SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Tompkins Conservation signed an agreement with Chile's government Wednesday to donate 1 million acres for new national parks in the largest private donation of its kind for the South American nation.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed the deal with Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of American conservationist Doug Tompkins, who built a legacy protecting threatened ecosystems in Argentina and Chile.
"This is a key step to treasuring this giant source of biodiversity and safe keep it in the public interest," Bachelet said at a ceremony in southern Chile.
The agreement will provide land to create three new national parks, expand three existing national parks and unite some national forests into two national parks. Bachelet is expected to sign the decrees to create the parks before she ends her presidential term in March 2018.
The proposal will eventually help create the "Route of Parks," a network of 17 parks spanning more than 1,500 miles from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn. In all, the plan ultimately seeks to increase Chile's national parkland by more than 10 million acres. Tompkins Conservation said the area that will be protected is three times the size of the United States' Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined.
Tompkins, co-founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing companies, used much of his fortune to buy large tracts of land in Patagonia, a sparsely populated region of untamed rivers and other natural beauty straddling southern Chile and Argentina.
At first, his purchases of land to preserve swaths of wilderness stirred suspicion and opposition by local politicians, loggers, power companies and nationalists who stirred rumors that he was trying to steal water resources. But he shrugged off the protests, insisting he would eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks.
Since her husband's death in a kayaking accident last year, McDivitt Tompkins had been working non-stop to permanently protect from development the millions of acres the couple acquired over a quarter century.
"I wish my husband, Doug, whose vision inspired today's historic pledge, were here on this memorable day. Our team and I feel his absence deeply," she said. "But I know that if Doug were here today, he would speak of national parks being one of the greatest expressions of democracy that a country can realize, preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry."