Category Archives: Visiting the Park

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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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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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

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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

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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!

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