A Couple's Long and Rocky Road of Land Conservation Yields Historic Dividends

photo:  Erlantz P.R/shutterstock

photo:  Erlantz P.R/shutterstock

Protecting more than 10 million acres of stunning national park land in Chile is a beautiful thing. But getting there wasn’t so pretty. 

Over the course of the more than 20 years Doug Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins were purchasing land for environmental protection in South America, they faced deep suspicion and periodic backlash. Two wealthy Americans were buying up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of acreage, impacting local industries for reasons that weren’t always clear or welcomed by residents.

Still, the couple’s years of work recently paid off with a huge conservation win—one of the biggest ever, in fact: a vast expansion of Chilean national parks, over 1 million acres of which came from their own donated land.  

The announcement is one of a string of environmental protections put in place by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and intended as the start of a 1,500-mile route of ecotourism attractions, eventually linking 17 parks together. The latest expansion, while not contiguous, totals a combined area about the size of Switzerland, and makes Chile an unexpected leader in global conservation. And the Tompkinses played a major part in the shift, working to expand the region’s parks for years.

Doug Tompkins tragically did not live to see this victory, as the North Face co-founder passed away in 2015 in a kayaking accident. The couple had helped secure protection for millions of acres during his lifetime, according to their organization Tompkins Conservation. Kris Tompkins, former Patagonia CEO, handed over more than a million acres of their land in 2017, and the park designation was made official this year. 

The couple will be long celebrated for their land protection work, and for good reason, but their efforts were also fraught with conflict. Since the retail legends dropped out of the industry and moved to South America, profiles have painted Doug Tompkins as a brusque, somewhat eccentric outsider, meeting local resistance on a mission of "rewilding," or ecological restoration on a large scale.  

Many wild theories developed about what they were up to. Locals suspected motives ranging from hoarding and selling fresh water to building bunkers for nuclear war. Meanwhile, industry, politicians and residents bristled at what they saw as an aggressive land grab that would undermine local industries like logging, and sheep and cattle ranching. There were anti-Tompkins protests, even bumper stickers. 

That relationship seems to have improved over time, as their organization worked more with the community, created jobs, and handed over land to the Chilean government. Still, one local mayor refused to attend the recent launch of the new parks. “They have erased our history and there is no pardoning that,” he told media. 

While much of the backlash was certainly the sort of industry resistance to conservation efforts familiar to U.S. residents, it's easy to see why people would be rankled by two wealthy Americans playing such a large role in their country’s land use. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed by Kristine McDivitt Tompkins about the new parks, she champions the donation of land, stating that “the transfer of private lands to the national park system is an act of democracy. A country’s natural masterpieces are best held and protected by the public for the common good.”

I generally strongly agree with McDivitt Tompkins’ view on the importance of public lands, and public ownership of protected areas. But as philanthropy historian Benjamin Soskis pointed out on Twitter, “Tompkins’ gift—and op-ed—are worthy of much praise, but it’s striking that she frames conservation philanthropy as an act of democracy [without] noting how often it encounters local opposition.”

It’s hard for me to look at the approach the couple took to protect this land in South America—starting without a mandate and often facing outright hostility from the public and elected officials—and view it as an entirely democratic process, even if the lands were eventually turned to public ownership. It's important to note that the parks ultimately came into fruition only with strong leadership and lots of on-the-ground work by the Bachelet administration, and that around 90 percent of the newly protected land was already federally owned.

If anything, the many rocky years of resistance before the recent government support could be taken as a lesson on the necessity of community leadership and buy-in when it comes to making conservation work.  

And yet, here we have these huge, staggering stretches of protected land. It calls to mind something that Doug Tompkins told the New York Times back in 2005: "If you're not willing to take the political heat, then you shouldn't get into the game of land conservation, especially on a large scale."

Tompkins isn't the first philanthropist to learn that lesson. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. faced major criticism for secretly buying up the land around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that became Grand Teton National Park. And more recently, Roxanne Quimby found herself embroiled in fierce battles in Maine over her huge land purchases and push for a national park. 

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