We’re moving!

Dear friends and readers,

Thank you for being loyal subscribers to Conservacion Patagonica’s blog thus far. Today, our blog moves to a new address: www.conservacionpatagonica.org/blog.  The reason: we’re relaunching as an entirely bilingual blog, with Spanish and English content.  Unfortunately, we can’t automatically subscribe you to the new blog.  Please re-subscribe and choose your language when you visit the new site.


The Conservacion Patagonica team


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Midsummer Floods: Jan. 27th GLOF on the Baker River

What triples the volume of an already massive river?  The Baker already lays claims to many superlatives: largest river by volume in Chile, draining from Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America, and from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest extrapolar ice fields in the world.  In the last five years, it has become the subject of the largest environmental fight in Chile’s history: the debate over HidroAysen’s plan to erect mega hydroelectric dams.

On January 27th, three Bakers-worth of water charged down the river as its flow rocketed 3,746 cubic meters per second (132,288 cubic feet per second) from a normal flow of around 1,200 m3/s (42,377 Ft3/s).   The flood-stage volume exceeded the average flow of many of the world’s largest rivers: the Nile, the Missouri, the Yellow River of China, the Rhine.  For most of a day, the Baker was running at five times the volume of the Hudson River in New York.

 Where did this tsunami of water come from? For now, no industrial human interference.  On January 25th, a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) began at the Cachet 2 lake, a vast, two-square-mile glacial lake in the Baker watershed.   This lake drains from the Colonia Glacier, perpetually rising and falling according to the melt rate of the glacier and surrounding ice field.  At certain moments, however, an accelerating melt rate raises water pressure and puts great stress on the ice dam that forms the end of the lake.  Water forms a channel underneath the ice dam and into the Colonia River below.  The initial trickle grows exponentially in volume, until the ice dam gives way to the stress.  Within a matter of hours, the entire lake—all 200 million cubic meters of it—dump out, like water rushing down the bathtub drain.

The water of Cachet 2 then travels a brief way down the Colonia River before joining the Baker River.  For several hours, the supercharged volume of the Colonia River pushes the Baker upstream at the point of confluence as it floods out in all directions.  Some of us drove out through the Colonia Valley to see the effects: water covering farms and roads, and the river spilling over its banks.  We visited the farm of the parents of park guard Daniel Velasquez, where high water had flooded bridges.  Thanks to a radio-based early alert system, they had moved their livestock to higher group and so suffered few major losses from the flood.

The history of GLOFs in the Baker watershed tells a frightening tale even for a climate change skeptic.  Historical records show periodic GLOFs in the area.   Prior to 2008, however, the last recorded GLOF in the Baker watershed occurred four decades ago.  Since 2008, six GLOFs have rocked the Baker.  Scientists have well documented the accelerated melt rate of Patagonia’s glaciers, whose extrapolar location makes them particularly sensitive to small variations in climate patterns. At the 2010 climate change talks in Cancún, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on mountain glaciers, stating that glaciers on Argentine and Chilean Patagonia are “losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers in other parts of the world.”

The increasing instability of the Baker river system raises yet another serious technical difficulty with the HidroAysen dam project.  Even a large dam would struggle to withstand the added stress of a triple-volume of river.   Moreover, GLOFs transport large volumes of glacial sediment downstream, which adds further stress to the dam system.  While the natural breakage of an ice dam on Cachet 2 brings major floods to the area downstream, the failure of an immense manmade reservoir on the Baker would wreck havoc many times worse.  As the Patagonia Sin Represas movement has demonstrated, HidroAysen paid little attention to the risks of GLOFs in their original project design.   Our systematic critique of the company’s environmental impact statement highlighted this flaw, but HidroAysen has failed so far to give an adequate response.

Seven years into the campaign to save Patagonia’s rivers, the spectacle of the engorged and unpredictable Baker returned us to the wildest of a wild river.  No scheduled release determined its volume and no reservoir caught the glacial outflow.  Among the many reasons to oppose the dam project, the spiritual value of a wild river is one of the more difficult to price and evaluate.  Yet spending time with the dynamic Baker produces an undeniable expansion of the imagination and spirit.

