Time to protect the Futaleufu and Cordillera Sarmiento

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By Don Weeden, Jack Miller and Camilo Rada
Editors note: The following is from Edition 11.  
We don’t need to tell the readers of Patagon Journal that Chile is blessed with an abundance of extraordinary natural places. Fortunately, many such places are protected as national parks, or as nature sanctuaries (Pumalin Park is the best known example).
But nature lovers must remember that such places can be lost if they lack protection.  Perhaps Chile’s worst loss was the spectacular Biobio River which was plugged by two massive dams since the 1990s, essentially reduced to a massive construction site interspersed by stagnant reservoirs.
As outdoorsmen who have explored many parts of Chile, spanning five decades, we are particularly concerned about two places of such special beauty that it is inconceivable that nature lovers would allow them to be compromised. They would surely be protected as national parks in other developed countries.
The first place is well known to Patagon Journal readers and river enthusiasts globally: the Futaleufú River. We have been hearing for years that there are eminent threats of big dams and mining projects, but in fact, of perhaps equal threat is the more mundane activities of road building, hotel/residential development, and small-scale logging. Because virtually all land within this river corridor is privately owned, maintaining the wilderness character of the river’s gorges has relied on the good will of landowners. But slowly the river corridor is being compromised.
Over the past few years, a few lodges and hotels have sprouted up along the river’s banks, the most famous of which is a box-like French hotel high on the cliffs above the entrance of Infierno Gorge. Downriver, a newly proposed road would cut deep into the corridor (below El Trono rapid), opening up the river’s mostly roadless south side to development. Unprotected, the river corridor is vulnerable to being built up and fragmented. In other words: nicked and cut to death. 
The second place of special beauty is the Cordillera Sarmiento and the adjoining Fiordo de las Montañas in the Magallanes Region, west of Puerto Natales. The Cordillera Sarmiento is a mountainous peninsula about 65 km long and 15 km wide, and is the southernmost extension of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It has been described as a “Lost World” of rare wildlife, impenetrable beech forests, jagged peaks, and massive icefields that spill several tidewater glaciers into the Fiordo de las Montañas, itself a narrow finger that stretches 65 kilometers. It is a breathtaking wild landscape. 
Camilo Rada at the Cordillera Sarmiento. (Natalia Martínez)Camilo Rada at the Cordillera Sarmiento. (Natalia Martínez)
Gordon Wiltsie during the 1992 Cordillera Sarmiento expedition. (Jack Miller)Gordon Wiltsie during the 1992 Cordillera Sarmiento expedition. (Jack Miller)    Kayakers on the Futaleufú River. (Jakub Sedivy)Kayakers on the Futaleufú River. (Jakub Sedivy)  
The Futaleufú River. (Jakub Sedivy)The Futaleufú River. (Jakub Sedivy)
Only accessible by boat, usually in rough conditions (fearsome fifties latitude winds), the Cordillera Sarmiento and the Fiordo de las Montañas see relatively few visitors, mainly climbing and sea kayaking expeditions, the occasional excursion boat out of Puerto Natales (for glacier viewing), and local fishermen.  Humans have collectively left few marks on the landscape. However, this could easily change.
Cordillera Sarmiento is part of the Reserva Nacional Alacalufes, the largest Chilean national reserve. But the reserve offers very limited protection, and there appears to be little if no patrolling. Resources can be exploited if a so-called “sustainable management plan” is presented to the government. A smoked mussel operation was recently established halfway up the fjord, leaving a mess of tarps and building timbers. Fishermen are cutting ancient cypress trees as fence posts. Climbing parties have cut into the forest.
Of great concern is a new road being built from Peninsula Antonio Varas to Fiordo Staines, cutting between Campo de Hielo Sur and Cordillera de Sarmiento and passing just few kilometers short of the northern end of the Fiordo de las Montañas. This road, if completed, will open up this magnificent wilderness to the sort of industrial tourism that typifies parts of Torres del Paine National Park.
Most alarming, the salmon farming industry is poised to move into the area. It already has a foothold in the large gulf directly west of Puerto Natales, and has been negotiating for concessions in Seno Taraba, the body of water on the Cordillera’s western flank, as well as many other hidden spots in the maze of fiords of Magallanes region.
Securing protection for each of these exceptional natural areas calls for different strategies. The Futaleufu - because numerous private landowners own the wild river corridor - will require conservation easements to limit development, to be held by a local land trust. Futaleufu Riverkeeper is also working to have reinstated the Zona de Interés Turístico (ZOIT), which would value the corridor in its wild and scenic state, chiefly limiting road construction. 
The magnificent Cordillera Sarmiento and the adjoining Fiordo de las Montañas deserve national park status, which would offer stronger protections against salmon farming operations, tree cutting, and cruise ship traffic, regulating tourism in a way that would be consistent with conservation. Perhaps this new national park could become the world’s first for sea kayaking and mountaineering. 
Nature lovers should not be complacent. As one wise conservationist wrote, “metaphorically speaking, whatever is not protected will be paved.”  We must not take extraordinarily beautiful places for granted.  
Don Weeden, executive director of the Weeden Foundation, has been exploring Chile by kayak since the mid-70s. He recently led a kayak expedition into Lago Azul and Fjord of the Mountains, repeating a route he did with his father and siblings 40 years previously.
Jack Miller, from Ridgway, Colorado, first visited Patagonia in 1964 and was the first person to explore and climb in many of the wildest areas of the region. He was leader of the 1992 Cordillera Sarmiento expedition, the subject of the cover story of Patagon Journal’s inaugural edition
Camilo Rada is a glaciologist and has made numerous first ascents of mountains in Patagonia and Antarctica. In 2012, he made an expedition to Cordillera Sarmiento as part of his Uncharted project, which combines exploration mountaineering, historical research and mapping in the most remote corners of Patagonia.