We need a new story about the Earth that isn’t just a litany of alarming statistics about crashing wildlife populations, polluted air and water, and climate chaos. We need a story that reminds us that the continuing degradation of landscapes and the seas is not necessarily a one-way street toward irreversible destruction.
On Monday we began to write such a story with the government of Chile. Under the wide skies of the new Patagonia National Park, President Michelle Bachelet and I formalized the largest-ever expansion of a national park system prompted by a donation of private land.
Our organization, Tompkins Conservation, has donated roughly one million acres of privately assembled conservation land to Chile for national parks. Also included were lodging, campground and dining facilities, and trails, bridges and roads. In accepting the gift, the Chilean government is creating five new parks and expanding three others. With roughly nine million acres of federal land from Chile, these new parks add 10.3 million acres to Chile’s excellent park system. This is more than three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.
For more than two decades, my husband, Douglas Tompkins, and I worked alongside our team and through the Tompkins Conservation family of foundations to acquire and aggregate wildlife habitat and then donate it to the park systems of Chile and Argentina. In partnership with other like-minded philanthropists, conservation activists and leaders of various political parties in those countries, with this latest donation, more than 13 million acres have been conserved in the two countries.
We believe 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. They should be available to all people to enjoy, to remember that they are part of something much larger than themselves. National parks, monuments and other public lands remind us that regardless of race, economic standing or citizenship, we all depend on a healthy planet for our survival.
We are by no means alone in holding that sentiment, nor are we the first to donate private property so that it can be preserved in all its wonder.
In 2016, Roxanne Quimby, a co-founder of Burt’s Bees, donated 87,500 acres in Maine to the federal government and $20 million for an endowment for its upkeep, and pledged to raise another $20 million. This gift allowed President Barack Obama to designate the expanse as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, to be overseen by the National Park Service.
In fact, the park service — and by extension, the American people — has benefited mightily from donations from private philanthropy. The cathedral-like Muir Woods in California and what became Acadia National Park in Maine began with gifts from philanthropists. The Rockefeller family contributed millions of dollars to acquire lands for expanding national parks, including Acadia, Grand Teton and Yosemite. If not for the Rockefellers, the incredible beauty and biodiversity of Great Smoky Mountains and Virgin Islands national parks would probably have gone unprotected.
Like those efforts, our successful park creation projects in Chile show the possibilities of public-private collaboration fueled by entrepreneurial philanthropy. Anyone can conceive of big ideas, but to carve them into being requires political leaders with the courage to protect important landscapes. In Chile, President Bachelet and her administration possess this bravery and determination.
Her leadership was crucial. She saw the economic potential for jobs and revenue from ecotourism and also understood the importance of protecting her country’s wild heritage for future generations. These parks will be part of a planned network of 17 parks along more than 1,500 miles from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn.
The new national parks established this week include our two signature projects: Pumalín, which lies south of Puerto Mont in the lakes district, comprises roughly one million acres of temperate rain forest, including some of the planet’s last stands of towering Alerce trees, cousins of the coast redwoods of California. In the 764,000-acre Patagonia National Park, the arid Patagonia steppe meets wetter forests, making for a rich diversity of wildlife habitats. As President Bachelet signed the decree creating these parks, a herd of guanacos grazed in the waving grasses and a black-chested buzzard-eagle soared overhead.
There is a central truth to humanity’s relationship with nature: We were born into it, fully dependent on it from our first breath. Two hundred years from now let the elephants trumpet, the giant sequoias sway in stiff winds and our descendants enjoy healthy lives aware of their place in this wild thing we call nature.
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, a former C.E.O. of Patagonia, is president of Tompkins Conservation.