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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Patagonia The Last Wild Place

The new book, Unknown Patagonia, tells the story of the precious and unexplored region of central Chilean Patagonia and the environmental threats it faces

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Lenticular clouds above Lago Carrera in central Chilean Patagonia. Lenticular clouds are common in the far south; stacked and layered lenticulars only occur a few times each summer. The clouds are evidence of intense winds aloft and often of changing weather.

A clearing storm reveals secondary towers and spires that crowd around Cerro San Lorenzo on the border between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. These peaks are an hour south of a town named after Lord Cochrane, a British naval hero who also fought for Chilean independence and whose swashbuckling career was the inspiration for Patrick O’Brien’s famous series of seafaring novels.
In South America, "south" means more than a direction, more than a description and more than a mere adjective. It means Patagonia. A majestic place of fjords and forests, ice fields and icy lakes, wind-scoured skies and wind-combed steppes, this is the “south” that we fell in love with on our first trip to southern Chile in 2002. After a month of traveling through central Chilean Patagonia, in the region known as Aysén, we left promising to return as soon as possible to the most beautiful landscape we had ever seen. Doing so was easy. We started thinking of Patagonia as our second home and began sharing our passion for one of the last perfect places on Earth.

Geographically, Patagonia is puzzling. There’s much debate over where it begins and ends. No one denies the peaks and glaciers, but is the dense green Valdivian rain forest part of Patagonia as well? Locals on both sides of the Chilean-Argentinean border stake their claim to the area’s mystique. Our focus is on Palena and Aysén, two neighboring regions in southern Chile. Palena is in the lower half of Chile’s 10th Region, also called the Region of Lakes. You can’t drive there directly because the national road network is cut off by the peaks, fjords and impassable cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean. Ferryboats take you south to where the road begins again and continues onto Aysén, Chile’s 11th Region, which is cut off from the final and more famous 12th Region, Magallanes, at the very bottom of the continent.

One of the three species of southern beech trees that dominate Patagonian forests, the ñirre exhibits a rich spectrum of colors in autumn, ranging from yellow through orange to deeper reds. The beech forests are often festooned with a kind of Spanish moss, known as barba de viejo, or Old Man’s Beard.
Isolated from the rest of Chile and safe from too many people or too much development, the natural beauty of Palena and Aysén has stayed intact. An unrelenting and complex coastline is part of what has kept this part of Patagonia unknown. If this region is the wildest landscape in all of Chile, it’s not because of a steadfast conservation effort by the Chilean people to protect the land from modern industrial-scale development. It’s mostly because no one can really get there and especially not in great numbers. The region is one of the most sparsely populated in all of South America. The terrain is so rugged that building roads just isn’t possible. The Southern Highway, or Carretera Austral, is the only road that crosses this landscape from north to south. The best way, and sometimes the only way, to really see the land is to fly over it. So the rough terrain of northern Patagonia and Palena, with its twisting fjords, hanging valleys and nameless lakes, is kept safe by its sheer steepness.

But there are troubling signs ahead that threaten to harm the landscape’s purity. Along the coast, careless salmon farming threatens many of the pristine fjords. A number of deals made during the Pinochet regime gave control of Patagonia’s free-flowing rivers to foreign energy companies. Arguing that Chile faces a critical energy deficit between now and 2025, an energy consortium has lobbied for five years to build five hydroelectric dams on the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers, producing 2,750 megawatts of power to be sent north to central Chile. To carry all of that energy, 200-foot-tall transmission lines, which would require a clearcut some 400 feet wide for 1,500 miles, would be constructed and run through 64 communities and 14 protected areas. Completion of dams on these two rivers alone would submerge 5,910 hectares of Patagonia’s remaining wild lands.

LEFT: These yellow chocho lupine are found only around Puerto Tranquilo at the western end of Lago Carrera. CENTER: Small “hanging” lakes dot the granite peaks of northern Patagonia in the province of Palena. Most, like this one, have never been visited by fishermen or hikers or climbers because it would take some serious bushwhacking, then rock-climbing, to reach its shore. The only way to see and photograph such hidden lakes is from a small plane.


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