Historic Gift Helps Chile Protect Switzerland-size Land Area

Widow of The North Face founder pledges to hand over private parks

In a historic 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 gift 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 centres, and campgrounds worth tens of millions of dollars. The Chilean government, for its part, will contribute nearly 9 million acres of federally-owned land that has yet to be designated national park.

Once the deal is legally finalised, later this year, the new and augmented parks, though not contiguous, will cover an area slightly larger than Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Fodder for coffee-table books and a magnet for adventure travellers, the stunningly scenic region consists of perennially snow-capped peaks, red-rock canyons, glaciated fjords, whitewater rivers, and coastal volcanoes.

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIMMY CHIN

In transferring to a government entity land that she and her husband acquired and restored over two decades, 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—follows in the grand tradition of wildlands philanthropy that established so many U.S. national and state parks, refuges, and monuments. 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 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.

The Tompkins’ tenure in southern Chile has not been without controversy. 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 favour 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.

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGEBROKER, ALAMY

Tragically, Doug Tompkins died before the planned handover, following a December 2015 kayak accident on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile. He and Kris 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.

Now that the Chilean government has pledged to accept the Tompkins donation, the legal fine-tuning begins. Should the initiative surmount any last-minute court 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.

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