The Woman Creating the World's Largest National Parks (And No, They're Not in the U.S.)

With the help of Kris Tompkins, Chile is setting aside more parklands than the U.S. has in a long time. The Trump administration should pay attention.

In the southern part of Chile's Patagonia, the sun rises over the country's vast, mountainous landscapes. (Jay Goodrich/Tandem)

Earlier this month, Kris Tompkins and Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile, signed an agreement to add 11 million acres to the Chilean National Park system.

The one million pledged by Tompkins alone will amount to the largest single private-to-public donation of land in human history; combined with the ten million acres pledged by the Chilean government, the total will amount to three times the combined size of Yellowstone and Yosemite—in stunning country, I might add, having been there last year. These are some of the most breathtaking snow-capped mountain ranges and virgin river valleys and glacial fjords and wind-swept grasslands on the planet. 

The agreement does not by itself protect any land or create new Chilean National Parks. It lays out final steps and official protocols for the completion of a journey that Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, began a quarter-century ago with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, founder of the North Face and Esprit. The Tompkinses dedicated their lives to restoring damaged wildland on their properties in Patagonia, building first-rate national-park infrastructure, and convincing the Argentine and Chilean governments to accept these lands as gifts in exchange for the contribution of still more land and guarantees that all of it would forever be protected.

To imagine what such an announcement might feel like on American soil, contemplate hearing that President Trump and the Republican-controlled congress are gravely concerned about epic overcrowding in our existing national parks, worried sick about all those little animals and plants at risk of extinction, and unable to countenance a world in which poor and middle-class Americans can no longer renew their spirits in public wilderness.

If that little thought exercise hasn’t already exhausted your capacity for outlandish fantasy, imagine that, as a remedy, Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell have declared plans to create six absolutely massive new national parks in the lower 48 states, with funds already earmarked for the purchase and restoration to wilderness of the entire Appalachian mountain chain in the states of North and South Carolina, the entire Maine coast from the waterline to 20 miles inland, California’s entire coastal mountain range from San Francisco to the Oregon border, and a vast swath of prairie slated to become America’s Serengeti, with million-animal bison herds stalked by grizzlies and wolves.

Of course, nothing could be further from reality. The Trump administration is undoing environmental protections and aiming to sell off public lands as fast as they can. It would also be easy to shrug your shoulders at the Chilean agreement and move on. Nobody’s heading there for Memorial Day weekend with the kids, after all. But, everyone who loves wilderness—and especially everyone whose dreams include white-water rivers and sea-kayak camping and mountain ranges so remote that many of their peaks have never been summited—ought to jump for joy.

Even if you know it’ll be a stretch to make it down there, it’s still great to know that, for the price of an airline ticket and a 4x4 rental, you could someday drive the 1,500-mile “Route of Parks” down the spine of Patagonia, through river gorges more pristine and rugged than you ever imagined could be left in this world. In fact, the way I see it, we all have an obligation to save our pennies and try. The Trump administration and the GOP-controlled legislature have calculated that “America’s best idea,” as Wallace Stegner famously called national parks, isn’t worth half so much as the timber and mineral rights they can auction off before the next election. 

The Chilean government, by supporting the Tompkinses audacious dream, have bet on the opposite proposition, the notion that enough people all over the world dream of seeing the truly wild earth that merely saving it, and making Chile into the greatest ecotourism destination on the planet, can be a value proposition.

Let’s prove Chile right.

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