While the United States continues a controversial fight for public lands, American philanthropists are creating the opportunity to conserve natural lands for the public south of the border. On Monday, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet and Kristine Tompkins—the founder and CEO of Tompkins Conservation—signed the largest national park donation (public or private) in history.
The designation protects 10 million acres of new land in Patagonia—a place near and dear to Tompkins. Although she is 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.
After Doug’s death in 2015, which occurred after his kayak capsized in a Patagonian lake and he was overcome by hypothermia, Kristine made it a priority to continue working on conservation efforts in south Chile that she and Doug began in the 1990s—when together they bought more than 2 million acres and began protecting wilderness areas in Patagonia as national parks open to the public.
In 2017, Kristine signed a pledge to dramatically expand national parkland in Chile by approximately 10 million acres. On Monday, she made good on that promise. “I hope that one day, perhaps 200 years from now, the parks that we’ve created will be an example of what is possible, and that the importance of natural beauty will be valued,” Tompkins said in an official statement.
The land donation has created five new national parks and expanded three existing parks—creating a protected wilderness area that combined, is larger than Switzerland. “It’s the biggest deal of its kind in history,” says Tompkins. “This is an unbelievable for conservation and for Chile.” The new network of National Parks of Chilean Patagonia includes the creation of Pumalín, Melimoyu, Patagonia, Kawésqar, and Cerro Castillo national parks, as well as the expansion of Hornopirén, Corcovado, and Isla Magdalena national parks.
Chile is now considered the world leader in conservation and conservatory efforts, largely due to the efforts of Tompkins Conservation. To date, the organization and its partners have protected roughly 13 million acres of land to parks systems in Chile and Argentina. The foundation regularly partners with local and national governments, nongovernmental organizations, scientists, and their locals to achieve permanent conservation that is an asset not only to a domestic population, but the international public. President Bachelet joined Tompkins on Monday while the official donation and designation documents were signed. “Today, alongside Kris, I am honored to see how everything has come together,” Bachelet said. “We are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”
The designated land not only establishes and expands national parks, but is also creating a network of protected public land that will be known as the “Route of Parks.” The route is a 17-park network spanning more than 1,500 miles from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn in Chile. This designation is unparalleled and stands in stark contrast to the recent shrinkage of two American parks: Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. The declaration sliced more than 1 million acres of public land.
But as far as Tompkins and many other advocates are concerned, the Route of Parks donation and designation is a win for conservationists across the world. And she believes her late husband would agree.
“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,” Tompkins said. “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.”