Chile's national parks: The big challenge ahead

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As Chile’s national protected area system grows, so do the challenges to protecting its natural resources while maximizing enjoyment for its growing visitors
 
By Cristóbal Pérez

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 16.
 
When we think of national parks, our minds immediately go to imposing and indomitable landscapes full of nature and life. We think of locations rich in flora and fauna, with iconic vistas that capture the identities of their respective regions, places that inspire governments and others to make greater conservation efforts.
 
Today, few question the social and economic benefits of national parks. Indeed, there seems to be a growing awareness of their importance. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Although written over a century ago by visionary American naturalist John Muir, these words resonate more strongly than ever.
 
National parks have become our greatest symbol of conservation, and all over the world there are an increasing number of land and water ecosystems that fall under some degree of state or private protection. Chile is no exception, and in 2017 it added a considerable number of new places to its list of protected areas.
 
In particular, Tompkins Conservation is donating 407,625 hectares, which together with the Chilean government annexing another 949,368 hectares will result in the creation of three new national parks: Pumalin, Melimoyu and Patagonia. Moreover, Chile is re-classifying four national reserves into national parks, thereby establishing Kawéskar National Park and Cerro Castillo National Park, as well as adding the Lago Cochrane and Lago Jeinimeni national reserves to the new Patagonia National Park.
 
Not counting these new parks, which are in various stages of implementation, Chile’s National System of Protected Areas (SNASPE) currently has 36 national parks, 49 national reserves, and 16 natural monuments. In total, these protected areas cover close to 14.6 million hectares, or an area equivalent to 20 percent of the total national territory.
 
At the same time, tourism has become one of Chile’s fastest growing industries. The number of foreign tourists to Chile has more than doubled over the past decade to nearly 4.5 million people in 2015. As well, the average daily per capita expenditure for these tourists has increased from $US 43.7 dollars in 2001 to $US 64 dollars in 2015. Visits to national parks from both tourists and Chileans have also risen in this period, today exceeding 3 million people per year.
 
Can Chile meet the challenge of a growing national park system while at the same time address persistent problems their parks and reserves already are experiencing?
 
Magdalena García, coordinator of the land management unit of Chile’s tourism ministry, affirms that the tremendous growth in visitation to national parks in recent years demands greater funding for both infrastructure and the development of innovative, new visitor programs. If left unaddressed, the impacts of increased tourism will ultimately lead to a drastic decline in the quality of park experiences for all.
 
Every park is unique, from its geography to the number of tourists it receives. As such, some parks will require much more funding while other, lesser known areas need practically no resources for their management. There are still other parks that have characteristics which make them especially fragile, says Karl Yunis, director of Corporación Parques para Chile. “A place like Torres del Paine, with more wind and strong storms,” he says, “tends to have more problems with soil erosion and compaction, and its biomass is not easily restored.”
 
Yunis, an ecologist, says that many such fragile locations in the public-use sector are presently in very deteriorated conditions, negatively impacting not just the visitor experience, but the conservation of the area. “One could say that, overall, there is still time to correct the situation, but the trend and the prognosis are not good,” he says.
 
Chile’s government is carrying out an “Action Plan for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas” and is working — with substantial assistance from Parks Canada — on projects designed to build capacity, enhance value, upgrade infrastructure, and better provide information to visitors. As well, the Corporación Parques para Chile has created a manual for the development of plans for the public use of protected areas. Its goal is to diversify activities, improve the quality of visitor attention, and integrate the visions of different parties in the planning process. 
 
 
Parque Nacional Villarrica. INSTITUTO DE TURISMO DE PUCÓNParque Nacional Villarrica. INSTITUTO DE TURISMO DE PUCÓN
 
 
Redistribution
Aware of the problem faced by Chile’s parks today, the national tourism ministry appears to be clear about their overall objective. “The national priority is to improve the quality of the visitor experience, not the quantity. We don’t want more people in some parks, but yes, in other, less visited parks, we would like to see an increase,” says García.
 
There is general consensus among officials about the need to create a nationally coordinated communication and marketing strategy to address visitation issues. Increasing visits to parks must also be accompanied by adequate infrastructure to avoid clashing with the aims of conservation. But in order to keep protected areas open year-round and maintain trails and facilities in good condition while at the same time protect flora and fauna, Chile’s national parks and forest service (CONAF) needs much more park rangers to meet the task. Large investments are needed, and that may be the most urgent question the nation must address right now with its parks.
 
In Chile, approximately one dollar per hectare is invested in national parks. That is far too low when compared to other countries in the region like Costa Rica (30 dollars per hectare) or Peru (7 dollars per hectare), or when you consider that the large majority of tourists are attracted to traveling to the country primarily to visit its nature areas. Luis Infante, regional director of CONAF Los Lagos, says that while budgets go up every year, the increasing demands on their resources constantly mean they never have enough.
 