For more information in Spanish, see this article.

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Species Profile: Guanacos

“An elegant animal in a state of nature, with a long slender neck and fine legs.”

–Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

Travel through the Aysen Region of Chile and then enter the Patagonia National Park project.  Chances are, you’ll note two big changes: no fences, and lots of guanacos.  Since we removed the livestock from the former Estancia Valle Chacabuco, herds of guanacos—over 2,500 in total–have returned to prime habitat throughout the valley.  Our hardy volunteers have removed much of the ranch fencing, so guanacos can gallop freely across the landscape.

Members of the camelid family, guanacos are the southern relative of the llama—and both of them are South American cousins to true camels. These animals live in arid, mountainous regions of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.  The name guanaco comes from the Quechua word wanaku.  Although far more difficult to domesticate than llamas, guanacos have been hunted for meat, wool, and skins for centuries. Today, their population has dropped to around 500,000, with of 90% of that in the steppes of Argentina.

Guanacos have long slender necks and legs, which allow them to run up to 35 miles an hour.  Speed has proved a key adaptation for this herbivore: living in big grasslands, with no places to hide, makes running from predators the best escape.  Almost mountain-goatlike in their alpine agility, guanacos can speed up and down steep hillsides with ease.  Large, flexible sole pads provide them with excellent stability on rocky landscapes. A grown male guanaco can weigh close to 300 lbs.

Guanacos live in large herds, composed of one dominant male and numerous females and juveniles, called chulengos.  At about one year, male guanacos leave the family herd to join a bachelor herd of other young males. At about five years old, a male will then leave his bachelor pals to try to lead his own group of females. The dominant male tries to protect his females and juveniles at all times: he will either stand on guard or ensure that another herd member acts as the “sentinel,” looking out on a high ledge for predators.

These sentinels will use their loud vocal chords to alert their herd-mates to danger with an extremely, loud and high-pitched call. This call warns the other animals in the herd to flee, giving them a head start. Another survival tactic guanacos use is spitting on their aggressor, whether human or puma. It is unclear how effective spitting on a hungry puma would be, but it definitely discourages a curious human from getting too close.

Like all members of the camelid family, guanacos can survive on small amounts of water for extended periods of time. They obtain and store moisture from the plants they eat so they can go for days without water.  Guanacos are also well adapted to life at high altitudes.  A teaspoon of their blood has 68 million red blood cells—4x that of a human.  This density allows them to transmit sufficient oxygen around their bodies even in the low oxygen levels of high altitudes.

Learning facts about guanacos helps us understand the basics of guanaco behavior.  But what’s truly fun is spending some time observing a herd of guanacos grazing, socializing, and moving around.  Full of character and energy, these big-eyed animals can provide hours of entertainment, especially once you start making up your own explanations and theories about their curious behavior.  As we often say, “landscapes without wildlife are merely scenery.”

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A Conversation with Dr. Stuart Pimm

Dr. Stuart Pimm, conservation biologist and member of CP’s Science Advisory Board, speaks with CP Communications Director Nadine Lehner about his work at the future Patagonia National Park.  Listen to the interview above or read the transcription below. 

NADINE LEHNER: Hi, Stuart.  First, would you mind introducing yourself?

STUART PIMM: I am Stuart Pimm, and I am the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University in North Carolina.

NL: You’re on the science advisory board. Can you describe how you see your role in that function?

SP: I’m a science advisor to Kris Tompkins and Conservacion Patagonica. This is a hugely exciting project – this is a brand new national park. Moreover it’s a national park that is being created out of a beat-up, degraded sheep farm. And it’s already an exciting place, and it’s going to chance dramatically in the years and decades to come; there are going to be many important scientific issues, and I’m just thrilled that I can do something to help.

