CHILE. In a ceremony held on March 15 2017 on the edge of on the edge of South America’s famed Pumalín Park, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and the American philanthropist Kristine Tompkins Mc Dewitt 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 Mc Dewitt —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.
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.
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 Tompinks 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.
Kris Tompkins has battled through her grief with even more focused intensity and, as she calls it, “ferocity.” 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.
MILESTONES from 1990 to 2017 – In 1990, Douglas Tompkins founds the Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE). A private charitable foundation, FDE supports environmental activism through grantmaking, campaigns, and a publishing program. In 1992, the Conservation Land Trust is created: Doug endows CLT, a private operating foundation, to acquire land for Pumalín Park, and support other land conservation projects in Chile and Argentina. After their marrigae, Kristine McDivitt and Douglas begin sharing their conservation work. Years 1999 and 2000 mark the foundation of the Turning Point Projec and of the Conservacion Patagonica Trust, (the name was later changed to Conservacion Patagonica); FDE conceives and is a primary funder of the Turning Point Project, an independent organization that runs an unprecedented advocacy advertising campaign, publishing full-page ads in the New York Times over a six-month period. Topics include the extinction crisis, industrial agriculture, economic globalization, and biotechnology. Kris founds Conservacion Patagonica to create national parks in Patagonia that save and restore key ecosystems, inspire care for Nature, and generate healthy economic opportunities for local communities. In 2011 the first campground at Patagonia National Park project opens: Westwinds at Los Alamos, the first major campground at the future Patagonia National Park, begins welcoming visitors. In 2015, the same year of the tragic death of Dough, after a decade of concerted effort to restore the land, recover wildlife populations, and build public-access infrastructure, CP formally inaugurates Patagonia Park. in Chile’s Chacabuco Valley. In 2016 CLT donates the first sector of land (Cambyretá sector) to the National Parks Administration for the creation of Iberá National Park. in 2017, Kris, former CEO of Patagonia pledges to hand over private parks.