A few hours ago, Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, and Kristine Tompkins, CEO of Tompkins Conservation, signed landmark donation agreements establishing five new national parks and expanding three others. In total, 10 million acres, a Switzerland-sized area, enter the Chilean national parks system through this historic partnership. It's a big day.
Below the headlines lie personal stories from longtime team members, field volunteers, and backpackers of formative times in these marvelous landscapes, now protected for generations more to experience in similarly personal ways. Giving thanks to count myself among those shaped by these conservation projects, I dug up photos to share glimpses how one park has defined different chapters of my life during its path toward national park status.
"All of my changes were there": that Neil Young line comes to mind when I think about this place. Ten years ago, almost to the day, I first met Doug, Kris, and what would become Patagonia National Park. The people and the place weave together in this story from day one: I remember talks from Doug and images out plane windows, conversations with Kris and Patagonian winds in our faces. Stunning vistas charged with emotions and memories: this landscape is vast but not empty.
The only photos I could track down from this era come from Facebook, which back then only let you post low-res photos. Still, these images hint at the enchantment and boundless enthusiasm I remember experiencing, stepping into the vast possibilities of the Tompkins' enormous dream. For two weeks in January, I joined my father on a work trip focused on the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign, the historic, successful campaign to save two of Chile's largest rivers from hydroelectric dams. We met Doug in Pumalin, and then flew south to join Kris at Patagonia National Park. The sun-filled grasslands and scrambleable peaks ignited my imagination, and I wanted to stay forever.
2009 - 2010
Back in cold, dark Cambridge finishing college, I schemed of making my way back to glorious Patagonia. A traveling fellowship sent me off with money and some sense of purpose, in return for submitting occasional reports. When asked for a midyear report, I admitted to some evolution in my plans:
My job description here has morphed considerably since I wrote my proposal. Last winter, I set out a plan for enriching the environmental education opportunities in the future Patagonia National Park. Doug and Kris were eager to work with me, but suggested that my project needed rethinking. Since the park will not open to the public for close to ten years, developing an environmental education curriculum now did not seem like the most productive use of my time. Instead, Doug offered to take me on as his Field Assistant. Neither of us knew what this would entail, since the position had never existed before, but the goal was to provide me with a comprehensive understanding of the vision, organization, dynamics and practicalities of a large, complex conservation project. The Tompkins have created large wilderness conservation areas in northeastern Argentina, Argentine Patagonia, and Continental Chiloe in Chile, as well as the future Patagonia National Park; they have restored over a dozen farms and ranches to productivity as models of sustainable organic agriculture; they have waged numerous battles against industrial threats to wilderness areas, from salmon aquaculture to mega-dams. In short, there’s a lot to learn about down here!
2011 - 2014
Patagonia had sunk its talons into me. What I imagined as a one-year traveling experience morphed into five beautiful and varied years with Tompkins Conservation. Each year, I begged for more months at Patagonia National Park (instead of working out of the US office in San Francisco).
Four summer seasons, living and working at the park headquarters, offered time to stumble on seasonal ponds and bleached skeletons, walk trail-less valleys with friends new and old, and make my own mental map of how the landscape fit together. Working for Tompkins Conservation opened doors to seeing the park from many angles, from the work of trail building to community gatherings.
Alongside, much to chew over and grow from. Stepping into my first real job. Navigating my place as a foreigner in Chile. Grappling with divergent conceptions of Patagonia's history. Balancing the pull to walk outside with the drive to work inside. The simple joy I first sensed in this landscape faded into a more layered relationship with the complexities of the place.
2015 - 2016
Leaving for grad school, I declared my Patagonia story over, then learned it isn't that simple. On December 8, 2015, Doug passed away in a kayaking accident. Over the next months, I returned to Patagonia National Park, and re-opened the question of what role this place might have in my life going forward.
Chulengo is my attempt, in some way, to share the vitality, optimism, and expansiveness that Patagonia National Park has given me. I'm so grateful: for all of you who have joined us in this thanksgiving, for the continued determination of the Tompkins Conservation team, for wild and rewilding places, and for the wildness within each of us.