NL: How did you first get involved in this project, and meet Doug and Kris?

SP: I’ve known Doug and Kris for a long time. They are, after all, icons: people who, as individuals, have done more for conserving that planet almost anybody else. They are really remarkable in their commitment to protecting land. I knew I needed to meet them; I knew I needed to spend more time with them. I took up an invitation that was offered at a scientific meeting where I saw them, and so I came down and immediately recognized that there were some quite serious scientific challenges that we have to address.

NL: You’ve worked mostly in tropical rainforests. What attracted you to work in a big grasslands park in Patagonia?

SP: You know, a lot of people say, what’s a nice tropical rainforest ecologist like you doing working in a cold, wet place like Patagonia? The answer is that we, humanity, have protected about 13% of the plaent, which is pretty good. But you know, we’ve only protected 3% of temperate grasslands. Temperate grasslands are so easy to destroy by converting them to cattle pastures, sheep pastures, so this project is internationally remarkable in that it’s protecting a temperate grassland. So that is what dragged me out of the heat and the humidity of the tropical forests to become involved in this very, very beautiful place.

NL: How does Conservacion Patagonica’s model of doing conservation differ from other organizations you’ve seen and worked with?

SP: One thing, obviously, is the scale. Many national parks, many protected areas around the world are really tiny. They create all sorts of ecological problems because they’re too small. And the vision of Conservacion Patagonica is to protect very, very large landscapes. They can do that here, it’s wonderful, it’s fantastic they can do it here. You know so there’s a chance to do it right, in a way that would be very difficult in some other parts of the world.

NL: Can you describe this new gigpan project you’re working on?

SP: Last year when I came down, I knew that the immediate problem was how to draw a baseline around an area of a million hectares. That’s not an easy thing to do. The scale is vast. In many parts of the world, you could do that with satellite imagery, high-definition satellite imagery, but this is not a part of the world that people want to take high-definition satellite images of. Then I came across this technology of the gigapan. What is does is to take an ordinary camera, put in on a mount, and then take hundreds of individual photographs. And then with a very clever piece of software, you stitch these things together – my computer is over there at the moment, stitching away – and when you do that, you have an image that is breathtakingly both large and detailed. Some of these images you could print them out, and they could be thirty feet long and five feet tall, and only then would you capture ever last bit of detail in them. With that, you can capture the scale of what’s going on, you can capture the detail of what’s going on, so that five, ten, twenty years from now, maybe fifty years from now, we’ll be able to understand the ecological changes that have taken place.

NL: Do you have any hypotheses of how climate change will affect this landscape?

SP: What we know about climate change is that these areas of the planet are changing the greatest amount. The far southern areas, the far northern areas. These places are getting warmer, they’re getting wetter, and that’s clearly going to make a huge difference. Tree lines may go up, glaciers may melt; lakes may get bigger, then again they may get smaller – there could be a lot of profound changes. And having that baseline will enable us to understand them.

NL: What do you enjoy most about spending time in the Chacabuco Valley?

SP: Well, first of all, spending time with Kris and all the wonderful people that she has here. It’s a real treat to be with people who care so passionately about this place. It’s also a wonderful, spectacular place.  You go over the bridge just behind the house here, and see this spectacular view of the Chacabuco Valley, with hundreds of guanacos out there. That is a peak experience.  It’s really a beautiful part of the world. It’s a thrill to play some very small part in helping preserve it for our children and grandchildren, for countless generations of Chileans and international visitors.

NL: What do you hope this park is like fifty years from now?

SP: I hope it’s brimming with wildlife; I hope it’s a place that inspires and excites people. That’s the vision of this park: that you could create special places, that you can bring degraded landscapes back and make them exciting, I think that will be an inspiration to the people generations hence, so that they can do more of the same.

