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Meanwhile, a $7-million-a-year tour industry blossomed as travelers from around the globe arrived to raft, kayak, hike, fly-fish, horseback ride, and even put down roots in this wild and beautiful slice of northern Patagonia. When I first visited the small town of Futaleufú in 1990, it did not have a hotel or restaurant. Now it boasts several of both, mostly funded by foreign dollars. Locals assumed that the region’s newfound prosperity would act as a buffer against environmentally destructive development plans.

Then on May 2, Palena’s 3,156-foot Chaitén Volcano, which had barely rumbled for more than 9,000 years, decided to blow. In a series of eruptions, all that environmentalists had been fighting for seemed threatened—and not just by fire, flooding, and ash.

At first, the situation appeared dire. Within a week of the eruption some 8,000 inhabitants of the province were evacuated, mostly by ship, to Puerto Montt and the Chilean island of Chiloé. Many of Futaleufú’s residents fled across the Argentine border at Esquel. The province’s largest town, Chaitén, lay 90 percent underwater, inundated by ash-choked rivers that had burst their banks. Like some modern-day Pompeii, Chaitén was predicted to be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

As a thick column of ash blew east for hundreds of miles over Patagonia to the Atlantic Ocean, 40,000 livestock were reported abandoned in fields covered in debris, left to depend on contaminated rivers and lakes, and birds perched on trees were said to resemble concrete statues. Miraculously no one died, but just a few days after the eruption, Daniel Gonzalez, field manager for Tompkins’s land holdings in Chile and Argentina, said, "From the southern tip of Pumalín to the Futaleufú Valley, ash is spread everywhere—some places worse than others. Only time will tell how much of the area will ever come back to normal."

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  • Re: Jon Bowermaster/Chile volcano The ash will not make the soil sterile. It will have the opposite …
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