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!

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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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A Conversation with Luigi Solís

It seems there’s hardly anything Luigi Solís doesn’t do. In his first three years working at the future Patagonia National Park, he has spearheaded trail construction, worked closely with everyone from former gauchos to international volunteers, and even caught pumas with his bare hands. And that’s not all. In a rare idle moment, Luigi sits down with Lily McKeage to talk about his life in Valle Chacabuco, his family, and his multifaceted role in creating a park.

What made you want to live and work in a future park?

I was raised in the country; my family is from the country. The city is not for me, with all the noise, the crowds, everyone always in a rush. Here we have the privilege of living close to nature and wildlife, free from the dangers of the city.

What are your hopes for the future park? Why is conserving this space important to you?

Above all, this project is important because, at the moment, it is one of the only attempts in Chile to conserve the lowlands steppe. Furthermore, my hope is to see Lake Cochrane and Lake General Carrera preserved together. The future park will connect the Tamango and Jeinimeini reserves: we will have one giant park with two of the greatest lakes in the Aysén region.

My wish, and that of all my colleagues, is that this will indeed become a park.  We want to see this land protected forever.  With all of the effort to make this a low-cost, sustainable operation, I hope that the parks service will treat it with respect for eternity, for posterity. Finally, I hope that my daughter Tamara, when she grows up and goes off to university, can come back and see the great park that it will be.

What is it like to raise children here?

Luigi with his son Joaquin

It’s a beautiful thing. I have two children, Tamara, who is six and Joaquin who is fifteen months old. Tamara is free to explore on her own. She rides around on her bicycle or on horseback whenever she wants, wherever she wants, because the only danger here is the chance of getting lost in this great expanse. For Tamara, her whole world is under the tree next to our house where all the children play together.

What made you want to get involved with this project?

I first heard about the Tompkins back when I was in school, and I started working here three years ago. What’s most important to me is the ideology behind everything they do. I used to get an earful from lots of Chileans, skeptics, saying I was only a part of this project for the celebrity. But when you come here and really look around, you suddenly realize that the Tompkins’ effort is genuine. It comes from inside them, it occupies one hundred percent of their time – this is true deep ecology, not some sort of mask, it’s of the mind, of the heart.

How would you describe your job here?

About eighty percent of my time is dedicated to researching and constructing the trail system because right now we are building the first trails for the future Patagonia National Park. During the summer, I help oversee the volunteers, who pull out fences and invasive plants, since I am also very involved in restoring the landscape here. But without a doubt, the best part of my job is tracking and capturing Pumas.

Much of Luigi's work involves riding around the future park on horseback

Could you explain the Puma project and your role in it?

We are a team of five, and each of us has particular responsibilities. When I was studying for my technical degree in forestry, I specialized in the collection and harvesting of seeds. I would climb trees using only my feet, wearing cleats and a harness, so that my hands would be free to gather seeds. I now use those skills to climb trees and rappel back down while carrying pumas – once they’ve been sedated, of course.

The process goes like this: we use a team of dogs and we work in the winter when there’s a bit of snow on the ground. We look for footprints and then we let the dogs go, following them on horseback as fast as possible. Once the dogs have found the puma, he usually tries to hide from them, maybe in a cave or up a tree. And this is where I come in; my job is to locate the best tree, get the dogs out of the way, and then shoot the puma with a tranquilizer dart. Not a bullet – we’re capturing, not killing. Then, I have about five or six minutes to climb up, tie the ropes, and bring him down.

Why is it necessary to track pumas in this area?

Basically everything our wildlife team does connects in some way to the protection of the endangered huemul deer. With the puma project, we seek to understand and control the impact of puma predation on huemuls.  For the most part, pumas do not hunt huemuls, but sometimes certain pumas will start specializing in hunting huemuls–that’s how puma predation patterns tend to work.  Through this program, we can find out if any pumas are hitting especially hard on huemuls, and can then determine if we should move it to a new location or make it move by itself. Each puma tends to occupy a big area on its own. Every time we capture a puma, we put a tracking collar around its neck, which is linked to a GPS and satellite system. Then we can receive all kinds of information about the puma’s activity: we learn how many other animals have died in the area – guanacos, foxes, hares, etc. – and we can know how many days they have food, what they’re hunting, and the exact place.

Setting up a camera trap to monitor a puma kill site

How did you come to be the supervisor of trail building?

I think I got into this work mainly because of my background in landscape restoration, which is inextricably tied to trail building here. In my first two years at Valle Chacabuco, I spent a lot of time pulling out fences and exotic plants, which allowed me to become very familiar with the area. Furthermore, as a native Patagonian, I have a solid friendship with the park guards who used to be the old gauchos, sheepherders, back when this was a ranch. These were the ranchers who stayed on when this land changed hands, because they were offered the chance to be a part of the conservation project. No one knows this land better than they do. Each of these former gauchos now specializes in monitoring a certain animal population. Working well with them is an integral part of constructing a successful trail system. [For more about the guardaparques, see article below.]

What’s involved in building a trail?