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Newsflash: HidroAysén announces the route of its power lines

Recently, HidroAysén (the multinational energy conglomerate planning to erect five mega hydro dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers) announced the route of their proposed transmission line, now estimated to cost USD$3.8 – 4 billion, although likely more: between Cochrane and Chaitén, a distance of about 1,200 miles, there would be 1,500-1,700 high tension towers over 160 feet high. The lines would pass through many iconic, ecologically sensitive, and previously untouched areas of Patagonia, including the General Carrera and Las Torres lakes and Cerro Castillo National Park, as well as countless private properties. Putting together all the data we now have about the projects, it is becoming increasingly clear how damaging these dams will be to the Chilean landscape and its people.

Short video of the Rio Baker, at its confluence with the Chacabuco, at the border of the future Patagonia National Park

The release of this new information came later than it should have. In August 2008, HidroAysén announced the results of its environmental impact assessment. According to standard protocol, the route of their transmission line should have been released in conjunction with this earlier report; yet, in a move that benefitted their chance of approval, the company presented these items for approval separately.

For a close-up look at the power lines and the route they will cover, check out this interactive map.

Upon releasing this information, HidroAysén also began talks with twenty communities along the Baker and Pascua rivers that will inevitably be affected or displaced entirely by the dams, in the hopes of minimizing the negative public response. The overwhelming response from citizen-led groups who oppose the dams is that these conversations are an empty gesture – that no amount of money or attention can compensate for the cultural loss. Patagonia “is Chile’s only piece of environmental heritage that remains intact,” says Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Patagonia Defense Council. “Even the smallest alteration will significantly degrade its value – in terms of both its beauty and our national identity.”

With this tough news comes a renewed sense of energy and urgency from the opposition, united around a common belief that Patagonia is a precious and irrevocable treasure for Aysén, for Chile, and for the world. This is why it’s now more important than ever that we preserve what we can. Knowing that the future of these rivers is uncertain, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But let us also focus on the possibilities in front of us and what we can do to protect this place that is currently under unilateral attack. In building Patagonia National Park, we are drawing a permanent line in the sand. Please join us as we redouble our efforts to safeguard this last unmarred piece of the planet.


For more background on the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign, below is our update from November 15 (see full post here):

Just a few months ago, the proposed damming of Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua rivers made headlines worldwide. Patagonia Sin Represas, the campaign that began in Cochrane as a small grassroots movement to oppose HidroAysén’s plan for five mega-dams, had blossomed into a series of large-scale demonstrations that swept through Chile’s major cities in May and June.

At that time, momentum was at a fever pitch, and optimism was building as HidroAysén underwent a series of environmental impact assessments. A major victory came on June 20th when the court of appeals in Puerto Montt ordered that all permitting and initial construction be put on hold pending the outcome of their review. This unprecedented decision, though inherently temporary, will remain an important historical milestone; as NRDC’s Amanda Maxwell writes, it was “a rare victory for environmental law over big business interests.” Incidentally, one of the leaders in reaching this agreement was Macarena Soler, a lawyer with Conservación Patagonica.

Yet despite these legal advances and the outpouring of opposition to the dams, HidroAysén has managed to push its project forward through the impressive series of obstacles the opposition has thrown in its path.  And because the international media moves from one environmental hot topic to the next in a matter of months, it’s easy to have a false sense of security about what very well might happen to the endangered Baker and Pascua. The most recent development does not bode well for these beloved waterways: in October, the court of appeals overruled the injunction, thereby lifting the suspension order a lower court had imposed in June.

But the battle is far from over. From here, the case will go to the Chilean Supreme Court. So it seems there is still a chance to turn this roadblock into a dead end for the dams. For those who wish to stand in solidarity with the Sin Represas movement, the best advice is simple: don’t give up. From what we’ve seen so far, public opposition from both in and outside of Chile has been the strongest force in delaying HidroAysén’s agenda. Whether taking to the streets in Santiago, raising awareness about this unfinished story, or engaging in the growing dialogue around Chile’s need for alternative energy, the message must be loud and clear: these dams will be unhealthy for Chile’s communities, its wildlife, and its future.


