It’s fall here, the leaves are shimmery red and gold, and the high season for getting work done in Patagonia is just about over. We’re leaving Valle Chacabuco to drive two days north to Pumalin. It’s nearing lunchtime and we’re pressed to get on the road. I’m exasperated with my husband, Doug, for not being ready to go, but when I turn around to see what’s holding him up I laugh out loud – there he is flapping his arms and running across the recently seeded front lawn of the new guest house trying to herd 50-some guanacos off our hard-fought-for grass. They look back over their shoulders lazily at Doug, bat their long eyelashes, and pay little attention to his “heps” and “yahs,” taking a few more bites off this rare, tender grass before slowly moving off. Standing off just a few meters away from the fence they’ve trampled, we know they’ll be back there grazing before our car turns the corner and disappears. Of all of the obstacles, hardships, controversy and complications that come with creating a new national park in Patagonia, this is one we hadn’t counted on and, truth be told, all of our bluster and long list of failed strategies for keeping the guanacos out is overshadowed by our joy and happiness at having them so protected, so healthy… so close.
Like most species within the Patagonia region, the emblematic guanaco populations are down to roughly 10 percent of their original numbers. They’ve been hunted for meat and fur, and systematically pushed out of nearly all of their original grazing lands as room was made for the millions of sheep and cattle brought onto the land during the 1800s.
Fifteen years ago, when I drove through the Valle Chacabuco for the first time, I saw the extra-high “guanaco fences” designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley and even my untrained eye could see that they were leaving nothing in their wake for wildlife. One of the most beautiful areas in the valley, Valle de Los Guanacos was a sea of sheep and cattle. Not a guanaco to be found among them.
Twelve years and many millions of dollars later, Conservación Patagónica managed the unthinkable and bought this extraordinary 178,000-acre valley, and set about changing the odds for wildlife. After five years of selling off the livestock, taking down the fences, and facing down the traditional slaughter of predators, we have seen a flood of wildlife come down from the marginal grasslands and forest stands up high as they retake their true home.
All of my adult life has been influenced by the southern region of Argentina and Chile – Patagonia. Forty years ago, when I was 18, my mentor, friend and future boss, Yvon Chouinard, left our beach for six months and eventually climbed Mount Fitz Roy with my future husband, Doug Tompkins. Not many years later, I started working for Yvon, making clothes at a company he decided to name Patagonia. For the next 20 years I worked as part of the team building the company, and then as its CEO. Retiring in 1993 and moving to Chile with Doug to work full-time on conserving this region was for me simply the long arm of a long love affair – with a place, with a name, Patagonia.
The gift of this history, this life-long dance, may just be found in having to come up with some trick to keep those tenacious guanacos off our hardfought-for front lawn. We couldn’t ask for a better problem to have.