First of all, you have to know the whole area really well and, with the help of the park guards, where there is the most damage: from fires, and from sheep herding and grazing. Our job is to restore the area and improve the trail. Then there’s the ubiquitous guanaco, who is the perfect trail builder. Guanacos create and reuse the same paths, so they have trails through places you couldn’t even imagine. So the work of the trail builders here goes hand-in-hand with the restoration of the native ecosystems.

The hard thing about building trails isn’t really building them so much as finding the best paths that connect these distinct trails and turning them into a loop. Our greatest challenge is trying to imagine how it was before, so that we can faithfully restore it.  We want to build trails making the least possible new impact on the land.

What would you say to those who might be interested in visiting or volunteering at the future park?

For those who feel drawn to help, of course we welcome them to come and join us in the work that we’re doing for the world – not just for a few people here – to see wildlife, and the conservation of a truly natural space. This is for the whole world; anyone can come here and marvel at this place. I invite anyone to come fight with us to protect wild nature and restore the salvageable but damaged landscapes to health.  I hope they will come and lend a hand, because we need their help. There are too few of us who have dedicated our lives to healing the earth, and too many who are destroying it. This movement needs more and more people  so that we will be able to preserve a planet with clean water, air, trees, and wild animals.

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Park Rangers Tour Patagonia, Share Impressions

As believers in experiential education and learning through traveling, we encourage our team members to explore beyond the park borders to develop their skills at the park.  Last month, Cristian Saucedo, Wildlife and Conservation Director, organized a week-long trip for our park rangers and members of the trail crew to some of the most established and popular parks in Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, including Torres del Paine National Park, Monte Leon National Park, and Los Glaciares National Park.

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Many of the participants, such as Daniel Velasquez, Arcilio Sepulveda, and Delmiro Jara, were formerly ranch hands, or gauchos, on the Estancia Valle Chacabuco. Today, they are key players in our wildlife tracking, trail building, and guiding programs. Their knowledge of the land and its ecosystems is invaluable, yet they are largely unfamiliar with the context of the project or what constitutes a great national park. Educational field trips like this expose them to their region’s tradition of national parks, which will allow the park guards to have a stronger voice in the ongoing dialogue about the park’s future.

The idea behind organizing this tour was to show, rather than tell, what the national park system looks like. Trip participants visited with CONAF officials in Torres del Paine, and with ecotourism operators in El Calafate. They spent some time at Argentina’s Monte Leon National Park, the 155,000-acre coastal park that was Conservacion Patagonica’s first project.

Back in the Chacabuco Valley, we asked all participants to share their impressions, opinions, and feelings about what they saw in an anonymous survey. When it came down to picking a favorite park, there was no clear winner. But across the board, most reported that the infrastructure of information was the most impressive feature of all the parks. These comments ranged from observations about good signage to the knowledge, preparedness, and charisma of the park workers.

Ecotourism for all: many of the park guards were impressed that the Perito Moreno glacier, at Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, was made accessible to children with disabilities.

Several respondents noted that, in general, they would have liked to find more attempts at sustainability and restoration, but appreciated the efforts they did see. All in all, it seems that the park guards of the future Patagonia National Park came to see the importance of their role in the big picture. As one wrote, “I feel like a catcher of information – what I’ve learned here will help me become an even better defender of the culture and landscape of my region.”

Monte Leon National Park in Argentina

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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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Saying Goodbye to Pablo Carrasco

October in Patagonia means springtime and the end of the cold southern winter – a time to celebrate. But this month, our community here and in Chile has suffered a loss that seems especially untimely during this season of natural rebirth. On October 15th, we learned of the passing of Pablo Carrasco, a longtime friend, supporter, and employee of both the Pumalin and Valle Chacabuco projects. After battling cancer for several months, Pablo died in Santiago at age 62.

Pablo sharing mate with a friend

Pablo began working at Parque Pumalin nine years ago and was an integral member of the team at the Future Patagonia National Park since its inception. As the story goes, when he first heard that the purchase of Estancia Valle Chacabuco had been approved, Pablo drove all night down the rocky dirt road in order to reach the Estancia by morning. Foreseeing the upheaval that this news might cause among the locals, he wanted to reach them before the official word did in the hopes of quelling their fears and rumors before they began. He went of his own accord to build confidence among the people who trusted him, people who already knew him for who he was: a voice from the local community, and a lifelong protector of Patagonia’s natural beauty.

It was also at Valle Chacabuco that Pablo met Alejandra Bardavid, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. Though their time together was relatively short, it was, as she said, “the connection of a lifetime.”

Pablo and Ale

Friends and acquaintances of “Don Pablo Carrasco” recall his vivid and free-spirited personality, his love of music, his smile, and his singular sense of humor. But perhaps most of all, Pablo will be remembered for his deep connection to nature. This legacy is reflected in his final wish for his ashes to be scattered in the Baker River. The freedom of its current and the ongoing fight to keep it wild represent so much of who Pablo was, and it is where his loved ones will come to rejoice in his memory. So, in the end, it is not wrong to celebrate the arrival of spring even when we are feeling the pain of this loss. It is surely what he would have wanted.

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