From Seattle to South America

Sometimes small gestures open big doors.

One afternoon, I introduced myself to an unfamiliar face in The Nature Conservancy’s Seattle office. The visitor was Mike Zellner, Director of the Conservancy’s Southern Andes Program. His eyes lit up upon learning I was a GIS – geographic information system – Specialist. Mike suggested I fly to Chile, fill in for his GIS Specialist who would soon be on maternity leave, and enjoy an endless summer. It sounded too good to be true.

Two weeks later I arrived in Santiago, Chile and began an amazing six-month experience. During that time I supported The Southern Andes Program, which works in four South American countries: Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This work touches down in the dry grasslands of Patagonia, the productive Mediterranean growing region of central Chile, the temperate forests of southern Chile, and the marine coastal zone that stretches from the south of Chile north to Peru.

So, what would I be doing? Basically, a GIS Specialist uses computer software and a database of “on the ground” information to map and study natural and human landscapes. Understanding the where and why of information on climate, soils, water, ecological systems and human culture is an important aspect of conserving nature for both people and nature.

Exotic Places

Much of the time I was able to support the South American crew from my base in Washington state. But I was lucky enough to take two trips to South America – the first time I’d been more than 50 miles from the U.S. border.

In Chile, I spent time at the Valdivian Coastal Reserve. Did you know that the largest woodpecker and smallest deer in the world live in the coastal temperate rainforests of southern Chile? Or that the Alerce trees found in this region can live up to 4,000 years? The Conservancy bought the nearly 150,000-acre Reserve in 2003 to protect such treasures.

But it doesn’t stop there. The Valdivian Coastal Reserve is intimately linked to the Pacific Ocean where the Humboldt Current, a large upwelling of cold ocean water, produces seafood that supports one of the largest fisheries in the world. Abundance is everywhere. The Nature Conservancy wants artisanal fisherman to succeed and is trying to help shape sustainable fishing practices that protect nature and livelihoods – including a network of marine protected areas, artisanal fishing zones near the coast for local fisherman, and areas offshore for industrial fishing. On land and at sea, the Conservancy’s work is promising a sustainable future for nature and people.

My fellowship also took me east across the Andes Mountains to Argentina. Traveling by bus, I climbed from the Pacific coast through lush green forests, through farm fields and small towns, and then to mountaintops full of ash. In every direction I could see the white top of another volcano. After reaching the divide between Chile and Argentina, I began a descent towards a much drier landscape.

The Patagonia region is known for jagged, snowy mountain peaks and arid, expansive grasslands where gauchos roam and sheep and cattle graze freely. Grassland habitats around the world are one of the most altered and least protected landscapes on earth, making this region of Argentina an important area for grassland conservation. The Nature Conservancy is on a mission to conserve vast areas of sustainably grazed grassland here. We are collaborating with the public and private sector to establish best management practices, conduct ecological monitoring and support conservation planning efforts to reach this goal.

I was able to participate in a week of monitoring grasslands with different grazing strategies. In addition to the many plant species we cataloged, we saw condors soaring above, rheas running like ostriches in strange zigzags, guanacos and red deer galloping on hillsides, and armadillos so small they were worth chasing after. On-the-ground surveys like the one we did are being used alongside aerial imagery that detects photosynthesis values, allowing us to better understand grassland health. Sheep ranchers who are part of a sustainable wool cooperative are being taught how to use this monitoring methodology on their own properties. The results are entered into a GIS – geographic information system – so grassland health can be monitored and measured over time. Sheep in Patagonia are raised primarily for their wool. The wool these sheep ranchers produce will be sold as sustainable and at a premium in the marketplace, a conservation win for both the private and public sector.

Familiar Ground

My international experience showed me that the geographies in which we work, and the challenges we face, are more similar than they are different. When I first arrived in Argentina, I couldn’t help but think of the Columbia Plateau here in Washington. When I stepped onto the Valdivian Coastal Reserve, I felt at home in the temperate rainforest and along the rocky coast.

I learned that, whether you are in Seattle or Santiago, non-profit and conservation resources are always scarce. The value, ingenuity and ethic of the dedicated staff make the difference. I interviewed staff about the conservation opportunities and challenges they face. Their answers often overlapped, regardless of place. One person’s trial can be another’s treasure, and one person’s success can be another’s inspiration. Through outreach, communications, and even travel, we will continue to learn from each other. Working together, we will solve the challenges facing our world.


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