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Historic Gift Helps Chile Protect Switzerland-size Land Area

Former CEO of Patagonia pledges to hand over private parks.

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Pumalín Park was formed from a plot of land purchased in 1991 by conservationist Doug Tompkins in Chile's Renihue River Valley.

 

In a ceremony on the edge of South America’s famed Pumalín Park, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and the American philanthropist Kristine Tompkins today pledged to expand Chile’s national parkland by 10 million acres. In what has been billed as the world’s largest donation of privately held land, Tompkins—the founder, with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, of Tompkins Conservation—plans to hand over to the government slightly more than a million acres. The Chilean government, for its part, will contribute nearly 9 million acres of federally-owned land.

Kristine Tompkins—a California native who served as the CEO of the clothing company Patagonia before marrying Doug Tompkins, a founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing companies—spent more than two decades acquiring the land and restoring it to wilderness. But the couple’s tenure in southern Chile has not been without controversy.

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In a ceremony in Chile's Pumalín Park, American conservationist Kris Tompkins (left) and Chilean president Michelle Bachellet announced on the historic expansion of Chile's national parkland by 10 million acres.

Initially, locals bristled at what they considered a foreign land grab and at the couple’s successful opposition to a massive hydropower scheme. Some castigated the Tompkins for taking land out of production—logging and sheep and cattle ranching—and eliminating the jobs those industries produced in favor of restoring what the Tompkins considered degraded grasslands and forests.

As puma populations in the region have crept upward, so have complaints from ranchers who have lost sheep. Over the years, relations between locals and the Tompkins improved as their foundation involved the community in planning and created more jobs.

Chilean industrial interests, including the powerful logging industry, have not indicated they would oppose the parks agreement, though the deal won’t be finalized until later this year.

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Tompkins bought plots of land surrounding Pumalín, increasing its size to 715,000 acres, and in 2005 the Chilean government declared it a Nature Sanctuary.

 

Assuming the handover goes through, the new and augmented parks, though not contiguous, will cover an area slightly larger than Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. It will also feature some of Chile’s most stunning scenery, including perennially snow-capped peaks, red-rock canyons, glaciated fjords, whitewater rivers, and coastal volcanoes.

Tompkins says the gift follows in the grand tradition of wildlands philanthropy that established so many U.S. national and state parks, refuges, and monuments. It includes the Tompkins’ marquee properties, Pumalín and Patagonia Parks, plus land that will expand two existing national parks (Hornopirén and Corcovado) and one national reserve (Alacalufes), in addition to a collection of lodges, visitor centers, and campgrounds worth tens of millions of dollars.

Asked why she focused her efforts in South America, Tompkins noted that the conservation potential was large—some areas were threatened by logging and intensive agriculture—and the land relatively cheap. Handing over the parks to the Chilean government, she adds, gives them institutional protection.

It also brings jobs and cash to local communities (Patagonia Park employs about 150 people from the town of Cochrane, just south of the park’s entrance, according to Tompkins Conservation), and it promotes long-term conservation of biodiversity, including such iconic South American species as the endangered huemul deer, Darwin’s rhea, and pumas, all of which Tompkins Conservation is working to reestablish.

With the addition of these dramatic swathes to its holdings, Chile hopes to establish ecotourism as a regional economic driver. The government plans eventually to link 17 national parks into a 1,500-mile tourist route, called the Ruta de los Parques, enticing visitors with rainforest hikes, sea kayaking, mountaineering, camping on the shores of glacial lakes, wildlife viewing, and star gazing. According to a study commissioned by Tompkins Conservation, the expanded park system has the potential to generate $270 million in revenue a year and to employ 43,000 people in the region.

Tragically, Doug Tompkins died before the planned handover, following a December 2015 kayak accident on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile. He and Kristine long expressed the belief that the nonhuman world has intrinsic value separate from its utility to man and that nature hardly needs humans in order to persist.

Reflecting on why she was donating her private parks to Chile, she told an audience at Yale University last year, “We could have locked up our land; it would have been cheaper. But if you don’t make your land public, you’re losing half its value”—which she defined as reconnecting people with the natural world.

Should the Chilean initiative surmount any possible legal challenges and succeed in protecting these broad landscapes, it would mark a significant step toward an even more ambitious goal: Rewilding at least half of the Earth. Spearheaded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson, the Half Earth Project aims to reverse the current extinction crisis by placing roughly 50 percent of the planet in preserves largely undisturbed by humans. With the Tompkins gift, that goal creeps a little closer.