Chile Aims to Save Patagonia with Stunning 11-million-acre “Route of Parks”

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The Patagonian landscape is rugged, massive, and impossibly beautiful.

But its conservation has long been under threat — perhaps most surprisingly — by those tasked to protect it. For decades, federal administrators have hustled and bent over backward to convince local ranchers, farmers, and massive corporations to develop and exploit the world-famous region. Now, in a stunning landmark policy reversal, the Chilean government has announced more than 11 million acres will be forever preserved.

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled. However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.

In an era where many countries squander their natural lands and resources, it’s a sign that some are beginning to recognize the importance of conservation. This move places Chile in contention with Costa Rica — a model for country-level conservation efforts — for having one of the greatest percentages of protected land relative to their size.