Red Knot, Tierra del Fuego 2018

Looking Towards the Future


The previous post “Choosing Extinction?

From Malevolence to Farce

After nearly two decades of trips to Chile, one gets the pulse of the people and community and how it changes over time. In 2001 we stayed at a small estancia on the east end of Tierra del Fuego, run by a diminutive but muscular rancher.  He had a face as craggy as a rock wall but he was generous and eager for the company.  After we finished three weeks of grueling field work, he offered to celebrate its completion with a lamb roast, or Asado. This traditional feast starts with a live lamb and ends with a slow-cooked almost braised meat charred to perfection. Julian invited his nearby brother and his wife, who came up to me to chat.  Neither of us knew the language of the other. I awkwardly described myself as from the US while he with a cheerful smile and in broken English said “ Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky”.  We laughed, it was, unfortunately, America at the time.  What could I say.

Then I was proud of my country. In 2000 we displayed Bill Clinton’s dirty laundry without shame, but that’s a lot better than when Nixon and Kissinger were power in the 70’s. That self-righteous administration pushed Chile into a 17 year-long right-wing dictatorship led by the malevolent General Augusto Pinochet. We undermined democratic governments throughout South America hoping to stem the spread of Cuban and Russian communism.  But we fooled no one. People got rich, including Pinochet who was later prosecuted for hiding a $17 million largess he amassed while “serving the people”. The US supported dictators in Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries who together killed thousands of innocent people to eradicate dissent and enrich supporters. In Chile Pinochet’s henchmen whisked away 30,000 people to torture and imprisonment, 2000 to execution.



Chile's new president S Pinera

Chile’s new president Sebastián Piñera from NYT article  Chile’s New President concerned about Donald Trump



red knot researcher on Chilean estantia

Our research team outside Julian’s Estantia Punta Catalina, from left Bruno Smith, Sherry Meyer, Steven Browne, Ricardo Matus, Olivia Blanc, Julian, Amanda Dey, Bruce Lueke, Steve Paturzo, Larry Nies, Brad Winn


Chile’s Wound heals, Ours Opens

At the time of our first expedition in 2000, Pinochet languished under house arrest, and the national wound began to heal. The country’s economy grew substantially in the previous decade, on average of 7.9% compared to the anemic 2.9% of the Pinochet era.  But it was still part of South America, where systemic corruption and extremist politics swept across the continent in waves.  America at that time erupted with new social media, and heady with an exaggerated promise of greater communication.  In contrast in southern Chile, we had to rent a sat phone to talk with home.  Chile lagged behind the US then, but the deficit didn’t last long.

By 2018 the ground shifted once again. Chile has all but recovered.  The incoming president, Sebastián Piñera, speaks of increasing participation in trade agreements, while our descends into protectionism.  While Chile looks to play a more important part in the world economy, our government is a political storm cloud threatening war and isolationism.  Even worse, from the perspective of this conservationist, we deny climate change and refuse to take part in a solution.  In the 60’s and 70’s, we spread discord in the name of democracy and a free market. Now we spread global catastrophe simply for our greedy interests.

That’s the headline ecological abuse of our nation. Few see the conservation backstory in the US.  A long time ago this country took pride in our natural heritage. Now we’re following the Koch brothers and their ilk in a nationwide effort to grind away our natural resources to the bare nub, simply for the benefit of shareholders and not for the welfare of rural communities or our children’s future let alone wildlife. In the movie, Beatriz at Dinner, John Lithgow said it best “Get what we can before it all runs out”. Our people have lost hope, and it shows.




Taking the Long View

Chileans, on the other hand, are taking the long view. They cannot avoid the impact of climate change, snowless winters in Punta Arenas, increasing coastal erosion, a sea growing more threatening. As is happening around the world, they too face the prospect of a new right of center government, one led by a billionaire who promises to unite a deeply polarized nation.

But from what I see, Chileans unlike Americans, believe in the future. Here one finds the optimism of a people proud of their growing economy and advancing place in the world economy. I found my return to Chile uplifting. The city of Punta Arenas hums with a vibrant economic and creative optimism. Nestled in the foothills of the Andes along the Straits of Magellan it blends expansion with respect for cultural and natural history that reflects European sensibility rather than the anemic vision of the US. I felt the spirit I once felt in our own land


Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellanes. Photo by Cris photo


Teddy Roosevelt Lives Again but in Chile

And it’s not just a feeling.  In Chile, Teddy Roosevelt lives once again. Michele Bachelet, the outgoing president of Chile, a pediatrician who was once imprisoned by the Pinochet regime and whose father gave his life for Chilean freedom, announced an amazing expansion of the Chilean national park system.

