This is what a conservation legacy looks and feels like. When we first entered Parque Patagonia there was something unusual. There were no fences, there were no sheep grazing, the grasslands between the mountains was long and healthy looking. In our time there we saw Guanaco (wild lama) which have grazed here for over 10,000 years and were running wild in herds all over the land. Gray fox and rabbit dashed about here and there. Pink Flamingos were in abundance on the lagoons and wetlands and Condor soared overhead. The whole scene was as though we had stepped back in time to the way it was thousands of years ago when small bands of hunter-gatherers wandered these lands. It was palpable, you could feel it. Currently this is private land but open to the public, not under lock and key.
The Patagonia region of southern Argentina and Chile is an enormous area (over 1 million square kilometers) of glaciers, fjords, arid steppes, soaring peaks, wetlands, temperate rain forest, grasslands, beech forest, lakes, lagoons and rivers. It is a feast of visual landscapes that keep a wanderer craning his neck at every bend of the road, river or trail. Although the land is breathtaking much of it is overgrazed, over logged and deteriorating with erosion, desertification and the loss of wetlands. It was here that two young adventurers and mountain climbers Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard came in 1968 to climb Cerro Fitz Roy, a massive, ultra-prominent peak. A few years later Yvon would go on to create Patagonia, the company and Doug would go on to found North Face and Esprit clothing. Doug’s future wife and conservation partner Kris became CEO of Patagonia. Fast forward over 40 years later and Doug and Kris have purchased and been instrumental in conserving over two million acres in Chile and Argentina. They became the largest private land owners in the world. From their landholdings one of many parks they founded is the 174,000 acre Patagonia Park, which they intend to donate to the Chilean government to remain a national park in perpetuity. The Chilean Government for over 30 years has considered the Chacabuco Valley the most important conservation region in the country.
Driving further we entered the park’s administration area where we stopped and admired the architecture which was new but had an air of permanence. It was designed to last for ages and reflects the importance of conservation similar to buildings in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks in the U.S. The campgrounds are open and well maintained with sheltered cooking zones, showers and toilets. We reserved a table for Christmas dinner at El Rincon Gaucho, the parks restaurant and enjoyed lamb, beef and fish grilled on the traditional South American asado. The salads and vegetables are grown in the organic garden on site which supplies all of the restaurant’s vegetables. The hiking trails are well maintained and include circuitous routes through rocky intrusions, beech forest, lakes and lagoons. Our first trek was a 23 kilometer loop that started and ended at our campsite. Another was a 17 k loop up a river valley, over deep gorges and across a high steppe.
The saddest part of the story however is the passing of the 72 year old Doug Tompkins who died in a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera in December of 2015 just a few miles north of Patagonia Park. Kris Tompkins remains committed to her conservation efforts and those of her late husband in the passing of the lands as National Parks to the Chilean Government. She founded Conservacion Patagonica in 2000 to create national parks in Patagonia “that protect and restore wildlands and wildlife, inspire care for the natural world and generate healthy economic opportunities for local communities.” Their legacy should last hundreds of years. It is amazing what a small number of committed people can create through philanthropy that ensures the preservation of our planet for future generations.