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Chile's a natural for ecotourism
Tension grows between developers, environmentalists

Special to the Tucson Citizen

Chris Spelius went searching for the perfect river, and he's pretty sure he found it a thousand miles south of Santiago, Chile.

Two years after the 1984 Olympic Games, the American kayaker got a call from the Olympic Committee to help develop kayaking in the South American nation.

A thousand miles south of Santiago, he found rivers fed by glaciers and 20 feet of annual rain pouring into Andean fjords. After seeing the rapids of a river named Futaleuf? never left.

For the past two decades Spelius has made his living river-running there, and he's not alone. As Chile seeks new revenue sources, it has begun to capitalize on the appeal of wilderness.

"People looking for special experiences are a very important economic sector. We are searching for these tourists," said Gonzalo Salamanca of Fundaci??hile, a state organization promoting global competitiveness.

Government and private entities view ecotourism as a sustainable alternative to industries such as forestry and fisheries, Salamanca says.

And in an era of global tension, Chile's remoteness attracts growing numbers of visitors, and its expanses of untouched wilderness are increasingly rare in industrialized countries.

Entrepreneurs such as Spelius are trying to ensure these places continue to exist in Chile, but they have competition.

The forestry industry, looking to double Chile's production by 2010, eyes these lands for hardwoods. The lucrative hydroelectric potential of Andean rivers has not escaped the notice of transnational energy corporations.

In a further twist of globalization, Douglas Tompkins, American founder of the outdoor equipment company North Face and co-founder of Esprit clothing, bought a pristine swath of southern Chile larger than Rhode Island to preserve it from development. His radical investment caused a firestorm of controversy over who is to control natural resources.

For Spelius and visitors to Futaleuf?e draw is the glacial water filtered by a series of lakes in shades of turquoise. It flows from small quiet eddies to technical Class 5 rapids that can toss and bend 14-foot rafts like plastic toys.

Towering conifers and a patchwork of pasture shelter the river while distant rolling hills merge into jagged mountains topped by white snowfields and pale blue glaciers.

More than half the town works in summer tourism from January through mid-March, said Arturo Carvallo, mayor of Futaleuf?pulation 1,800. They work as rafting, fishing, and hiking guides or in hotels and restaurants.

But the wet, nine-month winters and the town's isolation prove a formidable obstacle to expanding tourism.

Futaleuf?only recently accessible by road without crossing into Argentina, and the bumpy 96-mile bus trip from the nearest airport takes longer than four hours. Buses run only sporadically in winter. Carvallo is seeking government subsidies to make the town accessible year round.

Transportation wouldn't be a problem for international corporations wishing to harness the river's energy.

During the 1980s privatization efforts by dictator Augusto Pinochet's military regime, the state energy company was auctioned off. The purchaser, Spanish energy giant Endesa, also acquired rights for hydroelectric development.

Today, the company owns about 85 percent of the total water rights granted by Chile, including the entire flow of the Futaleuf? One proposal is for a hydroelectric dam that would inundate the town of Futaleuf? the surrounding valley to produce cheaper electricity.

Daniel Gonzalez, executive director of FutaFriends, an organization dedicated to preventing the industrialization of the river, sees little economic justification at the moment. But with electricity demand increasing 7 percent a year and a new agreement allowing Chile and Argentina to exchange energy freely, this could change.

Estimates of when construction could begin vary from five to 10 years.

"The issue is not just about this incredible place being dammed," Gonzalez said. "Doing so would set a dangerous model that would hurt the region as a whole."

But the free market provides opportunities in surprising places. Just as a Spanish company may utilize privatized water rights for hydroelectric development, Douglas Tompkins seeks to privatize to prevent such things.

Tompkins visited the country for the first time in 1961 and fell in love with the Chilean wilderness. Cashing in his interest in the clothing business, he gave up his career in San Francisco and settled on an abandoned ranch in the coastal south.

Since then he has spent more than $50 million to buy nearly 750,000 acres to make sure it remains wild. The seventh largest of Chile's protected areas, Parque Pumal?is managed by Tompkins' foundation, the Conservation Land Trust.

Named for the resident pumas, the park contains a combination of temperate rain forests and fjords overlooked by the 7,887-foot volcano, Michinmahuida. The park is home to the deerlike pudu, sea lions and some of the last oceanside old growth forests on Earth.

"Most people desire to be out in nature although they cannot articulate why," said Tompkins. "There is still a need inside of us to see not every square meter of Earth has been humanized."

Tompkins hopes to ensure that this wilderness lasts forever, but his work isn't without controversy. He has been accused of violating national sovereignty with a reserve that stretches almost from the Pacific Ocean on the west to Argentina on the east.

"If a foreigner came into the United States and bought a piece of land that stretched from California to Philadelphia, what would Americans say?" asks Francisco Perez of INFOR, a Chilean forestry research organization.

Juan Eduardo Corea, vice president of CORMA, a forestry trade group, concurs. "Tompkins earned his money as businessman. Now he comes to a poor country and is preventing the use of natural resources important for our development."

Tompkins and a growing number of private conservationists are simply using the same provisions of Chilean laws that encourage foreign ownership of property to attract investment.

Some praise his efforts.

"We are very thankful that Tompkins has protected this wonderful area. We wish there were more people like him," says park visitor Juan Ravilet Mariano.

Chilean botanist Adrianna Hoffman, who wrote a book on the flora of southern Chile, agreed.

Hoffman was appointed director of CONAMA, the Chilean environmental protection agency by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Hoffman was the first environmentalist to head CONAMA, but she said the organization had little power to influence government policy and left after six months.

Hoffman now heads the private foundation Defenders of the Forest.

"Today private investment is the only way to conserve areas that the government does not have the means to protect," she said.

The logging industry, though, is eying Pumal?s forests. It is home to Chile's largest remaining stand of 4,500 year-old alerces, a native cypress. With trunks up to 12 feet in diameter, alerces are prized for wood resistant to insects and weather.

Chilean law forbids substituting old growth forests for tree plantations. Nevertheless, the industry envisions a renewed emphasis on the sustainable harvest of native forests in southern Chile, which includes Douglas Tompkins's eco-reserve. Perez believes that more than 14 million tons of native forest, equivalent to the size of 7,000 full-sized redwoods, can be harvested annually without jeopardizing the environment.

"There is no doubt we can use native forest. We are in the process of evaluating its precise condition to make use profitable," Perez says.

Although protected by the government, alerce wood still has value on the black market. Most foresters admit clandestine logging and trafficking happen, but their interest is with more profitable exotic species, such as eucalyptus or Monterey pine, which grow where native forests once stood.

Several types of eucalyptus, native to Australia and valued for firm pulp and rapid growth, flourish in reforested areas of Chile.

"Our main assets are the forests," says Charles Kimber, the Chilean executive director of Arauco, the third largest forestry-products company in the world. Arauco controls 709 thousand acres of eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations.

By carefully managing every step of a sapling's life, plantations cultivate harvestable, defect-free trees in 15 years. Many of the eucalyptus are turned into wood chips, which are processed into paper and cardboard. Monterey pines become paneling, plywood, particleboard and pulp for shipment all around the world.

Since tariffs have long been reduced for Chilean forestry products coming to the United States, the new free trade agreement will change little.


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