U.S. Conservationist Fulfills His Chilean Dream
CALETA GONZALO, Chile He spent more than $30 million and wrangled with the Chilean government and public for eight years, but a former American clothing magnate turned conservationist has now realized his dream of turning his vast lands in southern Chile into a nature sanctuary.
In a ceremony at the gateway to his rainy Patagonian wonderland, Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of Esprit clothing, donated more than 714,000 acres of almost untouched forest to a Chilean foundation that will run South America's biggest nature preserve.
The Pumalin Park Nature Sanctuary is a rugged land of mossy trails, steep mountains, deep fjords, and clear rivers, with camping and cabins for hardy tourists who fly or boat in from the city of Puerto Montt, 75 miles away.
"I especially salute your perseverance," Chilean President Ricardo Lagos told Tompkins at Friday's ceremony. "I never imagined a project to protect our natural resources could have so many obstacles."
Four years ago Tompkins threatened to abandon the park after lawmakers and business and civic groups objected that his land purchases limited economic development in the remote area and threatened national security.
Tompkins said he fell in love with southern Chile's dramatic landscapes and began buying the land 15 years ago with the fortune he made from selling the Esprit clothing business he co-founded.
"All of our work is aimed to get private land back into the public domain," Tompkins told Reuters.
Tompkins' Conservation Land Trust and his wife Kristine's Patagonia Land Trust have purchased more than two million acres in Chile and Argentina. Kristine's foundation has created a national park in Argentina and is working to build a Chilean park on a cattle ranch purchased last year further south.
1,000-YEAR-OLD TREES, ENDANGERED DEER
Education Minister Sergio Bitar told Reuters he took on the sanctuary as a pet project and worked to slowly turned the tide of negative opinion in Chile, where most people thought of Tompkins as the man who tried to cut the country in half by buying up land.
The decree forming the sanctuary puts the land in the hands of a national foundation and guarantees government access for roads and power lines.
"We are in agreement with the sanctuary as long as we are guaranteed that we'll be connected to the rest of Chile," said Victor Gonzalez, president of the Palena Province Defense Committee. His group was won over to Pumalin when the government promised it will build a road through the park to Chaiten, a town accessible only by air and water.
Among other former Tompkins detractors at the ceremony was Sen. Sergio Paez, who represents the southern part of Chile's Tenth Region and had criticized Tompkins for supposedly forcing settlers to sell him their land.
"I talked to a lot of people and many people did get good money for their land and they were not taken advantage of, which was what I had feared," Paez said.
Tompkins handed over some land to settlers and local communities and in turn, the government donated some land to the park.
Tompkins and his wife will be on the seven-member board that runs the sanctuary, along with religious, government and academic representatives. His land trust will continue financing most of the approximately $700,000 a year it costs to administer the park, which gets 10,000 visitors a year.
Park entry is free and camping is inexpensive, but getting there by plane or ferry can be costly.
Tompkins said his ultimate goal is for Pumalin -- home to thousand-year-old alerce trees and endangered huemul deer -- to join Chile's national park system though he said it may take some years to work out funding.