Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Conversation with Dago Guzman, New Park Superintendent

Just a few weeks ago, Dagoberto “Dago” Guzman became the superintendent at the future Patagonia National Park, bringing with him years of park management experience from Pumalin Park.  He now lives in the Chacabuco Valley with his wife, Alejandra Retamal, and their two children.  Lily McKeage, who spent the last few months teaching English to the children and staff at the future Park, sat down for a conversation with them about their backgrounds, vision for the park, and views on conservation.

Dago, Ale, and son Andres

Where did you grow up?
Dago: We are both from Santiago, Chile. We met while studying at the Universidad Católica in Santiago—I studied agricultural engineering, Alejandra studied forestry. Nine years ago we came to the South.

How did you first hear about the Tompkins’ work?
Dago:  While in college, we heard about the Pumalin Park project through a professor of ours.  We took a class trip to Pumalin, where we met Doug and Kris.

After growing up in Santiago, what attracted you to move to south Chile?
Dago: We came to the south because conservation—in particular applied, place-based conservation—has always interested us. Ever since high school, I’ve gotten involved with environmental projects and organizations.  At the time when I had to decide whether or not to pursue doctoral studies, we started to realized—how can I explain it?—that they’re cutting down trees right now. And they’re building those dams right now. We believed that we could contribute more directly working at these conservation projects than at a university.

You were the Superintendent of Pumalin Park for years.  Tell us about that.
Dago: At Pumalin, we were involved in the park project practically from its origin, so we worked on the genesis of many projects and aspects of the park.  We got to see an amazing transformation and creation story take place there, and to become central players in that process.  So we feel deeply attached to that place and what it has become.

Dago with Ricardo Lagos, during one of the former President's visits to Pumalin Park

Can you speak a bit about how you’re finding the future Parque Nacional Patagonia? How does it compare to Pumalin?
Dago: I’ve only been here for two weeks, but my first impression is essentially: it’s very different, but then again it’s the same.  Pumalin and the future Patagonia National Park protect very different ecosystems, have very different geographies and particularities related to that, but they are products of the same people and the same system of thought. In both parks, we’re planning for the long run: to protect these areas for 300 years, 400, 500 years.  The grand vision of creating these parks is much broader and deeper than trails and information centers.  It’s to conserve and restore a representative and ecologically viable park of an ecosystem, and to allow people to experience the wonder of the healthy natural world.

Ale with her son Andres in Pumalin Park

What is living in these remote parks like for your family?
Alejandra:  One of the best parts about life here is spending more time as a family—at lunchtime, for instance.  In the city, most people spend so much time running between work and home.  Here that doesn’t exist. It’s also incredibly important to us that our children will grow up in a safe place where you can leave your door unlocked and in close contact with nature. I grew up in the city, but every weekend my parents took me outside.  That’s what made me respect and care for nature. I want my children to learn this, even if they grow up and do something completely different. They will always have a bit of nature in their hearts.

Dago: As a parent, you can give your children a certain amount of information to carry with them.   We want to give ours a knowledge and familiarity with the natural world.

What is the work culture like, given the close community of people living and working here in the future park?
Dago: The project has many of the characteristics of a family business. Any worker can walk up and talk to the boss about their ideas and concerns. There are open channels of communication, and that is a great advantage.  We are not just co-workers.  We know each other’s lives and struggles.  This is extremely special, yet it can also be hard, because in that sense it becomes a 24/7 job.

What challenges do you expect encountering here?
Dago:  Think about visitors to national parks: in general, they know little when they arrive, and the goal is to lead them towards learning and understanding—both about that place in particular and about conservation in general.  In managing the park, we have to focus on how do we show people the big picture.  On the trails, in the information centers, everywhere.

What would you say to young people in Chile or elsewhere interested in conservation work?
Dago: Simply put, we are working to save the planet for future generations. Right now, we are firefighters battling a huge, out of control fire, with many fronts burning and very few people fighting it. Without a doubt, we could need more people, especially young people. What would I say to them? You can start advocating for nature from your own backyard, wherever you are: in a big city, at college, in the suburbs.  The goal is beginning your own work to break this inertia that has gripped our planet.

