Chile has officially created five new breathtakingly beautiful national parks, and expanded the boundaries of another two, protecting huge swaths of remote and rugged Patagonia.
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.
“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 American couple has spent decades – and hundreds of millions of dollars – working to conserve land and the wildlife that it contains from exploitation and degradation in remote regions of Chile. It has not been without difficulty as Doug, who founded The North Face, and Kristine, who was CEO of outdoor brand Patagonia, came up against tough opposition from locals who saw the pair simply as foreigners buying up their land and preventing them from using it for logging or grazing.
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.
“The [parks] are born out of blisters and headaches and very difficult work—physically, politically, in every way,” said Kristine. “To get this done …is nothing short of a miracle. But miracles are just a product of hard work.”
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.
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.
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.
The protection of the vast tracts of land is the culmination of decades of work for the Tompkins, although unfortunately Doug never got to see the final outcome as he died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015. Kristine, however, has pushed on with the handover of the protected areas, following the vision that nature does not need to be useful or exploited, but has its own intrinsic value and beauty.