The North Face Founder Douglas Tompkins' Legacy: 2.1 Million Acres Protected in South America

A vista inside Chile's Pumalin Park, one of the many plots of lands donated to the Chilean government by Douglas Tompkins. Credit: Christian Heinrich / Getty Images

When Doug Tompkins died of hypothermia after a kayaking accident in Chile on December 8, he left behind one of the greatest land-conservation legacies in human history. Tompkins founded the outdoor-apparel company The North Face, but he made his fortune by founding and then selling Esprit, the women's clothing company. Starting in 1991, Tompkins and second wife, Kristine, used that money to buy immense tracts of South American wilderness — 2.1 million acres to date, including snow-capped mountains, ancient forests, and glacial fjords.

According to Claudio Seebach, a former cabinet-level adviser to Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, Tompkins then transformed that land into parks through a singular negotiating strategy: Time and again, Tompkins approached the Chilean government and said, in essence, that he would give yet another privately owned wilderness to the Chilean people as a national park if the government promised to contribute a substantial amount of public land. This led to the commitment of an additional 803,640 acres, the creation of five new Chilean national parks, and the transformation of Chile into an unparalleled adventure-travel playground — a world-class destination for trekking, wildlife, and bird viewing, mountaineering, and river-running. Here are the greatest hits, topping our list for next year's most sought-after adventure destinations.


Pumalín Park
At 715,218 acres, roughly equivalent to Yosemite National Park, Pumalín was the world's largest privately held nature reserve when Tompkins gave it to the Chilean people. Pumalín is comprised mostly of temperate rainforest reaching from snow-covered peaks in the Andes down to the Pacific Ocean. Endemic species include some of the last surviving groves of the ancient Alerce trees, which can grow to more than 180 feet and live longer than 3,000 years.

Corcovado National Park
Purchased with help from the American businessman Peter Buckley, Corcovado now comprises 726,000 acres and 82 lakes surrounding the majestic Corcovado Volcano. Pumas prowl the ancient forests, big rivers empty into coastal estuaries, and huge flocks of shorebirds and even penguins crowd the empty beaches. Seals and sea lions fish the near-shore waters and giant blue whales bear their young in the park's bay.

Yendegaia National Park
At the uttermost ends of the earth, on the island of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this enormous park protects 370,000 acres from the famed Beagle Channel to the Darwin Mountains. It includes sweeping grasslands, beech forests, wetlands, peat bogs, lakes, rivers, glaciers, and snowfields that drain into fjords. Wildlife includes culpeo fox, river otters, ruddy-headed goose, and 49 species of bird, and the park shares 32 miles of border with Argentina's equally huge Tierra del Fuego National Park, creating yet another Yosemite-sized protected wilderness and wildlife corridor.

Patagonia Park
Still privately held by a Tompkins foundation but already open to the public, Patagonia Park links the mountains, glaciers, and river valleys of two pre-existing preserves to create a 650,000-acre protected area with substantial herds of endangered huemul deer, lama-like guanacos, Andean condors, pumas, pink flamingos, and armadillos.