Last week, I published the first part of a lengthy interview
with environmental philanthropist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins
wife and partner of Doug
, about Chile’s proposed new Parque Nacional Patagonia, conducted
during my visit to Estancia
earlier this year. Today I’m publishing part two, which
starts with a couple questions about Parque
, near the town of Chaitén
We also touched briefly upon the Esteros
, the wildlife-rich subtropical wetlands in Argentina’s northwestern
province of Corrientes.
: I don’t know
much about Corcovado (pictured above). Are there any facilities open to the public?
: Corcovado is
not inaccessible, but it’s accessible by sea. You can see it from the highway,
but you can’t get in from there. I mean, I guess you can if you’re Robert Scott
: With regard
to [Estancia Valle Chacabuco, pictured above], I’ve been looking at the style – it’s very
different from the traditional sheep estancia.
: It comes
more from the Argentine Patagonian style, from the English…
WBB: Well, you see similar details at the big house at Monte
(pictured above, now a guest house). Some of those resemble the little details here, though the cladding
is very different…
KMT: This came about, we have a series of photographs we’ve
been taking for years of classic and beautiful houses we found in Argentine
Patagonia, and when we started here because we have all this rock, which comes
out of the valley, this is what we decided to use here. It’s emblematic of the
Patagonian, not the Chilean necessarily, because the English weren’t here.
WBB: Actually, the English were a little farther north. Lucas Bridges
KMT: Yes, he was here, his house is up on the border.
WBB: Are you going to preserve any of the existing
KMT: Well, his house is preserved as an historical monument.
It’s on the Entrada Baker, as you go across Paso
[toward Argentina] up there.
WBB: I did not know that. Is it visible?
KMT: Yes, you can drive in there. We’re going to fix it up
and there’ll be a sign that says “homesite of Lucas Bridges.”
WBB: What about any of the existing buildings here?
KMT: No. These were not really classic estancia buildings. I
mean, we’ve painted them, we’ve fixed them up. It was an army barracks here.
WBB: I look at things like, say, the wool shed, which is
something that is sort of typical in both Argentina and Chile.
KMT: No, people will see that up on the border, where we
have an historical site, but not down here.
WBB: But you will have something about its legacy as a sheep
KMT: There will be an information center here.
WBB: Who were the original owners of this property?
KMT: It was leased to some people, but there was no kind of
title on the land until…I think the De Smets were granted the first actual
titles, not to the current outline. The reason that Reserva
exists is that the De Smets family had to cede that out of
the ranch to get titles. I don’t pretend to be the storyteller on this one, but
it was very complex getting the titles to this property for that family.
WBB: How long were the De Smets here, do you know?
KMT: Well, they came down from Chile
, that’s where all the Belgians landed. His father, I’m going to say
45 or 50 years ago, but that was not the whole ranch, that was their presence
WBB: So not that long ago?
KMT: Well, for one family, down here, pretty far from
everything, that’s quite a bit actually. Lucas Bridges was here long before the
De Smets, there were people ranching here before the De Smets came. Anywhere
there was grass, people were ranching. There weren’t many fences in those days.
There were shepherds and sheep all over the place, that’s why the place is so
WBB: Have all the fences been removed now? Is work still proceeding?
KMT: No, that’s going to be a long job. We’ve gotten most of
the easy ones. We probably 200 miles left to go, probably more, maybe 250.
WBB: That’s one of the big volunteer jobs? How many
volunteers do you have coming down here?
KMT: Well, this year we cut it back. We have about a
hundred. We had over 500 people.
WBB: What are the terms that they come on?
KMT: You have to stay a minimum of three weeks, pay US$15
per day for food, you have to get yourself to the crossroads down below [on the
], and then we pick you up and drop you off. Some people stay three
weeks, some people stay two months, some people stay six months. It depends on
what their personal plans are.
WBB: So it sounds, given all the land you have, that it’s a
KMT: We’re running two different sorts of programs. There’s
sort of an internship where you are actually coming here for a specific job.
Like the guys here in the lodge, they came to work in the lodge, so you’re more
selective with them because you’re looking for certain types of experience and
skills. But the bulk of the volunteers is more physical labor; we have a pretty
extensive volunteer site on our website and people go in there.
WBB: How many people are here at any given time, then?
