Category Archives: Community

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Patagonia Sin Represas

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Outreach, Patagonia Sin Represas, Wildlife

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Adventure, Community, Ecosystem Restoration, Outreach, Uncategorized, Visiting the Park, Wildlife

The Most Remote Greenhouses on Earth? New Pilot Program in the Works to Help Park Guards Grow Food

Around Conservacion Patagonica, we often discuss the relationship between food production and wilderness conservation.  We focus on the creation of new national parks–strictly protected wilderness areas–but we also think about how humans can grow the food (and other materials) we need to thrive, in more ecological and thoughtful ways.  As we often say, “conservation should be the consequence of production.” That is, we as a species must find ways to meet our needs that do not take such a heavy toll on the planet that conservation is impossible.

At the future Patagonia National Park, we realized that most of our food came from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.  Until a few years ago, vegetables arrived by truck from Chile’s central valley.  So, although the growing season is short and the climate harsh, several park employees came up with the idea of building greenhouses at the headquarters.  A few years in, we’re churning out greens for everyone living and visiting the Chacabuco Valley.  Not only do the greenhouses reduce the footprint of our food, they also inject much-needed vegetables and vitamins into the mutton-based tradition Patagonian diet.

Now our team is taking this effort of local food production to a new level.  With the help of Josh Metten, a new greenhouse intern, the guardaparques (park guards) will design, build, and tend small greenhouses at their remote puestos in different areas of the park.

Josh came to Patagonia from Jackson, Wyoming to join our brand-new internship program at the future park. This program had its trial run last year when a handful of volunteers, instead of participating in the traditional program, got to work exclusively and consistently with particular teams at the park for months at a time: one worked with the trailbuilders, one with the landscaping crew, one was a chef at the lodge, and one taught English in the schoolhouse. This year, the program grew into something more official, complete with a competitive application process. Josh comes to us with a wealth of experience in horticulture and permaculture in cold-weather climates.

Justin, our other fantastic greenhouse intern, is responsible for maintaining the greenhouse and gardens at the park headquarters

The idea for this new greenhouse project originally came from Luigi Solís (who, among many other things, helps manage the volunteers during the summer; for more about Luigi, see our recent interview). The guardaparques live year-round in relative seclusion; each is responsible for tracking a different population of fauna on the park grounds. Currently, the guardaparques do not have much variety when it comes to their food, as their food arrives by resupply fairly infrequently.

Soon after his arrival, Josh got to work determining how this idea would work in practice. He reports, “in permaculture we call this a probortunity, where the problem becomes the solution.” Where many would simply see a lack of fresh food as the inevitable cost of isolated living, Luigi and Josh see the situation as an opportunity to jumpstart autonomously-driven sustainable farming.

Luigi (left) sharing mate with guardaparque Eduard Castro (right)

So far, Josh relishes his new role, both because of the creativity it requires and the chance to dramatically affect the quality of life for the guardaparques. He has taken considerable time to get to know them and their land individually, which helps him think more broadly about the potential of this infrastructure.  He writes:

I’ve met three of the five guardaparques so far–Edward Castro, who monitors the Aviles Valley area, René, who runs the pilot sheep/ sheepdog program, and Daniel, who tracks huemuls. They are all excited about the opportunity to have fresh produce.  Involvement of the rangers is going to be essential for this to be successful as they will be the ones maintaining the plants after the greenhouses are complete.  Importing fertility is also something that will be difficult so I would like to incorporate a good-quality composting program with each greenhouse using only onsite materials. As all of the rangers work with some sort of livestock I am hopeful for a good deal of success.

The immediate challenge will be working on a tight schedule with limited materials. The plan is to have the 2×3-meter mini-greenhouses finished in time for summer, which is just around the corner.  They should last at least four years, assuming the plastic will be replaced every year. Josh and the guardaparques will have to work resourcefully with the materials at hand, as getting lumber into these remote areas is close to impossible.

The home of guardaparque Daniel Velazquez, near Lago Cochrane, which will soon be equipped with its own greehouse

Attitude is everything when it comes to an experimental new project like this. And fortunately, Josh seems ready to embrace the unexpected and the unfamiliar.  He reflects that:

One of the things I have been learning in my short time in Chile so far is what type of role I am going to have here.  It is easy for people to come to another country knowing what the ‘right’ answer to a supposed ‘problem’ is and then tell the locals exactly what it is they are doing wrong.  It is much more difficult however, to listen and understand the exact desires of a different culture.  Once this is done, aid and teaching, if still relevant, can occur.  From the responses I have been getting from the park rangers and the fact that its origin was from a Patagonian, I feel good about helping to incorporate my ideas on localized agricultural production into this area.

So it sounds like everyone involved, from Josh to the guardaparques, will find this experience both educational and rewarding. We look forward to hearing further updates as the project continues through the summer ahead!

2 Comments

Filed under Community, farming, Internships, Park Guards

An update on the HidroAysén dams and Patagonia Sin Represas

New video from photographer Bridget Besaw and Patagonia, Inc on the anti-dams fight

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.

The roots of Patagonia Sin Represas: on the Baker river near Cochrane, Chile

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.

Map of HidroAysén's proposed mega-dams

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.

