In 1995 it was publicly announced that a North American millionaire, Douglas Tompkins, had used intermediaries to buy a 3000-square-kilometre chunk of southern Chile – marking the beginning of a five-year national soap opera that transformed Tompkins into one of the most controversial public figures in the country. In 1991, the 49-year-old Californian, increasingly committed to environmental issues, sold his fifty percent share in the Esprit clothing empire, bought an abandoned ranch on the edge of the Reñihué fjord, 130km south of Puerto Montt, and moved there with his wife and kids. Inspired by the “deep ecology” movement pioneered by the Norwegian environmentalist Arne Naess, Tompkins set out to acquire more of the surrounding wilderness, with the aim of protecting it from the threat of commercial exploitation. As he did so, he was seized with the idea of creating a massive, privately funded national park, which would ensure permanent protection of the ancient forest while providing low-impact facilities for visitors.

The media backlash

Over the next four years Tompkins spent more than US$14 million buying up adjoining tracts of land, in most cases hiding his identity to prevent prices from shooting up. His initial secrecy was to have damaging repercussions, however, for once his land acquisitions became public knowledge, he was engulfed by a wave of suspicion and hostility, fuelled by several right-wing politicians and the press, with his motives questioned by everyone. The biggest cause for alarm, it seemed, was the fact that Tompkins’ land stretched from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean, effectively “cutting Chile in two”. Tompkins appeared on national television, explaining his intentions to create Parque Pumalín, a nature sanctuary with free access, slowly winning over some of the public.

Success with strings

Eventually, the government agreed to support Tompkins’ aims to establish the park – on the condition that for one year he would not buy more than 7000 contiguous hectares (17,250 acres) of land in the south of Chile. Tompkins was also prevented from purchasing Huinay, a 740,000-acre property owned by the Catholic University of Valparaíso, separating the two separate chunks of his land, which was instead sold to ENDESA, Chile’s largest energy corporation.

Tompkins, determined to save a little more unspoiled terrain from development, purchased another chunk of land in 2001 near the Termas del Amarillo, south of Chaitén, while in 2005, Parque Pumalín, by this point managed by Chilean Fundación Pumalín (whose board includes Tompkins and his wife), was finally declared a santuario de la naturaleza (nature sanctuary), which gave it additional protection. Tompkins’ wife Kristine is currently working on the conservation project of Estancia Valle Chacabuco near Cochrane.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Chile features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

A journey along Chile's Route of Parks

A journey along Chile's Route of Parks

Chile has long lured the intrepid traveller but in 2018 things have stepped up a level. The newly created Route of Parks – a string of Patagonian national par…

12 Feb 2018 • Steph Dyson local_activity Special feature
Why you should visit Chile in 2018

Why you should visit Chile in 2018

A sliver of a country that somehow manages to encompass barren desert, knife-edge mountains and fertile river valleys, Chile has long attracted intrepid travell…

08 Jan 2018 • Steph Dyson insert_drive_file Article
Video: the 1 minute guide to Chile

Video: the 1 minute guide to Chile

Chile is an outdoor adventurer's paradise. From the parched peaks of the north's Atacama Desert to the storied wilderness of Patagonia in the south, the nature…

30 Nov 2017 • Colt St. George videocam Video
View more featureschevron_right