Environment : Americans Ride to the Rescue of Chile's Parks : Private money saves habitats and ancient trees for the future.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before Cani became a 1,200-acre wilderness preserve, it was a mountain ranch with cattle roaming among its huge, beech-like lenga trees and soaring, tassel-topped araucaria pines. The result was not pretty.

"The cattle grazed a lot of the undergrowth, and particularly the young lengas got grazed down to nothing," recalled Rod Walker, a British environmentalist who helps manage Cani Sanctuary.

Now that cattle are fenced out, exuberant new vegetation covers the forest floor. "The place is just carpeted with lenga seedlings," Walker pointed out to a visiting group of NorthAmerican environmentalists.

Cani is the first of several private park projects being developed to help save the dwindling temperate-zone rain forest of southern Chile. The biggest is a 740,000-acre area purchased by Doug Tompkins, American co-founder of the Esprit apparel company.

Americans are playing a key role in the creation and financing of private parks and reserves in many countries of Latin America, a region of huge and ecologically rich--but rapidly diminishing--wilderness areas. Because most government park systems in the region are strapped for funds, private conservation projects are becoming increasingly important.

"I think that's the wave of the future," said Peter Cleary, a spokesman for the Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based organization that sponsors dozens of Latin American park projects.

Another group, Ancient Forest International, from the California town of Redway in Humboldt County, helped create Cani Sanctuary in 1990 and 1991. After hearing of plans by a New Zealand lumbering company to log araucaria pines in the area, Ancient Forests raised $200,000 to buy the land.

Some araucarias are more than 1,000 years old, and the species dates back 200 million years. In Cani, important stands of the venerable trees are preserved in a spectacular setting of sparkling lakes nestled between low mountains flanked by white-capped volcanoes.

The Lahuen Foundation, the Chilean affiliate of Ancient Forest International, owns and manages the sanctuary. Its purpose is not only to protect the forest but to educate local people about the importance of conservation, sponsoring school programs and reforestation projects.

Cani is part of a watershed above Pucon, a major lakeside tourist resort. The private park project has trained local guides to lead nature treks into the park and other forested areas.

"The guide training did a lot more than train guides," said Kathryn Bragg, a San Diegan who lives in Pucon and works in the Cani project. "It got a whole lot of young people interested in the existence of the park. . . . It turned them into conservationists."

The education aspect of the Cani project was initially financed by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, but the funds have run out. The park has no permanent endowment fund.

"It's much easier to get people to donate for land than to donate for an endowment," Bragg said. "It's not as sexy, but it's just as important."

Mishka Straka, a director of Ancient Forest International, said Cani can count on at least some funds from his organization.

"I think continuing with the outdoor education project is really important here," he said during a hike into the sanctuary. "We wouldn't abandon it."

While the Lahuen Foundation was establishing the Cani Sanctuary, it was also working on a much bigger park project about 250 miles farther south. The plan was to preserve a mountainous stretch of virgin forest, laced by rivers and fiords, between the Pacific coast and the Argentine border. A new highway into the wilderness area was creating increasing pressure on the forest resources of big ranches in the proposed park site. The area includes some of Chile's most extensive stands of alerce, a rare redwood tree that lives thousands of years.

"We were calling on the whole world to participate in creating the world's largest private temperate rain forest park," said Nicole Mintz, an American-born resident of Chile who is executive secretary of the Lahuen Foundation.

Tompkins, the Esprit founder, became the main contributor to the big project, and before long, the campaign was his.

"He went wild--he took over," Mintz said.

In rushing to buy 740,000 acres of land, she said, Tompkins artificially raised land prices in the area and raised suspicions among some Chilean nationalists. A Chilean magazine recently published a cover story reporting rumors that Tompkins planned to create a secretive foreign enclave--"the next Jewish state, an enormous nuclear waste dump, a great laundry for dirty money. . . ."

Mintz does not doubt Tompkins' good intentions, but she said he "created antibodies" by failing to get enough local people involved in the project's early stages.

Daniel Gonzalez, president of a Chilean foundation created to develop and manage the park, said the project was kept low-profile at first to prevent speculation on land prices.

"Now we are publicizing it," he said.

Tompkins spent about $4 million on land and is investing more on park development and education, Gonzalez said. The foundation hopes to help other landowners in the area preserve native forest lands through sustainable use such as limited grazing and selective logging.

"We are trying to use the park project as a big platform for supporting other projects of those kinds," he said.

Other Chilean groups are looking for land with ecological value to be preserved in different ways. About 30 Chilean professionals joined last year to buy a forested ranch next to Chile's Alerce ational Park, south of Puerto Montt. The new owners plan to create a trust that will let them build cabins and trails in the 7,500-acre tract but will ensure its preservation as a private park.

Another group made a similar purchase on the big island of Chiloe nearby.

"This is an idea that is catching on," said Mintz of the Lahuen Foundation. The foundation is gearing up to work as a clearinghouse and consultant for such projects.

"If you want to work fast to get the best places preserved, that seems to be the best system," she said. "The No. 1 purpose of this is conservation, but conservation also implies use--gentle use."

Lahuen recently won bidding for concession rights to a 74,000-acre tract of government land adjacent to Magdalena Island National Park, near the far-southern town of Puerto Cisnes. The foundation is preparing a master plan for the concession and is applying for financing from the United Nations Global Environmental Fund.

Ideally, the concession would be added to the national park next door, but Mintz said that is unrealistic. Magdalena Island National Park has no rangers, she said, and it is being illegally logged by local people.

"It's not a government priority to expand the national park system," she said. "They don't have the money."

That is also true in most other Latin American and Caribbean countries, where "paper parks" without adequate funding and management are common. Increasing numbers of non-governmental environment groups are trying to fill the gap.

The Nature Conservancy, which has developed the private park concept extensively in the United States, is working with more than 40 private conservation groups in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"We help them raise money to purchase land, train rangers and demarcate," said spokesman Cleary in a telephone interview from Washington. "Often they have very good plans but don't have the resources to carry them out."

For example, the conservancy is paying $1 million for 81,500 acres that will be owned and managed by the Ecotropical Foundation of Brazil in that country's Pantanal wetlands. The tract, previously a ranch next to the Pantanal National Park, is important because wildlife flees into it from seasonal floods.

The conservancy's Adopt-an-Acre fund-raising program helped environmental groups preserve other acreage last year in Belize, Brazil, Guatemala, Panama and Paraguay.

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