In Chilean Patag­o­nia, decades­long pri­vate ef­forts to re­turn the land­scape to a wilder state have paid off with the cre­ation of sev­eral na­tional parks.

A wilder­ness of vast grass­lands, snow-capped moun­tains, and glacial lakes, Chilean Patag­o­nia just got a lit­tle wilder thanks to the largest-ever do­na­tion of pri­vate land to a coun­try.

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We have been hik­ing

for less than an hour when I start to smell beer. We’re in a re­mote cor­ner of Chilean Patag­o­nia, a hilly ex­panse of spear this­tles and stony trails, of col­or­ful coihue and lenga trees cling­ing to steep cliffs. The source of the smell is a mys­tery. We didn’t see a sin­gle other car on the hour’s drive here from our lodge, there are no foot­prints on the track, and there’s not a build­ing in sight, never mind a pub. I want to as­sume we are out here alone. But some­thing tells me that’s not the case.

Hans Rosas, our guide for the week, solves the puz­zle— “Puma pee.” The yeasty aroma I had mis­taken for beer is ac­tu­ally

the scent of a puma mark­ing its ter­ri­tory. Re­cently. I start to get wor­ried when we see fresh scat and paw prints on the track. But Hans is un­fazed, even jok­ing about where the big cat might po­si­tion it­self should it de­cide to pounce on us.

In­cred­i­bly, puma num­bers in this part of South Amer­ica are on the rise, de­spite the re­cent loss of one of their main food sources. In the not so dis­tant past th­ese fields were part of the 70,820-hectare Es­tan­cia Valle Cha­cabuco, a work­ing ranch with tens of thou­sands of graz­ing sheep and cat­tle. The live­stock was an easy tar­get for pu­mas and other preda­tors, who had a smor­gas­bord of slow-hoofed an­i­mals to choose from. But since Con­ser­vación Patagónica bought the es­tan­cia in 2004, things have changed sig­nif­i­cantly.

Noth­ing quite pre­pares

you for the drama of Chilean Patag­o­nia, a sur­pris­ingly di­verse ecosys­tem com­pris­ing ev­ery­thing from forests of south­ern beech to arid steppes, all back­dropped by red-rock canyons, glaciated fjords, peren­ni­ally snow-capped peaks, white- wa­ter rivers, and coastal vol­ca­noes.

While most trav­el­ers make their way south to Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park and its jaw­drop­ping ice fields, cen­tral and north­ern Patag­o­nia are still rel­a­tively un­touched. There are nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers—lim­ited flights in and out of San­ti­ago, rough roads, and sparse ac­com­mo­da­tion among them. And un­til re­cently, there was not much for tourists to ac­tu­ally do in this wilder­ness, with few marked walk­ing trails and even fewer tour op­er­a­tors.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists Kris and Doug Tomp­kins —founder of out­door gear com­pany The North Face as well as co-founder of the Esprit fash­ion brand—felt an im­me­di­ate con­nec­tion with this cor­ner of the coun­try, re­lo­cat­ing here from San Fran­cisco in the early 1990s. “The ex­panse of the land, the fact that there were so few peo­ple … I felt some­thing quite strong,” re­calls Kris, who in 1993 re­tired as CEO of cloth­ing com­pany Patag­o­nia, mar­ried Doug, and moved to Chile. “Doug was a ski racer and used to train in Chile in the off sea­son. He got to know this part of the world well. When he re­tired in 1990, he knew he wanted to change his life and get out

of San Fran­cisco. He started look­ing around for places to work in con­ser­va­tion, and ended up back here.”

Doug, who died in a kayak­ing ac­ci­dent in 2015 at the age of 72, first pur­chased part of what is now Pu­malín Park, a 400,000-hectare na­ture re­serve in Chile’s Palena prov­ince. “We had an idea of what we wanted to do, to ‘rewild’ this part of Patag­o­nia,” Kris says. “But we never thought about work­ing at the scale we’ve ended up at.”

