COCHRANE, Chile – An eagle soared over the lone house atop an arid hill in the steppes of Patagonia Park.
In the valley below, President Michelle Bachelet announced the creation of a vast national park system in Chile stretching from Hornopirén, 715 miles south of the capital, Santiago, to Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. The park is the brainchild of Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her husband, Douglas Tompkins, who founded North Face and Esprit, and starting in 1991, put $345 million into buying large swaths of Patagonia.
Douglas Tompkins died at 72 in December 2015, after a kayaking accident in Patagonia. Months before, Tompkins Conservation, an umbrella group of conservation initiatives the couple directed, proposed a deal to the Chilean government: It would donate more than 1 million acres to Chile if the government committed land and designated new parks to create a Patagonian national park network.
The Bachelet administration ended up contributing 9 million acres, creating five new national parks and expanding three. The deal was a rare victory for conservation efforts in a region where mining, logging and agriculture are increasingly threatening ecosystems. Kristine Tompkins said it was "a real model to do large-scale conservation and create national parks in a public-private way."
The resulting 10 million-acre Patagonia National Park system is more than three times the size of the Yosemite and Yellowstone parks combined. It expands Chile's national parklands by nearly 40 percent, enlarging the area of protection for pumas, condors, flamingos and endangered deer species.
The parks are "good not only for Chile, but for the planet," Bachelet said. "It shows that you don't have to be a rich country to make these kinds of decisions. It only requires will and courage."
Douglas Tompkins traveled through Patagonia in 1961, when he was 18, an adventure seeker and rock climber. He bought his first lands there 30 years later — the 42,000-acre Reñihué farm in Los Lagos region.
The couple married in 1993, after McDivitt retired from the apparel company Patagonia, where she had risen to chief executive. They began "a very nomadic life looking at conservation projects," she said.
In partnership with philanthropist Peter Buckley, the Tompkinses purchased 208,000 acres near the Corcovado volcano. Over the years, they continued buying property, largely from absent landowners, developing the more than 700,000-acre Pumalín Park, made mostly of temperate rain forests including the millenary alerce tree, a relative of the California redwood.
The valleys were used for ecological farming, and luxury cabins, camping sites, hiking trails and other infrastructure were built to open the park to the public.
Then, in 2005, the Tompkinses began donating land to the Chilean government to create a park. That same year, the government designated Pumalín a nature sanctuary.
"There is something about the expanse of Patagonia, a kind of haunting soulfulness to it that affects you physically," Kristine Tompkins said. "Few places like this one grab you and hold on to you like it happened to Doug and I."