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Ten Reasons to Donate to Conservacion Patagonica This Holiday Season

Our annual fund drive is about halfway complete, and while we’re on track for a fantastic year of giving, we need your help! If 100 more people make a donation, 2011 will set the record for the most fund drive donors ever.  Make a online donation here.

As our followers know, the park will open to the public at the beginning of 2012, and we have a busy year ahead of trail-building, campground-constructing, wildlife-recovering, and more.  Your help will launch us into our biggest summer season yet. Here are ten good reasons to support the Patagonia National Park project:

1. Wilderness for all

Times are tough, yes. but look at the big picture: now more than ever, it’s important that we protect these natural spaces and make them available to everyone. No one says it better than Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times op-ed: “Gaps between rich and poor have been growing, but our national lands are a rare space of utter democracy: the poorest citizen gets resplendent views that even a billionaire is not allowed to buy.”

2. Fight the clutter! Give in someone’s name

Know anyone who’s sick of all the stuff that piles up during the holidays? Who wants to turn away from, not embrace, overconsumption? A contribution to CP in his or her name could be the perfect gift. No matter the size, this is literally a gift that keeps on giving.

3. This land is your land

Once you’ve decided you want to donate to a worthy cause, you might find yourself wondering, why Patagonia, why not somewhere in our own country? Take a step back and see that the planet is yours, ours, everyone’s to protect. As CP board member Yvon Chouinard says, Patagonia is one of the few really wild places left on Earth, and we as a species must act to save it.

4. Your gift goes 100% towards the park

Unlike in many non-profits, charities, and other NGOs, every cent that you donate goes directly towards constructing the park, never to administrative or overhead costs.

5. Make history

Bruce Babbitt, U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton, just visited the park and declared, “Patagonia National Park will be the Yellowstone of South America.”  And you can be part of creating it. We invite you to play a key role in this landmark project, which millions will visit in years to come.

6. Climate change is a reality; saving ecosystems is a must

As a recent New York Times article details, carbon emissions made their largest-ever jump in 2010, despite efforts to curb climate change.  Myriad natural disasters and changes in weather patterns make it clear that climate change is happening now.

So what can we do? Plenty–and saving wild places, where nature has a shot at coping, becomes increasingly critical.  Patagonia National Park will protect 650,000 acres, an area the size of Rhode Island, giving whole populations of wildlife a chance to thrive.

7. Recover endangered species

The future park protects one of Earth’s largest remaining populations of huemul deer, a rugged, sturdy animal well-adapted to mountain living but ill-suited to competition from introduced livestock.  On the Chilean national shield, the huemul represents a national priority for conservation.  Transforming Estancia Valle Chacabuco from a degraded sheep ranch to the heart of Patagonia National Park marks a key stride in changing the future of this species.

8. We’re restoring, not just protecting, wilderness

Truly a story for the 21st century: with a bit of help, nature can restore itself.  We’re learning this lesson year-by-year, as we witness how fast overgrazed grasses grow taller, thicker and healthier.  Herds of guanacos, formerly fenced out of all the best land in the Chacabuco Valley, are returning en force–any park visitor is guaranteed to see herds galloping and meandering along.  Ecological damage can be undone, but it takes time and money.

9. We’re building things the right way, not the cheap and easy way

A park needs visitors, and visitors need trails to hike, places to sleep, somewhere to learn, and maybe even a spot to eat.   We design and build our facilities to be elegant, comfortable, respectful to the natural beauty surrounding them, and ecologically low-impact.

10. You get what you give

Ultimately, this park will be for you and your fellow wilderness enthusiasts. The park pre-opens to the public this month and, with your help, will continue to grow into a full national park in the coming years. Your gift of any size will come back to you tenfold when you finally visit the unique and rugged landscape you helped to protect. We can’t wait to see you there!

So, are you convinced yet? If so, please do make a donation!

