At a ceremony on Monday, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet officially declared a major expansion of Chile's parklands, creating two new national parks and protecting vast swaths of the country's rainforests, grasslands, and other wild terrains.
"With these beautiful lands, their forests, their rich ecosystems, we…expand the network of parks to more than 10 million acres," Bachelet said in a statement. "Thus, national parks in Chile will increase by 38.5% to account for 81.1% of Chile’s protected areas.”
The announcement represents a major achievement for public-private conservation. In what's being billed the world’s largest donation of privately held land, American philanthropist Kristine Tompkins—the co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, along with her late husband Doug Tompkins—has handed over slightly more than a million acres of land to Chile. The Chilean government, for its part, has contributed nearly nine million acres of federally owned land. In all, the newly designated parkland is roughly the size of Switzerland.
“This is a day we've been working toward for twenty-some years,” said Tompkins in an interview days before the announcement. “It's like watching your chicks fledge.”
A California native, Tompkins served as the CEO of the clothing company Patagonia before marrying Doug Tompkins, a founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing companies. The couple spent more than two decades acquiring land in southern Chile and restoring it to wilderness. But the couple’s tenure 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 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, hadn't voiced opposition to the parks in March 2017, when Bachelet and Tompkins made the initial pledge.
Nearly a year of round-the-clock work by Bachelet's government and locals on the ground ensured that the parks moved ahead. “They are born out of blisters and headaches and very difficult work—physically, politically, in every way,” says Tompkins. “To get this done ... is nothing short of a miracle. But miracles are just a product of hard work.”
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. (Learn more about Chile's national parks.)
When asked in 2017 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 added, gives them institutional protection.
It also brings jobs and cash to local communities. According to Tompkins Conservation, Patagonia Park employs about 150 people from the town of Cochrane, just south of the park’s entrance, and it promotes long-term conservation of biodiversity, including iconic South American species such 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.
“Whether he was here or whether he's at some higher altitude now, he's always been the great visionary of this work,” she says. “It's rather difficult not having him here.”
Now that Kristine has brought the couple's dream to fruition, more work remains to secure it. Political momentum in Chile is on the parks' side: Bachelet leaves office in March, but Tompkins says that Bachelet's successor (and predecessor) Sebastián Piñera also has voiced his support. Tompkins notes that Chile's zeal for conservation strikes a stark contrast with the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. (Trump has announced a plan to downsize two massive national parks; here's what you need to know.)
“Right now, leadership in the United States is turning its back on the country's [natural] and cultural masterpieces,” she says. “You have to come to terms with the fact that not all nature can be exposed and utilized for man. It’s a mathematical fact, it’s an ecological fact, it’s a social fact.”
To that end, the new parkland also marks 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 Chile's work and the Tompkins gift, that goal creeps a little closer.