Doug Thompson, a deceased expat American, and his widow Kristine Devitte, the co-creators of Esprit and North Face, donated over 1 million acres of land to the Chilean National park system.  In response, the Bachelet government matched the generous donation with another 9 million acres.  The 10 million acres form or expand 8 national parks. All together Chile protected an area twice the size of NJ that includes expansive wilderness of grasslands, forest and breathtaking mountains cut with fjords and wild rivers teeming with wildlife.   Some of the areas were subsidence farmed or logged but most are virgin forest, alpine meadow, and glaciers.


bachelet past president of chile

Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing president of Chile, designated nearly 9 million acres of land as national parks. She matched the donation of Doug and Kristine Tompkins 9 to 1.  From NY Times



thompkins conservation land in chile

Kristine Tompkins who along with her husband Doug, created North Face outdoor equipment company and donated over a million acres to the people of Chile. From NY Times


Our First Visit to Karukinka

In 2005 we visited one of Chile’s great protected areas in Tierra del Fuego, a 660,000-acre landscape of mountains and fjords, known as Karukinka Natural Park.  In the early 2000’s the US forestry company Trillium, intended to cut down the entire forest of Karukinka, a vast virgin forest of an evergreen broadleaf called Lenga, one of the last in the world. The Washington state-based company bought the forest for a fraction of its value and had preliminary government approvals.   But after years of court battles, the government would not agree to the project and the company defaulted on millions in investor debt.

In 2004 the assets fell into the hands of Goldman Sachs,  the giant vampire squid of Rolling Stone’s Matt Talabii fame.  Fortunately, Goldman Sachs CEO, Henry Paulson, a conservationist in his own right,  understood the value and ultimately engineered a financial transaction that led to the ownership of the land falling into the capable hands of the Wildlife Conservation Society.   In an odd twist to this story, our first funding for our work in Tierra del Fuego came from WCS.  They continue to manage the site now.

We visited the site not long after it was saved by invitation of the WCS.  We were asked to take a look at the land on horseback and recommend our take on conservation,  a herculean task as there was only one road and it just brought us to the edge of the immense landscape.  The Lenga forest shocked us.  We expected tall trees and the quiet dark of a forest cathedral.  Instead, it was truly knarly.   The trees looked beaten up from the persistent winds of this southern latitude and a tangled mess of dead wood covered the forest floor. Yet its beauty and essential wildness inspired awe.


horses in Karukinka Forest

Mandy Dey and Humphrey Sitters in Lenga forest of Karukinka in 2005


At the End of the Road

On our current trip, we found ourselves with a few days to explore.  We decided to return to Karukinko and to the end of a new road winding deep into Tierra del Fuego.  The Chilean government extended the road down to the shore of Lago Fagnano, a large bay that ultimately open to the Straits of Magellan.   On our first day we traveled to the newly established King Penguin colony, a private venture by a rancher who used income from tourists to construct an admirable private natural feature.  We were all impressed, although slightly scandalized –  no government?  We ended up the day in Hosteria Las Lengas, a quaint and commodious hotel nestled amongst Lenga in the foothills of Karokinka.

The next day we negotiating one of the toughest roads in the hemisphere.  It wound through lofty snow cover peaks, some topped with glaciers, then plunging into lush lowlands surrounding verdant rivers and streams.

As it happened GLP Video productions just completed a video on this road and the only family at the road’s end.  The video describes the life of Germán Genkowski, a 71-year old rancher who spent his whole life in the previously inaccessible ranch, Estancia Lago Fagnano.   He and his wife have struggled for decades to survive in this majestic but harsh environment and now look to encourage visitors to come and enjoy what has been theirs alone for decades.  I searched for travel information for this travel destination and could only find this. One can also arrange a stay in cabins maintained by with WCS. For the intrepid traveler, this trip, and both places, Hosteria Las Lengas and the Gnekowski’s ranch are well worth the effort.

In their small way, they embody the robust spirit of the Chileans and the courage of seeking an economic opportunity that adds to the beauty of their land.  It’s a lesson that originated with our own famous conservationists and once made me proud to serve our country’s wildlife.  A lesson sadly lost in this new era of Trump and perhaps never to be regained.


Read Joe Smith’s Blog on our trip to  southern Chile


king penguins in Porvenir Chile

King Penguins at a newly established breeding area on a shoreline ranch south of Porvenir, Chile called Parque Pinquino Rey.  The ranch created access for viewers with a mandatory but interesting lecture on the ecology of king penguins and training on how to not cause a disturbance.



The Man at the End of the World from GLP Films on Vimeo.