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Monitoring Energy Demand, Moving Toward Energy Independence

Creating new parks saves critical pieces of wilderness, but operating parks takes energy, which may leave an ecological footprint of its own.  Recognizing this, Conservacion Patagonica aims to make Patagonia National Park the first energy-independent park in the world: from houses to vehicles, the future park should not require the input of (climate-change-causing, polluting-to-extract) fossil fuels.  To reach this goal, we’ve had to put together outside-the-box solutions that bring together a network of energy-saving projects.

Some of these projects are well underway.  We designed all buildings to require minimal electricity, heating and upkeep, through using energy-efficient lighting (often LED) and appliances, advanced insulation and durable construction.  A team of stone masons quarries the building material right in the valley.    Solar panels and solar collectors generate day-time energy throughout the year, while a micro-hydro station produces power all months but three.

Solar panels form just one element of our renewable energy system

Micro-hydro stations like this one generate energy without the deleterious environmental impacts of mega-dams

Part of the long-term agenda for the park is to is harness wind power during the windy summer months, store it through a hydrogen system, and use it to power the buildings and vehicles. On his recent trip to Chile, renewable energy expert Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, spent a week at the future park to consult on the planning of this new infrastructure.

A challenge in drawing up the park’s energy plan is predicting energy demand. Since the facilities are so new, there is little preexisting data about the park’s energy usage. But as we near the home stretch of the park’s creation, with a record number of visitors, volunteers, and interns set to arrive this season, along with the completion of several new buildings, we are now in a position to start tracking our energy consumption. This way, we can begin to make accurate projections and set tangible goals in keeping with our original commitment to efficiency and self-sustainability.

Corinne tests the new energy monitor

To this end, we’ve developed a new demand monitoring system with the help and expertise of two incredible volunteers: Sam Mason, a mechanical engineer with Building Services Engineers and Environmental Design Consultants Atelier Ten in London, and Corinne Benedek, a mechanical engineer with Arup in New York. Last week, Sam and Corinne completed the installation of a new system of state-of-the-art electricity meters.  Sam reports the idea for this project came five years ago, when he read about Conservacion Patagonica and the goal of making the world’s first energy-independent national park.

Planning out the energy system: Francisco and Juan Carlos (our design/ energy team), Sam, and intern Jordan Bowlby

He describes the utility and aim of this system:

These meters collect energy consumption and power demand data every 15 minutes. This data is analysed to help understand the peak electric demand and annual energy consumption and will allow two key developments.

First, the data will show the hourly variations in energy consumption from which an energy management plan can be developed. This plan will inform park staff of the energy usage patterns and create a framework for how and when energy can be consumed. In effect, the staff (and visitors) will enable a demand response program to smooth out energy consumption in the park and make the electricity grid more stable.

Secondly, the data will show energy consumption over the course of a year for the park and will be the first step to inform the size of the proposed wind turbines and hydrogen storage system. In order for this second step to be fully realized, however, meters will need to be installed on all buildings in the park and it is our intention to have the remaining meters installed by the end of 2012.

We’re poring over the information generated already: it’s bizarrely fascinating to learn how much electricity your washing machine uses and to watch the ebb and flow of daily use.  Real-time data allows park employees and visitors to see the link between their personal habits and the energy needs of the park.

We’ll start figuring out when demand is the lowest, so we can concentrate high-energy projects in those moments, evening out usage.  With only a few households at the park headquarters, our system of demand management can be more communal than those of large electrical grids.

As we develop this project, we’ll explore how to share these lessons about energy use, efficiency, and renewable sources with park visitors.  We hope that people will leave Patagonia National Park not only with a new appreciation for wild places, but (just as importantly) with clear steps in mind of what they can do back home to limit their impact on our remaining wilderness.

Many thanks to Sam and Corrine for dedicating their time and creativity to our project and helping us take a giant leap towards our big goal. We look forward to continuing this partnership! Meanwhile, we still need more funding to finish this ambitious energy program; if you think an energy-independent park sounds interesting, please consider supporting us!

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