That scale equates to more than two decades’ worth of con­ser­va­tion and re­gen­er­a­tion projects that have re­sulted in the largest-ever do­na­tion of pri­vate land to a gov­ern­ment, a land­mark han­dover that took place at a cer­e­mony in Pu­malín ear­lier this year. The goal is to cre­ate one of the big­gest na­tional parks in the world. Un­sur­pris­ingly, get­ting to this stage was no easy feat.

Af­ter pur­chas­ing that first part of Pu­malín, the Tomp­kins spent the next decade ac­quir­ing more than 287,730 hectares of prop­erty from ab­sen­tee landown­ers to cre­ate the re­serve that ex­ists to­day. They also se­cured 84,175 hectares that even­tu­ally be­came part of Cor­co­v­ado Na­tional Park, along the south­ern Chilean coast near the Cor­co­v­ado vol­cano. And in 1998, they bought Es­tan­cia Yen­de­gai in Tierra del Fuego, a con­ser­va­tion area that has since been trans­formed into a pro­tected na­tional park.

Two years later they founded Con­ser­vación Patagónica, a pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tion with the goal of cre­at­ing na­tional parks and healthy eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties through­out Chile. One of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s first projects was Patag­o­nia Park.

When Es­tan­cia Valle Cha­cabuco went on the mar­ket in 2004 in a bi­o­log­i­cally crit­i­cal area of Ay­sen, it was one of the largest such es­tates in the coun­try. It had suf­fered from more than a cen­tury of over­graz­ing: there were 30,000 sheep alone, plus cows and horses and other in­tro­duced species. Vast swaths of na­tive for­est had been burned to make way for graz­ing, the soil was dam­aged, there was vir­tu­ally no grass­land left, and na­tive an­i­mals had ei­ther fled or been killed.

“We thought this would be an ex­tra­or­di­nary con­ser­va­tion op­por­tu­nity,” Kris says. “I

also thought it was too big. But we bought it and got started here.” She adds, “Be­cause it was so large, the es­tan­cia had a lot of em­blem­atic power lo­cally. So peo­ple were re­ally un­happy; they thought that cul­tural value would be gone and we would ‘ take it out of pro­duc­tion.’ I al­ways say that’s not true—we’re just chang­ing what it pro­duces.”

In the years that fol­lowed, the Tomp­kins and hun­dreds of vol­un­teers do­nated their time to clean­ing up and re­gen­er­at­ing the land, restor­ing habi­tats, and pro­mot­ing wildlife re­cov­ery. There was a heavy em­pha­sis on com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, in­volv­ing lo­cals in the process and ed­u­cat­ing them on what was be­ing done and why. More than 645 kilo­me­ters of fenc­ing has been re­moved, and while 40 per­cent of flora is still ex­otic, na­tive species are mak­ing a come­back, in­clud­ing 72 types of or­chids, Antarc­tic beech, prickly heath, and Chilean fire trees.

Around 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s huemul deer now call the park home, along with some 2,000 llama-like gua­na­cos, culpeo foxes, ar­madil­los, caracara, flamin­gos, An­dean con­dors, and even a cou­ple of Dar­win’s rheas, the large na­tive os­trich species en­demic to Patag­o­nia. There are a healthy num­ber of pu­mas as well.

To­day, Patag­o­nia Park in­cludes roughly 80,935 hectares of grass­land, forests, and moun­tains sur­round­ing the Cha­cabuco Val­ley. There is a strict limit on the num­ber of vis­i­tors, with a max­i­mum of 200 in the park at any given time. But there’s also new tourist in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port them, in­clud­ing the lovely stone-walled Lodge at Valle Cha­cabuco, plus well-equipped camp­ing grounds and seven des­ig­nated hik­ing trails, with more be­ing built.

The track we share with at least one puma is Aviles, a 16-kilo­me­ter loop con­nect­ing the Cha­cabuco Val­ley with Jein­i­meni Re­serve to the north. It couldn’t be more stun­ning. The Aviles River cuts a tight gorge through the hills; we cross it on a hang­ing bridge sus­pended 30 me­ters above the wa­ter. While we’re walk­ing, Kris is back in Pu­malín, shak­ing hands with Chilean pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet and do­nat­ing the very soil we’re on back to the coun­try. In March this year, Kris handed over all of Con­ser­vación Patagónica’s land in Chile—more

than one mil­lion acres (404,685 hectares)—to the gov­ern­ment, which in turn pledged a fur­ther 10 mil­lion acres with the goal of turn­ing it into na­tional park­land. The to­tal area to be pro­tected is three times the size of Yosemite and Yel­low­stone Na­tional Parks com­bined.

