Last week, the government of Chile signed an agreement taking possession of a 1-million-acres of private park land put together by a pair of American philanthropists. It also announced it would protect an additional 9 million acres of wildlands as national parks, reports Jonathan Franklin at The Guardian.
Kris McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of the clothing company Patagonia and her husband, Doug Tompkins, co-founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, began buying hundreds of thousands of acres in the wild Patagonia region of Chile in the early 1990s, The Guardian's John Vidal reported last year. Their goal, Vidal writes, was to "buy and restore as much land as they could, improve and protect it, and then return it to people as public, national parks."
After over two decades of work, they acquired 2.2 million acres of land, including the gifted land, Parque Pumalín and Patagonia, which together span roughly 1 million acres and represent the largest land donation from a private entity to a country.
But Chile was not always receptive to the couple. In the beginning of the project, they were accused of being CIA spies, of trying to hobble Chile’s economic development and called a national security threat. At one point the government threatened to take their land.
“We were opposed for four years. We were ‘the couple who cut Chile in half,’” McDivitt Tompkins tells Vidal. “They said we were setting up a nuclear-waste dump or a new Jewish state.”
But in recent years, the Chilean government has warmed up to the conservation projects, and president Michelle Bachelet was on hand at the border of Pumalin Park to sign the documents authorizing the handover. As Elizabeth Royte at National Geographic reports, Chile hopes to include the new parks in a 1,500-mile tourism route they want to call the Ruta de los Parques, which would link together 17 national parks and offer everything from rainforest hikes and mountaineering to sea kayaking. By some estimates the new parks will bring $270 million into the area and employ 43,000 people.
The new parks make Chile one of Central and South America’s most eco-conscious nations. “That puts Chile right up there with Costa Rica in terms of the percentage of protected lands,” Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia clothing company tells Franklin. “No other human has ever created this many acres of protected wildlands…These are tourist-ready parks with trails and cabins and infrastructure.”
However, Doug Tompkins, who died in 2015 in a kayaking accident, will never see the fruits of their labor. “I wish my husband Doug, whose vision inspired today’s historic pledge, were here on this memorable day. Our team and I feel his absence deeply,” McDivitt Tompkins says in a press release. “But I know that if Doug were here today, he would speak of national parks being one of the greatest expressions of democracy that a country can realize, preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry.”
The handover of the Tompkins property will take place incrementally over the next two years.