Patagonia. The very word is synonymous with unspoiled wilderness. In reality, however, European immigrants began redefining this remote stretch of Chile and Argentina a century ago, carving significant portions of its 402,700 square miles into vast private estancias. Over time, many of those sheep and cattle ranches closed, but their impact remains: heavy-gauge wire fences intersecting what was once wide-open grassland, indigenous flora degraded by overgrazing, native puma populations decimated by hunting. Pictured: The Aviles trail winds through wildflowers and native grasses along the shore of Chile’s Rio Aviles.
This story originally appeared inModern Farmer.
Kris and Douglas Tompkins have spent the past 25 years attempting to undo the damage. Since moving to southern Chile from Northern California, the former outdoor-clothing execs (she was the CEO ofPatagonia, Inc
.; he foundedThe North Face
) have purchased some 2 million acres in South America, returning them to biodiverse health. The couple has gifted much of that land to the governments of Chile and Argentina, in the form of protected nature sanctuaries and national parks. Now the Tompkinses, through her nonprofitConservacion Patagonica
(CP), are working on what just may be the largest single grasslands restoration project ever attempted: 650,000 acres in Chile’s Aysén region that will be called Patagonia National Park
once completed and donated to the federal government. They aren’t doing it alone. Above: The 7,890-foot-high Cerro Kristine mountain towers over a lagoon in Chile’s Patagonia Park, 190 miles from the city of Coyhaique.10 Reasons To Visit A National Park Now: Photos
MacArthur Fellow Amory B. Lovins, who co-founded Colorado’sRocky Mountain Institute
, has collaborated with Kris and Douglas to ensure that Patagonia National Park will be both self-sufficient and carbon-neutral. Chilean architect Francisco Morandé Ruiz-Tagle designed the park’sLodge at Valle Chacabuco,
constructed of local stone and recycled wood. (Proceeds from the lodge go back to the park.) Ruiz-Tagle also helped plan the campgrounds, which provide inexpensive access to the public. “You want people to come out and fall in love,” says Kris, “because you won’t protect something unless you love it.”
When CP purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco to secure its land for the park, the foundation offered jobs to the sheep ranch’s gauchos. The sheep, however, didn’t fare quite so well. Once the estancia’s fences had been removed, the herd started falling prey to pumas and foxes -- until the park’s resident veterinarian, Paula Herrera, instituted a guard-dog program. She’s since trained eight litters of Great Pyrenees puppies, raising them alongside the lambs. “We know we can’t keep livestock in a national park, but we’ve had such good results with the dogs that we’ll continue to train them for neighboring ranches,” says Herrera, who also oversees the park’s volunteer efforts. (Above) Martin, son of vet Paula Herrera, cuddles one of the park’s sheep-guarding pups.Should National Parks Be Strictly Wild?
Each year, approximately 70 volunteers (chosen from more than 200 applicants) spend 18 days camped out in the park. Herrera seeks candidates with strong Spanish-language skills, experience living in small groups, and enthusiasm for hard work. Supplies are carried in by horse; tents are pitched near job sites. The volunteers weed, tear down fences, build bridges, and tackle other tasks that “we don’t have the budget to do,” says Herrera. “Our volunteers go out in the world and become ambassadors for the park.” Pictured: Volunteers camp wherever they’re working.
This year, some of those volunteers will participate in a new initiative, growing fruit, herbs, and vegetables for thelodge’s restaurant
, as well as for park employees. “We want to send a strong message that organic agriculture is cost-effective,” says head gardener Francisco Vio. “If it works here in this erratic climate, it can work almost anywhere.” With 30 different crops thriving in 50 raised beds and simple wood-framed greenhouses, Vio aims to show what’s possible. Which pretty much sums up Kris and Douglas Tompkins’ original vision for this rugged and inhospitable -- yet completely intoxicating -- landscape. “When someone asks me, ‘Why here?’” says Kris, “I answer, ‘Just look around you.’” (Top) Volunteer Ben Phillips, of Montana, spent three weeks removing wire fences from the park.Horizontal Falls': New Australian National Park
This unheated, wood-frame greenhouse provides fresh vegetables for Patagonia Park’s on-site restaurant, El Rincón Gaucho.
Park staffer Miguel Alejandro Ganga Irquen prepares to deliver materials to work crews.Denali National Park Gets 'Google Street View'
Above, former gaucho Jorge Perez now tracks and tags native pumas for the park.
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Paleontologists in Argentina have announced the discovery of a major Jurassic-era fossil site four years after it was first discovered.
The site, which spans 23,000 square miles in Patagonia in southern Argentina, came to light this week with the publication of a report in the journal Ameghiniana.
“No other place in the world contains the same amount and diversity of Jurassic fossils,” said geologist Juan Garcia Massini of the Regional Center for Scientific Research and Technology Transfer (CRILAR).
The fossils — between 140 and 160 million years old — lie on the surface because they were recently exposed by erosion, said Garcia Massini, who leads the research team investigating the site.
“You can see the landscape as it appeared in the Jurassic — how thermal waters, lakes and streams as well as plants and other parts of the ecosystem were distributed,” he said.
The fossils were preserved almost immediately, in less than a day in some cases.
“You can see how fungi, cyanobacteria and worms moved when they were alive,” Garcia Massini said of the site that lies along the Deseado Massif mountain range.
Ignacio Escapa of the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum said the researchers had found “a wide range of micro and macro-organisms.”
The fossils are so well preserved, that researchers say each rock extracted from the site could possibly open the door to a new discovery.