With the ad­di­tion of this acreage, Chile will climb the ranks in coun­tries with the high­est per­cent­age of pro­tected land, com­pa­ra­ble in pro­por­tion to Costa Rica. “The tran­si­tion will take a cou­ple of years, though,” Kris says. “You can’t take 11 mil­lion acres and fash­ion it in a short pe­riod of time.”

When fully ex­e­cuted, the agree­ment will cre­ate five new na­tional parks, in­clud­ing Pu­malín and Patag­o­nia Park and the world-class in­fra­struc­ture they con­tain. Patag­o­nia Park will bridge the gap be­tween two ex­ist­ing re­serves, Jein­i­meni and Ta­mango, to cre­ate a na­tional park three times its cur­rent size—big­ger than Tor­res del Paine, and al­most the same size as Yosemite in Cal­i­for­nia. The agree­ment will also ex­pand three other pro­tected ar­eas: two ex­ist­ing na­tional parks (Hornopirén and Cor­co­v­ado) and one na­tional re­serve (Ala­calufes). More­over, a col­lec­tion of lodges, vis­i­tor cen­ters, hik­ing tracks, and camp­grounds worth tens of mil­lions of dol­lars will be added to ac­com­mo­date grow­ing tourist num­bers.

The ul­ti­mate goal is to cre­ate the “Route of Parks,” a 17-park net­work span­ning more than 2,415 kilo­me­ters from Puerto Montt (just north of Pu­malín) to Cape Horn—a vast pro­tected wilder­ness that Chilean cit­i­zens, na­ture lovers, global ad­ven­tur­ers, and tourists from around the world can en­joy. “It re­ally en­com­passes al­most every eco­tone that one would find in the south of the coun­try,” says Kris of the planned net­work. Though not con­tigu­ous, it will cover an area slightly larger than Alaska’s Gates of the Arc­tic Na­tional Park.

Ac­cord­ing to a study com­mis­sioned by Tomp­kins Con­ser­va­tion (the or­ga­ni­za­tion over­see­ing the Tomp­kins’ mul­ti­ple con­ser­va­tion projects), it has the po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate US$270 mil­lion in an­nual eco­tourism-re­lated rev­enue and em­ploy up to 43,000 peo­ple in the re­gion.

“All our land here was al­ways des­tined to go to na­tional parks,” Kris says. “We’ve had a pretty out­ra­geous re­ac­tion to the land do­na­tion, but in a good way. I hope it gives peo­ple the re­minder that you need to act, be­cause things are quite ur­gent eco­log­i­cally. You can’t love and tour th­ese places and have a great time and then just leave them be­hind and think some­one else will take care of them. We don’t have the lux­ury of en­ter­tain­ing our­selves through tourism with­out be­ing mind­ful of our per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

Clock­wise from

this pic­ture: Lo­cal flora; sa­farichic decor at Patag­o­nia Park’s Lodge at Valle Cha­cabuco; hik­ing in the sur­round­ing moun­tains.

Above, from left: The 16-kilo­me­ter Aviles loop track joins the Cha­cabuco Val­ley with Jein­i­meni Re­serve to the north; a bed­room at the Lodge at Valle Cha­cabuco; a boat­man on Gen­eral Car­rera Lake on the out­skirts of Patag­o­nia Park; gua­na­cos roam the grounds of the Lodge at Valle Cha­cabuco.

The land­mark do­na­tion by Kris Tomp­kins to the Chilean gov­ern­ment will en­sure that al­most 4.5 mil­lion hectares of Patag­o­nian wilder­ness will be pro­tected, in­clud­ing Lake Bertrand at the en­trance to Patag­o­nia Park.

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