KMT: About a hundred. It depends how many construction guys
are here. Right now we’re starting the new information center and museum and
so, once they get that cracked open the number will go up significantly.
WBB: One of the new buildings I saw going up across the
creek here, what’s that?
KMT: That’s all housing for employees, they’re apartments.
WBB: That would be permanent full-time staff? Presumably
there would also be seasonal employees? Are those mostly foreigners?
KMT: Yes, for people who will be here after it’s a national
park. Everybody is Chilean. Everybody. The only foreigners are Doug, myself,
Nadine [Lehner, Conservación
’s publicist], the guys in San Francisco [CP’s US office], that’s
it. Obviously there are foreign volunteers, but in terms of employees our
policy is everybody is Chilean or everybody is Argentine. We have one exception
in Argentina, at Iberá, Ignacio Jiménez is a Spaniard and he’s one of the top
wildlife guys around.
WBB: For what it’s worth, this is an opinion of my own, but
I’ve been to Iberá at least half a dozen times and it always astonishes me. It’s
such an extraordinary place and I’m always telling people that if you really
want to see something interesting in that part of the country, skip Iguazú
and go to Iberá. I think it’s so much more interesting.
KMT: I don’t know, I’m pretty addicted to those falls but I
agree, you see the falls and then you go to Iberá immediately.
WBB: Iguazú is an impressive sight, but I don’t like what
they’ve done with it, it’s become Disneyfied and just overrun with people.
Iberá gets not even one percent of the visits that Iguazú gets. It’s become a
mass experience, Iberá is so much more intimate.
WBB: Yes, I have, it almost sounds like stalking, but I was
there last year about the time your plane landed, just shortly after. I coincidentally
happened to be coming through and spoke with Leslie Cook, whom I’ve known for
quite a few years. I’ve visited the place before, though I’ve never stayed
there. I had come from Iguazú, just when it started raining and the road turned
KMT: Yes, it’s quite bad, sounds familiar.
WBB: Do you have anything else you want to tell me?
KMT: I think it’s important that people know that one of the
reasons we’re here is we have between Tamango and this property a little over
or under 10 percent of the remaining huemul
[Andean deer, pictured below] population. We’re
working very hard, along with Conaf
to try to see these numbers go up. We’re doing a lot of support of studies that
are going on here, to find out what the threats are. This area has all its species
intact, another reason that it’s a real conservation priority, and also it has
every kind of ecosystem found in the Patagonian Southern Cone in one place.
WBB: What are the threats to the huemul in this area?
KMT: Primarily, livestock everywhere, loss of habitat. Hunting
and poaching, dogs coming up from Cochrane that are feral and don’t get fed down
there, so they’re hunting. That’s a big problem here in this population,
probably the most critical. So it’s the same thing everywhere, and the thing is
there are only an estimated 1,500 of them left.
WBB: In the country? In this area?
KMT: No, everywhere. That’s the world population, both the
Argentine and Chilean sides. This is one of the largest grassland restoration
projects in the world today.
WBB: We’re right on the edge between the forest and the
KMT: That’s what I mean when I say all the Patagonian
ecotones that exist from rock and ice down to arid, though this is mostly semi-arid.
You don’t see the kind of landscape that you see out on the coast, you don’t
see those severe arid areas like you find around Monte León, but everything
else is here. The water systems here are pure, there are no trout in this lake
system and river system other than the Chacabuco, and the upper lakes have not
been stocked with trout. So you have a pure water system, and it’s a
significant system, especially considering the Patagonian region, there are
lakes, streams, lagoons, and wetlands, it’s very unusual. That’s why Conaf and Conama
have wanted to put
this into conservation for decades, but they never could. So there are a lot of
reasons why we’re here.
WBB: So the huemul is the signature species for this area,
but are there any others?
KMT: Well, guanacos of course, but they’re abundant. The
mountain vizcacha is also red-listed, and we have populations of them all
WBB: I haven’t seen vizcachas here, are these the
same as in the Norte Grande
or are they a different subspecies?
KMT: I can’t answer that. But they’re not the same as the
ones in Iberá.
to the chinchilla, the mountain vizcacha
to which Kris refers is the same species as occurs farther north, in Bolivia
and Peru as well as Argentina, but it is not on the IUCN Red List
threatened species. In Argentina, there are two endangered species of vizcacha
rats, a totally different rodent, with very limited ranges.