A brief timeline of recent events

March: Locals from the Aysén region and members of the Chacabuco Valley community gather to protest HidroAysén

May: Following the dams' approval, Sin Represas gains worldwide attention and some unexpected supporters. The band Calle 13 expressed their solidarity with the movement by displaying the slogan during a performance, and later commended Chilean students' political activism during their acceptance speech at the Latin Grammys this November.

June 16: Patagonia Sin Represas has grown into a nation-wide movement...

...as student-led protests erupt in Santiago de Chile in front of the presidential palace. On June 20th, the Puerto Montt court of appeals orders HidroAysén to suspend its work on the dams.

October: the Puerto Montt court of appeals gives HidroAysén the go-ahead, putting this river back in danger

November: HidroAysén and Energía Austral agreed to share the same corridor for two separate sets of power lines, in the hopes of minimizing their environmental impact

4 Comments

Filed under Community, Ecosystem Restoration, Visiting the Park

Update on Patagonia’s Hudson Volcano

Volcanic ash rising out of the Hudson Volcano on October 28th

Chile is no stranger to dramatic natural episodes; it was less than two years ago that we watched it survive one of the biggest earthquakes in its history. Last year, volcanoes in Argentine Patagonia made headlines.  Now there’s news about the ash currently rising out of the Hudson Volcano in Patagonia, about 250km from the future park.  The question is: how will this affect the dwellers and visitors of the Chacabuco Valley?

Chances are, very little, for two reasons. First of all, after threats of a larger eruption, the volcano appears to be settling down. Chilean authorities have been monitoring the area around the volcano closely for seismic activity and other signs of a larger eruption.  On Friday, Oct. 28th, ONEMI (the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety) ruled out the possibility of an “imminent larger eruption, and activity from Hudson has decreased over the weekend.”

Second, given the history of this particular volcano, the future park is not likely to be affected by a larger eruption, if one occurs. The Hudson Volcano’s most recent eruptions occurred twenty and forty years ago, and in each case, the Chacabuco Valley and surrounding area were virtually unaffected.

Aerial shot of a dormant Hudson Volcano. The large grey area is ash left over from its most recent plume.

One concern could be the possibility of an ash cloud moving directly southward.  However, the steady prevailing winds come from the southeast, so would carry ash even further from the park.  Currently, no ash has reached the park and it is likely that even larger clouds of ash would bypass the area entirely. Even the towns of Balmaceda and Coyhaique might very well remain untouched for the same reason.

As of November 1st, light aircraft flying in the area of the Hudson Volcano reported minimal ash and little disturbance around the area.

All this being said, the team at the Chacabuco Valley is on alert and ever-prepared. Our park superintendent Dago Guzman will remain in constant contact with local experts and will be receiving frequent updates as this story unfolds. So rest assured: the forecast for this summer says clear skies lie ahead.

The latest: a view of the Hudson Volcano on November 1st, taken by Kris Tompkins

1 Comment

Filed under Community, Ecosystem Restoration, Visiting the Park

Start planning your visit–Camping Los Alamos is almost complete!

Think you’ll be roughing it on your next trip to the future Patagonia National Park? Think again. (Unless that’s your thing.) The Westwind at Los Alamos campground, located a few kilometers from the central park headquarters, is well underway.  By this December, when the park pre-opens to the public, the first campers will be sleeping in its grassy meadows and  admiring its stunning scenery.

Last February: the design team (Doug Tompkins, Francisco Morunde and Matias Martinez) compares architectural plans to the site, and oversees the beginning of construction.

Construction on the new campground has moved rapidly, thanks to our seasoned construction crew and experienced oversight from our new park superintendent, Dago Guzman.  Working through the winter, the team made steady progress on bathrooms, paths, shelters, tent sites, parking areas, and landscaping.  Despite speedy construction, the area feels natural and undisturbed, thanks to careful planning of the impact of campground construction.

This October: construction almost finished on one of the covered cook shelters at the campground.

November: looking close to finished!

The new campground will include hot showers, car parking, cook shelters, and even flushing toilets.  Each cook shelter (or “quincho”) is unique, and provides campers with shelter from wind and weather.  When designing the campground, we wanted to create a family-friendly home base comfortable for car campers and tourists not interested in extreme backpacking.  Westwind of Los Alamos will enable up to 200 visitors a night to experience the future park in relative comfort.

But the best part is undoubtedly location.  Who wouldn’t want to wake up to this?

View from Los Alamos

When you’re ready to get the day started, you’ll find yourself on the 7 kilometer La Vega trail (affectionately know as the “granny trail”), which runs right through the campground. Or, if you’re looking for something a little more strenuous, the trailhead to the 22 kilometer Lagunas Altas loop is just steps away.  At night, share stories of your adventures with fellow campers during a sunset asado.

The Westwind at Los Alamos campground earned its name one spectacular but windy evening last January, when a crowd of employees, volunteers, friends and supporters gathered underneath the namesake Alamos trees to share a celebratory asado. With a glorious sunset to watch and fresh lamb to share, the wind seemed less chilly and the spot seemed impeccable for camping.  Duncan and Ellen MacFarland, visiting from Boston, decided then and there to fund the construction and development of the campground that has become Westwind at Los Alamos.  Thanks to their love of Patagonian landscapes and commitment to making the park accessible to all, we will be able to welcome and accommodate thousands of visitors this summer.

We invite you to be one of them!

Leave a comment

Filed under Adventure, Community, Outreach, Visiting the Park