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Chile gains ground in nature conservation

Two new park projects and a year of conservation progress are signs that Chile may become an eco-tourism attraction.

Special to The Miami Herald

SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile's two new privately owned giant nature parks are the latest conservation successes for a nation that has long resisted such efforts, prompting forecasts of a coming eco-tourism boom.

''All Chile lacks now to become a major tourist mecca . . are international quality trekking trails,'' said Rick Klein, director of the U.S. environmental group Ancient Forests International.

Last month, the government signed an agreement clearing the last hurdles toward making Pumalin Park, owned by Doug Tompkins, an American multimillionaire and former owner of the clothing chain Esprit, a legal ``nature sanctuary.''

At about the same time, New York-based investment bank Goldman Sachs announced it was turning into a park its vast landholdings on Tierra del Fuego island, in the southernmost area of Chile. The bank took over the lands recently as part of a settlement with Trillium, a financially troubled timber company based in Washington state.

The two developments topped off a year of extraordinary nature conservation gains in Chile.

A year ago, the government announced it would reroute a planned highway to spare coastal temperate rain forests in Chile's lakes region, and agreed to work with environmental groups to design a conservation plan for those forests.


In November, Chile's two biggest timber companies -- CMPC and Arauco --prodded by Home Depot, the Atlanta-based home improvement company, agreed to stop both logging native forests and buying lumber from tree farms created out of logged forests.

The government also announced plans for a new, 210,000-acre national park in northern Patagonia and a marine sanctuary to help protect endangered blue whales, the largest mammal on Earth. Scientists have recently discovered that among the fijords of the Patagonian coastline, numerous blue whales are breeding and feeding their young.

''All this just proves what we were saying all along,'' said Adriana Hoffmann, former head of Chile's environment agency and president of the Santiago group Defenders of Chilean Forest. ``To conserve forests is the best business possible for Chilean native forests.''

Pumalin Park, which Tompkins began to form with land purchases beginning in 1990, encompasses 742,000 acres in northern Patagonia, making it the largest park in Chile, and possibly, the largest private park in the world.

Pumalin encompasses an extensive mountainous region interspersed with snow-capped volcanoes, lush temperate rain forests, and numerous lakes and rivers. It also includes Chile's largest remaining stand of alerce trees. This endangered, giant-sequoia-like species is the planet's second-oldest tree, reaching up to 4,000 years old.

To reach an agreement, Tompkins gave in on a number of demands by the government, which signed an accord with him in 1997 but the government held up its implementation because of opposition from, among others, politicians concerned about lost opportunities for salmon farming in the area and residents with land claims within the park's boundaries.

Twenty-eight senators, a majority of Chile's Senate, nevertheless want to set aside 1,100 acres for road construction through the park as a matter of national security, arguing that because Pumalin stretches from the Pacific coast to the eastern border with Argentina, it effectively cuts Chile in half.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos opposes the senators' proposal, however, and the government official who negotiated the latest accord with Tompkins said there is no need to revise the agreement. ''The government has the authority to build a road anywhere it wants, whenever it wants,'' Francisco Huenchemilla said.


In Tierra del Fuego, Goldman Sachs has provoked far less controversy with its plans to protect 680,000 acres that include some the world's last undisturbed forest of hardwood lenga trees, endangered wildlife such as the red fox, and wetlands and rivers on land once owned by Trillium.

Goldman Sachs has said it will select a U.S.-based environmental group this year to manage the land in much the same style as Pumalin. Later, ownership of the land will be transferred to a private, Chilean-led foundation.

Trillium's $200 million Savia logging project on Tierra del Fuego was repeatedly thwarted beginning in 1994 by environmental groups in Chilean courts. Ultimately, though, the company's own financial troubles shut down the enterprise in 2000. Trillium owed $30 million to Goldman Sachs, and in October it agreed to settle the debt with its Tierra del Fuego lands.

''This was the socially responsible thing to do,'' said Peter Rose, director of media relations for Goldman Sachs. ``It was decided at the highest levels of the bank to forgo short-term maximization of profit and instead do what's best in the long-term.'

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