It had been two years since I last visited the Chacabuco Valley in southern Chile. In 2002, Conservación Patagónica, a public charity that purchases land to protect and restore key habitat within the Patagonia region, bought the former sheep estancia that occupies most of this valley. Chacabuco is a deep transverse valley cutting through the Andes, pulling into overlapping habitats the flora and fauna of the wet western slopes and the dry eastern steppes; all of its original species are intact. It is framed by glaciated peaks, carpeted with beech forests, bejeweled with lakes and wetlands; it overlooks the Río Baker, one of Chile’s mightiest rivers, and borders Lago Cochrane, which holds some of Chile’s most pristine water. Chacabuco wasn’t just another opportunity to buy a big sheep ranch: It was the number-one conservation priority for the Chilean National Park Service.
At the time the land trust purchased the 173,000-acre estancia, the place had suffered from nearly 100 years of livestock overgrazing. Even then, the purchase was not inexpensive, and Kris Tompkins, Patagonia’s former CEO who now heads up the land trust, worked hard to raise funds. At first the challenge seemed almost too daunting. During negotiations, Kris called me several times uncertain whether to commit to the purchase without having in hand the corresponding commitments from donors. I reminded her of the sign her husband Doug had above his desk: “Commit and then figure it out.” She did, and then she crossed and recrossed the United States and Europe, pitching the project to donors and escorting many of them to Chacabuco to see firsthand the valley’s natural wonders, sharing her vision of the day when the Estancia Valle Chacabuco will join the contiguous Tamango Reserve to the south and the Jenimeni Reserve to the north to create the Patagonia National Park, which will be on a scale with Yosemite National Park in California.
By the time of my latest visit, Kris had raised over half the projected costs of creating a fully functioning national park that eventually will include a visitor’s center, restaurant, lodges, administrative buildings, campgrounds and trails. As I turned onto the gravel road leading to the park’s center, I knew that some of the infrastructure was already under construction. I also knew that in the two years since my last visit, teams of volunteers – many of them from Patagonia-the-company – had pulled down nearly 100 miles of fencing. All the sheep had been removed the year before, and the results were startling. Hillsides that before had been cropped to an ugly stubble were covered in knee-deep native grasses. Barbed wire no longer divided the landscape. Invasive thistles that once bordered the dirt road had been uprooted, making room for neneo, calafate and other natives. Most impressive, guanaco had moved in to reclaim grazing rights, and on both sides of the road dozens of these majestic camelids raised their heads, their large eyes framed by oversize lashes watching as we passed.
I pulled into the compound where the work crews were housed in the buildings of the former sheep ranch – structures that will eventually be replaced by the park’s permanent buildings constructed with copper roofs, wood sash windows and rock walls hewn by skilled masons. Kris greeted me with a tight hug.
“It’s been two years since I’ve been here,” I told her.
“That long? Wow, so what do you think?”
“You probably can’t see it; you’re here every day. But the entire place feels different.”
“It’s ineffable. But it’s the feeling of a place becoming wild.”