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Photograph by Esther Speck

Protecting One of the Last Wild Places on Earth

What would you do if you had worked hard, were set for life, and could do whatever you wanted? Would you retire to a beach in Costa Rica? Gallivant around the world with a pack on your back? Or buy 200,000 acres of land in Chile to nurture into the country’s next national park?

Did you do a double take on that last one? Let me introduce you to Conservacion Patagonia (CP), a nonprofit organization founded by former Patagonia CEO Kris Tomkins. Kris moved to South America in the late 90s with her husband, Douglas—founder of The North Face and Esprit, to work on conservation issues, setting sights on the lofty goal of creating national parks in Patagonia. Since 2003, CP has been mending a biologically diverse stretch of the Chacabuco Valley in southern Chile in the hopes it will one day become Patagonia National Park.

The future park will span 650,000 acres, combining the almost 200,000 acres that CP plans to donate to the Chilean government with 460,000 acres of national reserve land. For now, CP is restoring the delicate ecological balance of the land, which suffered from overgrazing in its former life as Estancia Valle Chacabuco—one of Chile’s largest sheep ranches. The organization is also developing facilities, like a visitor center and trails, with the goal to have a fully functioning national park within eight years.

Okay, next question: What would you do if your job gave you paid volunteer time? Would you pitch in at a local soup kitchen? Take disadvantaged kids into the wilderness? Or fly to South America to camp in a remote valley and bust your knuckles cutting trail? My coworker, Beth, chose option #3. She just returned from a volunteer trip to Chile, where she put some sweat equity into the future Patagonia National Park.

This was no exotic vacation disguised as a do-gooder trip. In the field, there were no showers, cell phone service, or relief from the brutally persistent blackflies. It was camping and braving the elements and hard labor. It was also hard to get there. Beth flew into Coyhaique and took a dusty, bumpy seven-hour bus ride south to the property. A van then carted her seven kilometers to the main park headquarters, before she climbed onto a 4WD truck for the final two-hour drive into the campsite. Talk about remote! Let’s just say, you can’t exactly change your mind after you get there if the whole volunteer thing doesn’t work out.

Beth and her friend and outdoor industry colleague, Esther, who works for Mountain Equipment Co-op, signed up for a week of volunteer work—and found it tremendously rewarding. They camped with 10 other volunteers from all walks of life, including a 20-year-old German backpacker, a 60-year-old woman from New England, several Chilean college students, and a former football referee from San Francisco. The group toiled seven hours a day, marking and cutting new trail. At night they discussed the day’s travails, swapped life stories, taught one another their native languages, and slept beneath the stars.

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Photograph by Esther Speck

They worked under the tutelage of locals—former gauchos (kind of like South American cowboys) that CP has hired to help with habitat restoration, park operations, trailbuilding, and wildlife tracking. CP is committed to providing jobs for the people who used to work on the ranch. Pretty cool.

Beth and Esther walked away from the experience feeling privileged—to work in an industry that helps protect wild places, to have jobs that support giving back, and gratified to have contributed to something larger than themselves. Their labors each day produced tangible results. Yet in the grand scheme of developing a huge park, the few kilometers of trail they built feel like just a tiny piece of the plan.

CP is slowly coaxing the land into a healthier balance and creating a way for people to explore it. Future park visitors will undoubtedly be in awe of the rugged beauty of this remote corner of the world. The landscape is gorgeous. Rolling grasslands cloak the hills, tall mountains stand as ramparts in the distance, pristine lakes dot the countryside, and puffy, round shrubs conjure up images from Dr. Seuss books.

Perhaps the evolution of Patagonia National Park is a modern-day Lorax tale. Man comes, sees a wild land of abundance, and brings huge sheep herds that trample the earth and decimate the habitat. Then—when the land is on the verge of destruction—we collectively figure out how to return it to its former glory while simultaneously preserving the heritage and livelihoods of the local people.

The vision is grand: Protect a biologically rich area of Patagonia, transition the local economy from ranching to sustainable ecotourism, and provide a place where people can experience first-hand the value of protecting wild places. In my humble opinion, CP and the future Patagonia National Park is an inspiring story of outdoor industry vets pouring their hearts and souls into a greater good that will preserve a stunning slice of earth for all to enjoy.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.