Infante explains that under CONAF’S current system “all of the funds from park admission fees go into a national budget that is later distributed jointly among the parks.” But for experts like Yunis, the funds ought to return to the park that generates them. Otherwise, he says, the parks that receive more visitors will be lacking economic and ecological incentives. “The local park managers are not motivated by tourism because they don’t see the benefits,” he says.
 
With a goal of giving new institutional support to national parks, there has been a bill moving through Chile’s Congress the past three years to create a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service. It has received the input of hundreds of individuals, experts and organizations, but Fundación Terram, whose executive director, Flavia Liberona, calls its current incarnation a flawed bill. “We need the state to put more resources into the administration and management of national parks in Chile. That is just a basic need, yet this bill makes no significant improvements in that regard.”
 
In 2017, CONAF’s budget for the management of national parks was about 29 million dollars. Of that amount, the state contributed nearly half, and most of the rest stems from operational revenues (primarily from entrance fees). Yet, the government funding allotment for the agency falls short of even paying the 18.5 million dollars CONAF needs to pay annually for existing workers’ salaries. At minimum, Chile needs to raise its level of support to cover CONAF personnel.  
 
To further illustrate the problem, of the 101 parks, reserves and natural monuments in Chile, just 80 are provided with park rangers. According to a report by El Mercurio newspaper, the national parks lacking in any personnel whatsoever make up 5,819,293 hectares, or two-fifths of the country’s total protected areas. Another 1,330,591 hectares are managed by only one worker. Collectively, that means 49% of the nation’s parks and reserves have just one individual, or nobody at all, assigned to directly oversee their management.
 
Hernán Mladinic, executive director of Tompkins Conservation, considers the currently assigned budget for CONAF the “minimum floor” for the proper management of national parks, but he says it must be followed by the allocation of more resources in the future. Mladinic says Chile needs to consider that greater investment in national parks results in greater returns. And he points to statistics from the U.S. National Parks Service which shows that for every dollar the federal budget invests in their parks, ten dollars are returned to the economies of the communities located nearby.
 
In 2016, close to 800,000 foreign tourists visited Chile’s national parks. Says Mladinic: “If these same tourists spend $US 125 per day, as the national tourism service (SERNATUR) says they do, then in just one day these tourists are contributing $US 100 million to the national economy, which is almost four times CONAF’S national budget for parks.”
 
Another issue are concessions in parks. For tourism minister Javiera Montes, these concessions represent a funding source that can be used to expand and improve services in national parks. Nonetheless, in order to avoid overloading some of the parks with tourist services, a public use plan must be followed that sets forth the distribution and quantity of services to be offered. The classic example of poor planning in the past is that of Torres del Paine National Park, where Yunis says Chile has allowed too much service infrastructure inside the park limits.
 
Mladinic says the present concession system needs to be completely re-examined. “Today we see concession contracts with different requirements and revenue models that vary from one place to another. I believe we have to take another look at all of this.”
 
 
Laguna San Manuel, Parque Nacional Huerquehue. KARL YUNISLaguna San Manuel, Parque Nacional Huerquehue. KARL YUNIS
 
 
Proposals and solutions
Minimizing impact of park visitors is an increasingly difficult challenge given the continuing growth in tourism. It will probably be necessary, for example, to implement daily capacity limits and online reservation systems in some parks. This past summer, in Torres del Paine National Park, a pilot program that included an online booking system was introduced to control visits to shelters on the “W” trekking circuit, which has reached a saturation point that far exceeds the park’s capacity.
 
Magdalena García says such a system utilized by Torres del Paine is becoming indispensable. “All of the world’s more highly visited park systems have this. It ensures that you can have a good experience, and it facilitates good park management, because you know how many people are coming and where they are going.” The next big leap must involve prioritizing greater inclusion for handicapped, children and senior citizens.
 
It is also clear that an equilibrium needs to be achieved in terms of management, services, infrastructure, marketing, and global strategic planning in order for the system to function. Karl Yunis believes that efforts ought to be taken to improve one, two, or three parks in this way, and they could later be used as models to replicate elsewhere. For Yunis, Conguillío National Park is a current example of where things appear to be working well: the park is receiving constant visitation without ever becoming overburdened.
 
Hernán Mladinic calls for a more transversal approach to improving park management, with specific , practical measures such as emphasizing a more precise definition of park rangers roles (they currently fulfill a number of different functions), better waste management, and taking advantage of renewable energy sources in remote areas.
 
Undoubtedly, large visitation numbers have a significant impact on the parks, but one cannot deny access to places intended for public use. That said, in Chile and worldwide, the area within national parks that are actually directly affected by visitors amounts to just 1% of the total area covered by parkland. Good planning is a must in visitor areas, but what’s most important is ensuring that the remaining 99% of parks have high conservation standards. 
 
Up till now, with very little investment, CONAF has done the best it can with its limited resources. But the growing visits to the country’s national parks demands immediate legislative action on the part of Chile’s Congress. It’s past time for a new institutional structure that harmonizes the nation’s booming tourism sector with conservation needs. The challenge is great, and the clock is ticking.
 
 
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