Environmental education is critical.  From how I see it, we are willing to protect and fight for only what we know. So we have to commit ourselves to learning and to teaching.  Here at the future park, for instance, we’ve started with programs for volunteers, interns, student exchanges, whatever we can think of, so that we can expand the circle of people who understand what we’re doing here, and can then help us save it.

Alejandra: We need to have faith in young people.  An increasing number of them want to tackle the environmental challenges of our time, from a variety of angles: as doctors, lawyers, architects, bankers, teachers.  Not everyone will work in conservation, but the environmental movement thrives on this diversity, and increasing consciousness.

What are your hopes for the park—now, in 50 years, hundreds of years from now?
Dago: I hope it becomes an established national park, which Chileans know about and visit; today it is a park project. And I hope that public-minded projects like this will multiply. Philanthropy is very new in Chile, and this project aims to set an example of the good people can do when they think beyond themselves.

Alejandra: I feel the same way. I hope that many people will visit it and gain awareness about the environment. And with that, respect and protect the Earth, in some way, one grain of sand at a time.

Bonus! Interviewer Lily McKeage teaching some of the children of the Chacabuco Valley


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The Life of a Conservacion Patagonica Volunteer: Some Reflections

Katie Heineman, from Los Angeles, joined our volunteer program for six weeks in February and March. She shared some of her impressions on living and working in the Chacabuco Valley.  We found this a fantastic overview of what it’s actually like to come volunteer with Conservacion Patagonica.  So thanks to Katie for letting us post this!

Katie on the summit of Tamangito, near the future park headquarters.

In the world of outdoor retail, many shop employees find themselves gearing customers up for vacations that they can only dream about taking. Posters of remote destinations adorn our break rooms.  In company catalogs, shots of adventurers at the ends of the Earth sell the clothing.  Those of us working at the store drool and ache with the desire to pack up and start adventuring ourselves.

Last year, I sat in my university’s movie theater watching what I expected to be just another surf or climbing film.  But 180 Degrees South overflowed with images and landscapes that inspired me to do what I had helped countless customers do: pack up and go. The moment the movie ended, I made up my mind that I would leave my job and head south to Patagonia to help with the creation of the future Patagonia National Park.

Confluence of the Baker and Chacabuco Rivers

After two flights and an 8 hour bus ride, I stepped outside into Chilean Patagonia, right at the confluence of the Rio Baker and Rio Chacabuco. It seemed surreal to be standing in such a peaceful place, knowing it may  soon be dammed to produce energy for cities far, far away.  During the drive into the park, the theme song to Jurassic Park popped into my head immediately as we passed guanaco chewing at grasses along the road. I could not believe how open and unrestricted the land was.  I imagined what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark in the United States when they first came upon wild lands untouched by modern development.

Some of 2011 volunteers

The volunteers were a mix of Chileans and United States-ians (all “Americans” of one type or another!).  Although I had taken one Spanish class in college, I had only ever learned the present-tense—and it had been years since I had spoken any.  Quickly, I realized this would be the best Spanish class I could ever take. The Chilean volunteers were so patient with me as I stumbled through sentences. Luckily, there were many things we could share that transcended language: music, games and dancing. Many nights were spent dancing the traditional Chilean queca and learning the intricacies of Patagonian chamame from some of the local Chilean workers.

Dancing lessons at the puesto base camp, in the eastern sector of the future park

Each week we would be taken to a different part of the expansive park to work in the field for 5 days.  My first two weeks were spent at the base of a beautiful mountain called Tamangito.  We camped out along a creek and hiked up the mountain each day to a fence-line that used to keep livestock within the ranch boundaries.  Now that the land is being returned to its natural state, hundreds of miles of fences need to be removed to allow wildlife to migrate and forage.  As we rolled wire and barbed wire into rolls and wedged posts from their holes, we came across the carcass of a guanaco that had been caught in the fence.

Wildlife and ranch fencing = not a happy combination. Luckily for future guanacos, the volunteer crews are hard at work.

It began to sink in how important our work was in the creation of a national park.  The fence also separated two small populations of Huemul deer, an endangered species that would now have the opportunity to meet and potentially reproduce.  Although the work was challenging at times, I would often pause to look out at the valley below and the snow-capped peaks in the distance; a truly spectacular work environment.

