Rewilding Chile–Creating A World Class Park System

Fresh snow on peaks seen from Chacabuco Valley, Patagonia NP, Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

A week or so ago, I had the delightful pleasure of accompanying four members of Rewilding Chile on a visit to Yellowstone National Park. The entourage included Executive Director Carolina Morgado, Director of Conservation Ingrid Espinoza, Cristian Saucedo, Wildlife Director, and Marcela Quiroz, who works with Stewardship Partnerships.

Rewilding Chile group above Livingston, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

The mission of Rewilding Chile is nothing short of promoting planetary health. Their comprehensive conservation strategy in the Route of Parks of Patagonia directly responds to the urgent need to arrest species extinction and climate crises. It involves the creation of National Parks and marine protected areas, wildlife and ecosystem restoration, and fostering a stronger bond between local communities and nature.

A hiker on trail in Alcere Andino National Park, one of the parks along the Route of the Parks, Chile, Photo George Wuerthner

Our visit was the first trip to Yellowstone for all of these folks. Given their role in creating Chilean national parks, they wanted to see Yellowstone as a model and the inspiration for national park creation around the globe.

Doug Tompkins and photographer Antonio Vizcaíno, both now deceased, proudly show off new sign at Patagonia NP, Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

The four representatives of the organization are all long-time employees of Tompkins Conservation Chile.

Doug and Kris Tompkins in Patagonia, Chile. Doug tragically died while kayaking in Chile in 2015. Photo George Wuerthner

Tompkins Conservation is named for Doug and Kris Tompkins. The Tompkins have created and added to 10 national parks in Chile (and also several in Argentina). Doug Tompkins believed that creating parks paid his debt to the planet.

Doug and Kris Tompkins near Cerro Castillo Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

Tompkins first traveled to Patagonia in his teens to climb mountains. He returned over and over throughout his life. After many business successes, including creating the North Face outdoor company and Esprit, an international clothing company, he became disenchanted with pursuing commercial success.

Peaks of Pumalin Douglas Tompkins NP, Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

Retreating to Chile, he soon recognized that there was a tremendous conservation opportunity in Patagonia, and he began buying land to restore and donate to national parks. In this effort, he was joined by Kris Tompkins, the former CEO of the Patagonia outdoor company, who became his wife. Doug died in 2015 in a kayaking accident in Chile.

Yvon Chouinard fly fishing at Lago Jeinemini, Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

However, Kris has continued their conservation efforts. Rewilding Chile is creating a new park, the 231,000-acre Cape Froward National Park near Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan.

High winds typical of Patagonia create lenticular clouds over Patagonia by Lk. Cochrane, Patagonia NP, Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

Chile has protected 29 million acres of Chilean Patagonia, and contains approximately 91% of the country’s park land area. To give some idea of how large an area this represents, Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres, while the state of Virginia is 27 million acres.

The Route of the Parks, Doug Tompkins’ brainchild, aims to create a continuous string of protected landscapes where wildlife can move freely and ecological/evolutionary processes are maintained.

Corcovado Volcanco and Gulf. Corcovado NP, Chile. Doug Tompkins scaled this peak by himself. Photo George Wuerthner.

While employed by Doug Tompkins as Ecological Projects Director, I was fortunate to visit quite a few of these parks, including Pumalin/Douglas Tompkins National Park, Patagonia National Park, Cerro Castillo National Park, Corcovado National Park, Yendegaia National Park, and Hornopiren National Park. I’ve also visited several other Patagonia parks, including PN Aleces Andino and PN Aberto Agostini. Patagonia reminds me a lot of Southeast Alaska, but in some ways wilder.

Mountains of Darwin Range, Yendagala Fjord, Tierra Del Fuego Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

During our visit to Yellowstone, besides enjoying the wildlife and geological features, they learned firsthand about the park’s history and regional conservation efforts such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem concept and preservation proposals to enlarge Yellowstone to encompass the entire ecosystem.

Cerro Castillo NP, Chle. Photo George Wuerthner.

We were fortunate to meet with Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. During our meeting with him, he gave the Chileans some insights to the issues faced by Yellowstone from wolves and bison to dealing with increased visitation. Some of these issues are the same in Patagonia. For instance, ranchers living on the fringes of Chilian parks are hostile to growing puma (cougar) populations just as their counterparts in the Greater Yellowstone area are hostile to wolves.

Chileans watching Old Faithful erupting. Photo George Wuerthner

Sholly pointed out that the crowding at places like Old Faithful or Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are partially a consequence of the fact that the park’s road and hotel system was created in the horse and buggy days. Such development would be unlikely today as the Park Service tends to promote construction of visitor facilities outside of the parks.

Reeds in lake by Lk. Cochrane, Patagonia NP Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

However, it is important to note that only 6000 acres, or 0.23% of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, are developed, an astounding figure considering how many people pour through Yellowstone’s entrances annually.

Peter Brown, ranch manager for Arthor Blank’s properties in Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone explains how they preserve wildlife migration corridors on private lands. Photo George Wuerthner

Although Rewilding Chile mainly focuses on national parks, like in the United States, private lands often hold fundamental conservation values. While in Montana, the group met with representatives of the American Prairie Reserve, which seeks to restore the northern Great Plains, and visited the conservation efforts of Author Blank, who owns several essential ranches in Paradise Valley that lies north of Yellowstone National Park.

Sunset on peaks seen from Chacabuco Valley Patagonia NP, Chile Photo George Wuerthner

One of my take-home messages is how the Yellowstone National Park model has influenced and inspired people worldwide. America’s national parks have international appeal and represent the best efforts of the United States to preserve some of its best wildlands. It’s wonderful to see these goals being emulated in other parts of the world.

Beech forest, Vega Largo, Yendagaia National Park, Tierra Del Fuego Chile. Photo George Wuerthner

However, it is not a one-way street. Much is to be learned from the Chilean efforts to preserve their conservation legacy. The fact that national parks cover 9! % of Chilean Patagonia is something we should emulate here in the US, which is why proposals like a Greater Yellowstone National Park should become a conservation goal.

Cafe at Caleta Conzago, Pumalin NP, Chile. Tompkins constructed visitor facilities before donating the land to Chile. George Wuerthner

Parks and Wilderness are the gold standard for conservation, and the US still has much work to do to implement fully. Michael Kellett and I articulate in this article why we need to create many more national parks in the United States.  

Picnic with Doug and Kris Tompkins, Yvon and Malinda Chouinaird, deceased photographer Antonio Vizcaíno and his daughter, and climber Greg Crouch upper Chacabuco Valley, Chile. George Wuerthner

Chile and the Tompkinses have given a gift to the world by assembling a world class Patagonian park system. Rewilding Chile will continue to expand and further the goals of preserving the country’s natural heritage.


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  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Just wonderful! 🙂

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Author
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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