In 1991, Doug Tompkins bought a large, semiabandoned plot of land in the Renihue Valley of the Chilean province of Palena. A mountaineer and conservationist who had been visiting Patagonia since the early 1960s, Tompkins’s idea was to protect the 42,000-acre tract, most of which was primeval rainforest, from future exploitation. After moving to Renihue to live full time, Tompkins began expanding the conservation lands in the area by acquiring additional properties from willing sellers. Ultimately, roughly 98 percent of the park acreage was bought from absentee landowners.
The Conservation Land Trust, a charitable foundation endowed and led by Tompkins, subsequently added approximately 700,000 acres in nearly contiguous parcels to form Pumalin Park, which was declared a Nature Sanctuary on August 19, 2005, by then-president Ricardo Lagos. This special designation by the Chilean government grants the land additional protections to secure its ecological values and prevent development. The Conservation Land Trust later donated the protected lands to Fundacion Pumalin, a Chilean nongovernmental organization, for their administration and ongoing preservation as a public access park, managed similarly to a national park but under private initiative.
While nature-related philanthropy has a long tradition in the United States, large-scale private land acquisition for parks was unfamiliar in Chile, and initially generated skepticism and political opposition. Over the years of the project’s development, confidence has been built, both locally and nationally, as Pumalin Park’s hiking trails, campgrounds, information centers, cafes, and cabanas began serving thousands of visitors annually.
Several small farms positioned strategically around the nature sanctuary contribute to the park’s stewardship. With activities such as animal husbandry, cheesemaking, ecotourism, wool handicrafts, and honey production, these organic farms function simultaneously as de facto park ranger stations and visitor information centers. In this way both conservation and a contribution to the local economy are achieved. The project actively works to include neighbors of the park, to create a broad-based cultural appreciation for wilderness and biodiversity conservation, and to demonstrate how an agrarian economy, carefully matched to local conditions, can sustain biodiversity while creating economic opportunity.
Although Chile’s faunal diversity is relatively low compared to most South American countries, it is rich in flora, especially endemic species and subspecies found only in Chile. The evergreen broad-leaved forest, known in Chile as the Valdivian rainforest, includes thousands of plant species. The average annual rainfall in the coastal forests of Pumalin Park is more than 235 inches. These exceptionally wet, original forests reach all the way to the ocean, something that is increasingly rare worldwide. Above the rich, green forests stand the snow-clad Andes, making for one of the most spectacular coastlines on Earth—a landscape of extraordinary grandeur and wildness.
This landscape, as preserved in Pumalin Park, offers Chilean and international visitors the opportunity to experience pristine nature and develop a heightened appreciation for wild beauty, which will, hopefully, inspire them to value and protect the natural world in their daily lives back home. Moreover, as an example of wildlands philanthropy on a grand scale—a place where private generosity is supporting public values— Pumalin Park is a model for other private conservation initiatives, large and small.
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