In 2004, Conservacion Patagonica purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco (173,000 acres) in Chile’s Ayeson region. The goal of the purchase is the restoration of the purchased lands and the eventual creation of a new national park that encompasses over 750,000 acres. Conservacion Patagonica, a non-profit run by Americans Kristine and Doug Tompkins dedicated to creating new national parks in Chile and Argentina using philanthropic monies, chose this region as the future home to a new national park because of its varied landscape (steppe, grasslands, southern beech forests, high peaks, lakes, lagoons and “one of Chile’s most emblematic rivers, the Baker River.” Despite Estancia Valle Chacabuco’s long-time use as a sheep farm, the site also has its entire original species of flora and fauna intact—the restoration of habitat for the endangered huemel deer (Chile’s national symbol for nature) is a major goal of the project. The huemel deer population is an estimated 120 individuals, ten percent of the remaining population. Few areas of healthy grasslands remain as wildlife habitat in the Patagonian steppe due to their conversion to grazing land and preserving the region’s biodiversity requires restoring productive grassland habitat.
Since purchasing the Estancia, Conservacion Patagonica has embarked on an effort to reverse the effects of over a century of livestock (20,000 sheep and 3,000 cows were removed from the property) grazing. This overgrazing, coupled with Patagonia’s relentless winds has led to massive desertification (estimates put desertification levels at 30% of the Patagonian steppe). Livestock and fencing have been largely removed from the site, allowing grasslands the opportunity to recover and wildlife populations unimpeded movement throughout their historic habitat. In addition, park managers are working to remove some of the 38 species of exotic plants that have flourished in the grasslands. This invasives removal targets six species: rose hip, poison hemlock, common mullein, thistle (two species), and non-native pine.
The most interesting thing to me about this project is the creativity of park managers in creating stakeholder support for the project and in recruiting sufficient manpower for such a spatially-large restoration effort. Conservacion Patagonica involves local peoples in the restoration, often those whose livelihoods may have otherwise been negatively impacted by the project, and is working to develop alternative economic opportunities (ie tourism) to ranching in the region that will enhance long-term environmental outcomes. For example, former hunters have been hired to track pumas so that biologists can learn more about their deer predation. The organization’s creative stakeholder outreach is evidenced by its sheep dog training program—it trains sheep dogs to protect livestock herds from pumas (endangered); these dogs will be given to neighbors to reduce incidents of puma hunting. Efforts like this both improve short-term environmental outcomes AND increase stakeholder buy-in to long-term conservation efforts. These efforts stand in stark contrast to conservation organizations’ history of eschewing social considerations (particularly those of local inhabitants) in favor of conservation.
The park reduces its costs with a vibrant volunteer program (primarily tourists) that provides free labor to the exotics and fencing removal effort.
Unfortunately, I was not able to track down the Park’s 10-year management plan and the restoration’s goal, “To create a thriving ecosystem with all the native species, overgrazed, damaged grasslands must return to productivity and health” is fairly vague. None-the-less, the restoration/conservation project is noteworthy for its creative approach to developing stakeholder support and its particularly large spatial scale.
Photo credit: Mark Zimring; Peninsula Valdez, Argentina