How To Build A National Park
By Alison Kelman
Located 1,200 miles south of Santiago in southern Chilean Patagonia, the Patagonia National Park of the future encompasses over 200,000 acres of grassland, lenga forest, and glaciated peaks. Purchased in 2004 by the U.S.-based, non-profit Conservacion Patagonica (CP), the Estancia Valle Chacabuco property was once Chile’s third largest sheep estancia, home to more than 25,000 sheep. After decades of overgrazing, the delicate grasslands had started to desertify and blow away. Through the removal of the sheep and the implementation of a volunteer reseeding program in the most negatively affected areas, the grasslands are rebounding. After 12 years of hard work rehabilitating this degraded landscape, building trails and touristic infrastructure, and monitoring populations of threatened native species, the park is nearing its final phase of construction. When the park is donated to the government of Chile, it will combine with the Jeinimeni Reserve to the north and the Tamango Reserve to the south to become one 650,000-acre national park. This grand experiment in wildlands recovery is now in its final phase of development. The goal is to donate the park and its infrastructure to the Chilean government by 2018. The future Patagonia National Park will become the crown jewel of the Chilean park system, and will inspire all who visit to help protect wild nature.
At the start of this project, CP realized it had an opportunity to work in a singularly strategic location. Not only is Patagonia a wild ecological treasure, but the future park occupies a particularly significant and critical area of this region. Though Patagonia contains many protected areas, grasslands within the park system are not well represented. Spectacularly beautiful, this area presents a unique opportunity to create a new national park in an area that is both ecologically critical and politically smart. CONAF, the Chilean agency in charge of parks, has listed the Chacabuco Valley as a top conservation priority for decades due to its biological importance; however, the agency lacked the funds to purchase the property.
Located at the transitional zone between the semi-arid Patagonian steppe and temperate beech forests, the future national park spans an unusual range of habitats, from grasslands and wetlands to high peaks. This diversity of habitats provides critical room for species to adapt to a changing climate.
The CP conservation plan calls for donating approximately 200,000 acres acquired in the Chacabuco Valley to the future park, with the stipulation that the Chilean government contribute 460,000 acres that are currently part of the Jeinimeni and Tamango National Reserves. Upgrading these areas from National Reserve to National Park will secure a higher degree of protection for the area. The bulk of the land acquisition came with the 2004 purchase of the 173,000-acre Estancia Valle Chacabuco. With help from friends and partners, CP has purchased several other properties in the subsequent years, all from willing sellers who were offered jobs in the future park.
The Chacabuco Valley retains all of the wildlife present, though not in their previous abundance, when European settlers arrived. The park is home to guanacos, puma, viscachas, armadillos, flamingos, Andean condors, and more than 90 other species of birds. The highly endangered huemul deer, featured on Chile’s coat of arms, has a global population of just 1,400, approximately 130 of which live inside the park. The huemul is the number-one priority for the CP wildlife team, as Patagonia Park is one of the deer’s last chances at long-term survival. The biggest threat to the huemul is attacks by feral dogs that come from the local town, in addition to the diseases they carry. To mitigate this issue, CP is collaborating with local officials to figure out realistic and effective ways to protect the huemul and address the dog problem.
Mitigating Predator-Livestock Conflict
Patagonia Park is also home to approximately 25 pumas, one of the most controversial animals in the park. Historically persecuted by ranchers looking to protect their sheep, the puma was largely absent from the valley when CP first arrived. Puma conservation remains a sensitive issue as neighboring ranchers are concerned that the park is protecting the region’s top predator, which threatens their livestock. To disprove this misconception, the wildlife team closely monitors the territories, behavior, and diet of the park’s pumas, using radio collars and camera traps. The team discovered that 95 percent of the park pumas’ diet consists of guanaco and European hare, both of which maintain stable populations. Only a marginal percentage of their diet consists of livestock and huemul deer. It is the hope of CP that this information will help mitigate puma poaching in the region and lead to a better understanding and appreciation for the species. So far, the most effective form of predator-livestock mitigation has come in the form of our Livestock Guardian Dogs program, which breeds Great Pyrenees dogs to protect sheep from predators. This program was so successful that similar programs were started throughout the country.
When visitors round the last corner of the seven-hour drive down the Carretera Austral (Chile’s southern highway), the spectacular architecture of the park headquarters comes into view. Made from local stone, refurbished wood, and copper trim, the buildings embody the landscape, inspiring a sense of place. In the U.S., pride for our national parks comes not only from the landscapes, but also from the architecture built to match the park’s enduring legacy. Inspired by national park lodges around the world, such as the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco was built to last 100 years and to attract visitors from around the world. The six-bedroom lodge will soon have an additional four-bedroom annex, and is within walking distance of the Restaurante Él Rincón Gaucho, the park office, and multiple trail systems. The campgrounds are built with the same attention to detail, and include beautiful three-sided wooden shelters, solar showers, and spectacular views. In addition to drawing visitors and inspiring national pride, the investment in quality infrastructure is intended to ensure low maintenance costs for the park service long after the park is donated.
Creating Local Economic Opportunity
The park’s neighboring towns of Cochrane and Chile Chico will play a vital role in the future of the park, and will be the main recipient of the park’s economic benefits. As the era of Chile’s big ranches comes to an end, this remote region of Patagonia is in dire need of a new and sustainable economic source. It is CP’s vision that the future Patagonia National Park will act as an economic anchor for its gateway communities by bringing tourism to the region. Conservacion Patagonica is doing its part to prepare the local communities with the skills needed to take advantage of this opportunity, including sustainable tourism workshops, park guiding programs, and outdoor education for the local middle schools. The Handcraft Store, located at park headquarters, sells local crafts, such as hand-woven baskets, alerce bowls, and hand-knit sweaters made of local wool. A concerted effort is put into hiring local people, training them in hospitality, guiding, operations, and more. Generating healthy economic opportunity has been a strong selling point for the creation of the park, and is essential to the park’s long-term success.
We welcome you to visit the park to see the progress for yourself. To plan your trip, please visit www.patagoniapark.org. The park is open October 1 through April 30.
Alison Kelman is the Communications Director for Conservacion Patagonica and is based in San Francisco, Calif. Reach her at email@example.com.