Private Parks on the Rise

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Civil society takes the lead on conserving biodiversity in Chile and Argentina, the governments to follow
By Jimmy Langman
Editors Note: The following is the cover story from Issue 5. 
After convincing National Geographic Magazine to publish a story on the endangered alerce trees in Chile, Rick Klein wrote a letter to legendary photographer Galen Rowell asking him to be the photographer for the assignment. Rowell agreed, telling Klein that he was about to fly from California to Patagonia anyway in two Cessna T206 planes to go climbing with his friend Doug Tompkins. 
That was December 1990. Klein himself had previously been in touch with Tompkins. The previous year, Klein, who founded the California-based organization Ancient Forests International, had convinced several American and Chilean conservationists, including Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard (owner of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia), and Alan Weeden, to back his initiative to create Chile’s first-ever private park. Called El Cañi Sanctuary, the purchase secured a 500 hectare (1,200 acres) forest featuring the rare, araucaria “monkey puzzle” trees just outside the resort town Pucon.
So Tompkins joined Rowell and Klein on their trek to explore and document alerces over three days in mostly untracked backcountry of Alerce Andino National Park. Tompkins, having recently sold his huge financial stake in the international women’s clothing giant Esprit, was eager to put his wealth behind conservation efforts. He had been an environmentalist for a long time, and Chile was a country he had grown to appreciate ever since his first visit there in 1961 as a young 18-year-old to train for the United States Olympic ski trials. Tompkins was especially fascinated by farmland he had seen in overflights of Palena province in Chile’s Lakes region. Klein, meanwhile, told him during the trek about plans he had been hatching with the Chilean environmental group Codeff to create a “world park” in northern Patagonia, and particularly gushed about the beauty of Cahuelmo Fjord, an ancient sacred site for the indigenous Huilliche with natural hot springs and teeming with wildlife.
After the trek, Klein introduced Tompkins to a Chilean friend, Vicente Pinto, whose family was caretaking a farm at Reñihue Fjord in Palena. After flying there with Klein for an overnight visit to take a look on the ground, back in Puerto Montt, Tompkins faxed an offer for the 17,000 hectare (42,000 acre) farm to its owner in Lake Como, Italy. Sold.  Some days later, after flying over Cahuelmo and other pristine wild country near his newly bought property, Tompkins called Klein at 5 a.m. on New Years Day, 1991, to give him even bigger news: he just put down US$ 7 million dollars to buy another 223,000 hectares (551,000 acres) adjacent to the Reñihue property, including Cahuelmo. Klein was overjoyed. “I was dancing on the rooftops. That’s exactly what this Alerce bioregion ecosystem needed,” said Klein. “I thought our dream for a public-private park was going to be a reality.”
It was the start of other land purchases for Tompkins over the following years. But Tompkins had his own vision: to personally create a model private park that would set a global standard on how to conserve ecosystems. Thus was born Parque Pumalin, the world’s largest private park.
A conservation boom
Tompkins and his Pumalin, though much criticized at the time by some Chilean politicians and others, were at the forefront of a major land conservation movement now underway in Patagonia and the Southern Cone. In the two decades since Tompkins began his conservation purchases here, numerous other noteworthy large and small private parks have been created, especially in Chile.
Parque Karukinka, Tierra del Fuego, Chile; credit: Wildlife Conservation SocietyParque Karukinka, Tierra del Fuego, Chile; credit: Wildlife Conservation Society
The list of the larger initiatives in the region includes Chile’s outgoing president Sebastian Piñera, who in 2004 bought a 118,000-hectare (292,000 acres) property in Chiloe Island, and two years later opened it up for public visitors as Tantauco Park (see Trekking: A Weekend at Piñera’s, page 58). In a interview I did with the president three years ago for Newsweek magazine, Piñera referred to the park as a “slice of heaven” and has said it will be his first stop once his government ends in March. Managed by his Fundacion Futuro, and advised closely by Tompkins and his staff at Fundacion Pumalin, the project’s main goal is to “protect and conserve vulnerable ecosystems and species, and those at risk of extinction.” The park is also reforesting with native species large swaths of the park devastated by a forest fire in the 1940s.
In Chile’s Los Rios region, Chilean businessman Victor Petermann originally bought the 120,000-hectares (297,000 acres) that make up the Huilo Huilo nature preserve land in the mid-1970s as a forestry investment. But by the mid-1980s, Petermann and his partners converted their holdings instead into a massive eco-tourism project, in the process converting not just the land into a park but transitioning the entire 5,000-person towns of Neltume and Puerto Fuy from lumber-dependent jobs to tourism jobs and businesses.
Situated amid temperate rainforest, the project deftly combines successful tourism development with conservation initiatives led by the Huilo Huilo Foundation and Petermann’s ex-wife Ivonne Reifschneider. In 2005, they flew by helicopter and plane a pair of huemuls from southern Aysen to the park in order to eventually re-introduce this endangered deer species to the ecosystems inside the preserve, where they had long ago been completely wiped out. Today, there are an estimated 12 huemuls. Huilo Huilo is similarly re-introducing guanacos and monitoring Darwin frogs and pumas.
In the far south, former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, while president of the New York-based investment bank Goldman Sachs, helped create the 283,000-hectare (699,000 acres) Karukinka Park on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. The bank purchased the land when the U.S.-based Trillium timber company defaulted on some debts, and with the help of the international non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society, the park formally launched in 2004. A true environmental success story, the fragile temperate forest ecosystem escaped controversial logging plans and is now protecting the largest guanaco population in Chile and abundant marine wildlife, among diverse other flora and fauna species. It’s also an effective pole of environmental research in the region, often collaborating with the government.