missionary father, Bridges grew up with the now-extinct Yamana, Aush and Ona tribes, hunting guanaco and speaking Yamana, a childhood he recounted vividly in Uttermost Part of the Earth, his 1947 autobiography.

Bridges established the Valle Chacabuco farm in 1915 but then went to fight in war-torn Europe. “Dad came back after the war to find the farm manager had been murdered and the place utterly neglected,” recalled Lucas’s youngest son, David Bridges, shortly before his death in 2009. “The company had gone through all its capital and had fallen £100,000 in debt. Dad got lumbered with sorting out the financial trouble. He did it, but it took him 20 years.”

Bridges brought his family to live at Chacabuco in 1923 and set about wresting the farm into profit. In typically bombastic fashion, he blasted a mule path through nearby peaks to transport wool to Chile’s Pacific coast, fought off the pumas that ate his flock, and bridged the Río Chacabuco by fashioning cable from 6,000 strands of fencing wire.

Bridges built a modest house for his family at the eastern end of the valley, its veranda opening to the prettiest peak in the valley, now labelled on Chilean maps as Mount Lucas Bridges. “The house was built to look on to that mountain,” said David.

Ninety years on, the house Bridges built still stands, its broken windows creaking in the breeze, its interior reeking of sheep oil and history.

The Tompkinses have pledged to restore the house, yet they show little sympathy for Bridges’ pioneering exploits. “This legendary Lucas Bridges came steaming in with 85,000 sheep, and just moved on when the land was used up,” said Douglas. “Over-grazing became so chronic that it crashed the local economy. The desertification of Patagonia today is horrendous.”

In both its guises, as sheep farm and as nature reserve, Valle Chacabuco has formed a crucible for two opposing visions of how wilderness areas should be used. Bridges believed that Patagonia’s grasslands could be used productively to feed and clothe people. The Tompkinses, in contrast, believe that human-focused productive activity has little or no place in nature. By lifting the farm’s fences and returning the land to wilderness, they are literally undoing Bridges’ work.

 
A bedroom at The Lodge in Patagonia Park

The luxurious lodge

Patagonia Park officially opens in April 2011, when two campsites and a network of signed trails are due for completion, but much of the park’s infrastructure is already finished. The Lodge, a six-bedroom stone-and-wood guesthouse, modelled on Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, is already open along with a restaurant. Visitors staying in nearby Cochrane are also welcome to make day visits to the park.

Walkers can register with park rangers to trek through the valley or combine day hikes in Patagonia Park with other nearby landmarks. Within easy reach lie Patagonia’s highest peak, the 4,058m San Valentín, trout fishing spots on the Río Baker, and the glacier-raked Northern Patagonian Ice Field, a permanent ice cap fractured by jagged peaks and fringed by dark forests of lenga, a type of southern beech.

In the long term, the Tompkinses harbour a dream of merging Patagonia Park with Argentina’s Perito Moreno National Park and other properties they own on the eastern slopes of the Andes, creating a single, vast reserve spanning two countries. “That’ll take the rest of our lives,” said Kristine. “But this is work for life. This is what we’ll be doing until we drop dead.”

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Details

The Lodge (www.conservacionpatagonica.org, doubles from US$500 full board) is the only accommodation in Patagonia Park itself. Two park campsites are set to open in April 2011.

In Puerto Guadal, 45km north of Patagonia Park, Terra Luna Lodge (www.terra-luna.cl, doubles $70$ 130) is situated on turquoise, glacierfed Lago General Carrera; activities include trout fishing, horseriding and excursions by mountain bike, boat or kayak.

The closest airport to Patagonia Park is Chile’s Coyhaique/Balmaceda airport, served by LAN Chile (www.lan.com) and Sky Airline (www.skyairline.cl).

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‘How can I go wrong?’

The idea of buying land in order to protect it came to Douglas Tompkins almost by accident. “I got a call in 1988 from a Californian activist who was trying to save a 500ha araucaria forest in Chile,” said Tompkins, who abandoned a successful business career to concentrate on the ecology in the late 1980s. “He was looking for people to contribute, so I chipped in.”

A few months later, Tompkins visited Chile and learnt that another property, a 7,000ha lowland valley, had just come on the market. “The seller was asking half a million dollars,” he recalled. “Even then, you couldn’t buy an apartment in San Francisco for that. I thought, ‘How can I go wrong?’”

Having set up the North Face, an outdoor clothing brand in 1968, and then built clothing group Esprit into a $1bn global operation, he sold his stock in 1990 and devoted much of the $150m proceeds to combating ecological destruction wherever it could be found.

He relocated to a remote Chilean fjord to live without electricity or telephone. “That was tough, living on a little farm with very few people, in rough weather and just a VHF radio,” said Kristine, who married Doug in 1993. Herself a 1960s rebel-turned-business tycoon, as chief of Patagonia Inc, she was searching for a new challenge.

Despite their extreme isolation, the couple began to assemble a network of properties with the dream of opening a string of national parks across Chile and Argentina. Local landowners, hit by a long-term dip in wool prices, were delighted to rid themselves of loss-making sheep farms.

Recent years have seen the couple successfully donate key properties to local national park services. In 2002, Argentina unveiled Monte León National Park after Conservación Patagonica bought and donated a 62,000ha former sheep farm set on a 45km stretch of Patagonia’s Atlantic coast. Four years later, Chile unveiled Corcovado National Park, a 294,000ha expanse of mountainous cypress forest centred on land donated by Douglas’s trust, the Conservation Land Trust.

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