One weekend, we were lucky enough to attend the nearby town of Cochrane’s annual Costumbriste, a festival honoring the customs and culture of the region.  I got to witness my first rodeo, sheep shearing, and drink a delicious cup of navegado (a mulled wine-type drink).  The whole town seemed to be in attendance and young and old danced into the wee hours of the morning.

Rodeo action--featuring many Conservacion Patagonica staff--at the Cochrane Encuentro Costumbriste.

After 2 weeks of removing fences, we switched to seed collecting.  When the land was used for cattle and sheep grazing, many areas were over-grazed, leaving some places barren without any remaining grasses.  Our task was to collect native coiron (bunch grass) seeds that would later be spread onto deteriorated areas.  Each day we would pull seeds from the plants and place them into bags.

A beautiful day for collecting seeds

The weather was hot with very little wind and not a cloud in the sky–making for perfect views of San Lorenzo, the second tallest peak in Patagonia.  On one of our days off in the field, a group of us decided to hike to a distant mesa. It was such an adventure to navigate our way through the forest and over rock to this untouched vista.

My last 2 weeks at the estancia were spent close to the Argentine border at a puesto called La Juanina near the base of a volcano-looking mountain known as El Portas.  Our group had grown to about 14 volunteers and each night we would cook and eat together around a big table by candlelight. It was really magical to feel such a strong community with people from all different walks of life and parts of the world.

We spent the days removing exotic, invasive plant species in order for the native grasses and wildflowers to proliferate.  Some of the plants had to be removed from the root and others could just be hacked at the base. I felt such a sense of accomplishment each time I would lift a pickaxe into the air, swinging toward the ground to end the life of an invasive plant.

They may be pretty, but they are bad news--taking out exotic species.

Six weeks flew by faster than I could have imagined. When it came time to leave the estancia, I realized how unique an experience I had enjoyed. I was able to help with the formation of a national park that will contribute significantly to the conservation of vital ecosystems.  I was lucky enough to work in stunningly beautiful landscapes every day. I made friends and began to learn a new language. Most meaningfully, I formed a connection to the land, the people, and the culture of Patagonia.

Last week I returned home and visited my old outdoor shop.  On the wall there was a poster of a familiar Patagonian landscape. I realized I had come full circle: from the one longing to adventure to the one returning home with stories to inspire others to experience (and help protect) wild places.

–Katie Heineman


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Feeding puma spied in camera trap

Seeing a puma borders on impossible.  Many of us who have lived in the Chacabuco Valley have never seen one at all, or at most have spotted a tail slipping off into the bushes.  Hunting by night, notoriously stealthy, pumas have a way of eluding sight.   Impressively large paw prints and scattered remnants of guanacos and other prey offer the most visible signs of these mighty top predators.

Gathering data about how pumas hunt and where they move requires using more sophisticated techniques than trying to observe them in person.  Most of our puma monitoring work relies on GPS/ Argos collars to record pumas’ movements and predations—key data for understanding how pumas interact both with the threatened huemul deer and with neighbors’ livestock.

Camera traps supplement this GPS project, allowing us to gather more specific records of how pumas behave at kill sites.  In addition, these photographs and videos show us whether or not these pumas have collars yet—key information for the next phase of our puma study, when we will increase the number of pumas we monitor.

Arcilio Sepulveda, the park ranger in charge of puma tracking, noticed a high level of puma activity—that is, numerous guanaco kill sites—in the La Cerrillada sector of the park, near the Chacabuco River. Since pumas return to kill sites several nights in a row to feed, the wildlife team decided to install a camera trap near one of the fresh carcasses.

As expected, the camera trap gathered proof of the night’s feast .  Somewhat surprisingly, more than one puma visited the site.  These pumas, most likely, were a family unit of mother and young feeding together.  These cats do not seem to have collars already; in the upcoming months, the wildlife team will work to track and collar them.

In addition, the camera trap recorded a culpeo fox visiting the kill site later in the night, revealing that these two predator species feed off of the same animals and can take each other’s catches.

The wildlife team plans to continue gathering data through using camera traps as they wait for enough snow to accumulate on the ground so that they can track and collar more pumas this winter.

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