Conservacion Patagonica was founded six years ago by Kris Tompkins, Patagonia’s former CEO, to restore and protect critical habitat in the Patagonia region. In 2004, Conservacion Patagonica bought Estancia Valle Chacabuco in an effort to restore a critical area in Chile (considered the number one conservation priority by Chilean National Parks for over 30 years) overrun by intensive overgrazing, mining and oil drilling. Since 2005, small groups of Patagonia employees have traveled to Valle Chacabuco, at company expense, for three weeks to help convert what was a ranching operation into a national park. What follows is a dispatch from Lisa Pike, Director of Environmental Programs for Patagonia, who traveled there in the spring of 2006.
The first few days at Estancia Valle Chacabuco I felt a slight yet pervasive nausea. The landscape made me dizzy. When the van first pulled off the main road onto the one leading into the estancia, each of us looked wildly around, not only to take the land in but to give it a context. “It’s like Montana or the Yukon.” “Those rocks look like ones I’ve seen in Nevada.” We were straining to look through windows coated in dust. From Balmaceda, in the southern part of Chile, it had taken seven hours to reach Chacabuco; 45 minutes outside of town, the paved road had ended.
Looking back, I realize those vertigo-inducing early days were an essential part of forming my relationship with the landscape. Each day weakened my tendency to compare the land with someplace else and slowly forced me to let go of the crutch of the familiar. This 11th region of Patagonia, La Region de Aysen, was, indeed, like no place I had ever been before. From the simple floor covering of its steppes to the changing fall leaves of the high deciduous beech forests to the jagged snow-capped peaks always on the horizon in each direction, its combined attributes are unique in all the world.
On our second day pulling fences, the morning’s rhythm of work was broken by the faint yet distinct sound of a helicopter in the distance. The low unmistakable whomp of its propeller approached and then receded. The sound of a helicopter in a remote area always raises more questions than it answers. I worried that someone might be hurt or in trouble or that maybe there was a fire in the area. These thoughts faded quickly as the physical work at hand lulled my mind back into a meditative state. At the end of the day, Christian, the estancia’s wildlife manager, drove us to a vantage point where we could see the purpose of the helicopter’s flight that day. A single bright red tent was pitched high on the steep rock wall above the confluence of where the powerful Rio Baker meets the Rio Chacabuco.
The next day, the helicopter never stopped – its sound in competition with the silence of our labor on the fence line. Before heading home, we stopped at our viewing spot again. A tent city had sprung up, with eight to 10 tents precariously perched on the rocks. We learned that Endesa, a large multinational Spanish corporation intent on building a series of hydroelectric dams in Patagonia, had two planned for the Rio Baker. It was likely the red tents were for geologists and engineers surveying the location and taking core samples of rock. This particular dam would flood the valley all the way back to Lake Bertrand, where the Baker begins. Prime habitat for the nearly extinct huemul deer and the guanaco, a distant relative of the llama (and, like the huemul, a symbol of the Patagonia region), as well as condors, pumas, the Chilean otter and countless other native species would be affected. Standing there, with the wind pushing hard at our backs, we looked across and down at the raging green and white river. I tried to picture the beautiful landscape swallowed up behind the river’s narrowest point. I imagined thousands of miles of transmission lines running up to the cities and industries in the north.
We went to Patagonia to help restore the overgrazed land of an 85-year-old, 173,000-acre sheep ranch. Bordered by the protected areas of the Tamango and Lago Cochrane National Reserves to the southwest and the Jeinimeni National Reserve to the northeast, these parcels combined will become the future Patagonia National Park. Restoration meant pulling up well-constructed fences and digging up invasive species that have compromised the ecosystem and taken over entire hillsides. The downed fences would allow the guanaco and the huemul deer to roam freely, and the removed plants would stop choking native plants and species. I knew it would be hard physical labor. We worked two and three to a post, alternating among shovels, chuzos (a kind of pike) and pickaxes. After bending over for so long, I had to lift my back one vertebra at a time, fearing that if I moved too fast, it might ruin my chances of ever standing up straight again.
The work was slow and methodical, but we could see our progress. Progress for us was rehabilitating the land to its original state. Removing what had caused the damage in the first place, to allow the land to rebalance itself. I thought about what progress means to Patagonia today. I was reminded of a sign proudly displayed by the Chilean highway department alongside a roadway project just outside the estancia. ¡Mira Como Progresa! Translated loosely: See how we progress! It was well positioned for drivers delayed by the construction to see while waiting in their cars. Endesa’s plans for harnessing the wild and pristine Rio Baker, I imagine, are being sold as progress, too, on the merits of moving the country forward with promises of jobs and cheap energy sources. Successfully removing another 20 yards of fence, I was struck by how history repeats itself – as we worked to undo the progress of the past.