|The former Parque Patagonia is now, officially, "Parque Nacional Patagonia."|
Just over two years ago, when I had last visited Parque Patagonia—now officially Parque Nacional Patagonia—the park’s new Centro de Visitantes (Visitor Center) was work-in-progress. Two weeks ago, when I revisited, the center had opened and I finally had a chance to appraise it.
|Under construction two years ago, the visitor center is now open to the public.|
To start, the center displays all the sophistication and attention to detail that’s typical of all the Tompkins Conservation projects in Argentina and Chile, with no expense spared. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a comparable project, in such a remote area, anywhere in the world. Clearly, both craftsmanship and technological sophistication have gone into the finished product.
|The old woolshed at Valle Chacabuco, before it became part of a national park.|
When I first heard of the project, I thought the foundation should preserve at least one of the original metal-clad buildings as an in situ museum that would represent the sheep-farming tradition here, but those buildings are gone now. What’s replaced them is a cluster of contemporary buildings with certain rustic style elements, including carved stone façades and wooden details—some of which mimic earlier structures in the region.
|Central diorama of the Parque Nacional Patagonia landscape|
|Overpopulation is the central theme of "The Predicament."|
The Centro, which is bilingual in Spanish and English, consists of four exhibit halls surrounding a central diorama that offers an aerial view the park’s jagged landscape. The first focuses on population and, in my opinion, oversimplifies that issue—"The Predicament”—as the overwhelming instigator of environmental degradation. The displays themselves, though, depict a persuasively vivid correlation between rising population and the decline of wild species.
|The "Nature" hall explains the park's ecosystems and their characteristic species.|
|The "Culture" hall chronicles the region's evolving human occupation.|
The second hall categorizes the region’s natural environments—steppes, forests, mountains and wetlands—and fauna, with life-size models of iconic wildlife including guanacos (plenty of living specimens on the lawns outside), pumas, huemuls (Andean deer) and rheas. The third, entitled “Culture,” traces the human impact from pre-Columbian times to the arrival of European settlers (with an intriguing hologram presentation of the pioneer Lucas Bridges, in English with Spanish subtitles) and the gaucho heritage.
|Pioneer sheep farmer Lucas Bridges appears in hologram form.|
The fourth and last exhibition, entitled “Why Parque Nacional Patagonia?,” is an exhortation to activism, with a plethora of protest signs and a compact surround-sound theater with a short film on “Facing the Abyss.” In terms of the museum’s ethos, that’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s also something that’s going to change.
|Pessimism appear to be the default option.|
|The suggested response to that pessimism is activism.|
That’s because, at the end of April, the park’s ownership will devolve from Tompkins Conservation to the Chilean state, under the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), which administers Chile’s national parks. According to a career Conaf official with whom I spoke recently, such overt official activism is unlikely.
|Private concessionaires will take over the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco and other services.|
On a broader scale, Conaf may lack sufficient resources to maintain such a complex of facilities—the center and museum itself, the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, the Rincón Gaucho restaurant and bar, and the Puma Verde handicraft shop, along with support facilities, at least in the manner the Tompkins group would. Next month will begin a period of transition in which concessionaires should take charge of those, and I hear that foreign bidders may be in the running. This is also true of Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins, the Tompkins’s first project in Patagonia, though its installations are not quite so elaborate.
As part of Chile’s ambitious Ruta de los Parques, it will all be worth watching.
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