I could barely make out Steve Sanderson over the winds howling into the satellite phone. Sanderson, the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was calling from Tierra del Fuego in Chile, an island off the very southernmost tip of South America. Other than Antarctica, you can’t get further away from civilization and still be on land than Tierra del Fuego, yet the island has come under the same kind of development pressure that other wild places are experiencing. That’s what has brought Sanderson and WCS to Tierra del Fuego, where this month the group announced a partnership with the government of Chile to cooperate in management of protected areas on Tierra del Fuego—including the island’s first trekking trail, which could become a mecca for ecotourists. “We’re hoping we can make it a major ecotourism destination,” says Sanderson. “It’s a truly beautiful, beautiful area.”
WCS already had a strong conservation program in Chile and Tierra del Fuego, where it manages Karukinka, a nearly 300,000-hectare protected area on the island. Karukinka was actually donated to WCS in 2004 by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, and it’s a special area, containing the world’s southernmost old-growth forest, as well as wildlife like the Andean condors, elephant seals, dolphins and the endangered culpeo fox. It’s also important for global warming—Sanderson points out that the peatlands on the island contain some 300 million metric tons of sequestered organic carbon, and need to be protected to keep that gas from escaping into the atmosphere. “It’s more than a feel good story,” says Sanderson. “It’s meaningful for the whole planet.”
Most of us will never get to visit a place as remote and as beautiful as Tierra del Fuego—though get down there if you can. But we all benefit when the very special places of the planet are placed under protection.