Stories & Inspiration

Environmental pioneers: Tompkins Conservation in Chile

It’s rare that an environmental organisation can be said to have genuinely helped change the way a country approaches its wild places, but Tompkins Conservation has done just that. Its pioneering donation of private land to the Chilean state and its work to expand the country’s network of national parks have helped put rewilding on the national agenda. 

Swoop Patagonia spoke to Carolyn McCarthy, Tompkins’ Global Communications Director, to find out more. 

Darwin’s rhea chick in Patagonia National Park

The Tompkins story

Can you explain a little about the background to Tompkins Conservation?

Tompkins Conservation started in the early 90s as the vision of Douglas Tompkins, the founder of the Esprit and North Face brands and his wife Kris Tompkins, who was the CEO of Patagonia. Doug had become disenchanted with retail but still had a love of nature and a relationship with Chile so he set his sights on going there to live off the land. When he got there he realised there was a lot of potential for conservation because of the ancient forests that were going to be logged. At that time it was very affordable for him to buy up these areas to protect them but then he thought why not take it further and create national parks out of the land? The first park wasn’t designated a national park until 2007, which is representative of how long of a process it is. It’s not only buying the land, it’s also restoring it, creating trails and making an agreement with the government to then create the parks. 

At first, the Tompkins’ arrival in Chile was controversial because nobody believed that they really wanted to create national parks – people thought they were up to no good. It took a long time to gain public trust and understanding. The areas where these parks were being created are really remote and most people weren’t able to travel to these areas. So it was something that they just believed in what they read in the newspapers or online.

Flamingos on the wing in Patagonia National Park

Working with communities

How has Tompkins worked with local communities as they’ve gone in and tried to develop some of these parks? Was there scepticism about your motives?

Working with the communities has been really important since the beginning. Right now we have a couple of employees who aren’t from Chile but everybody else is local. They’re part of these communities and not fly by night conservationists.

Most of these lands were ranches that were owned by absentee landlords. Transforming them from ranches to parks was a whole process. When we went into Patagonia National Park, we purchased one of the largest ranches in Chile, so all of a sudden, we were in the sheep ranching business. And then two months later, it was lambing season and we had 60,000 sheep. Of course, we kept everybody on staff who was there because one of the big rumours was everyone’s going to lose their jobs because conservation is awful for  employment. It took several years to sell off the livestock and in the process, take down fences and transform the area. And then a lot of those ranch hands who were working there said well, we want to stay on. One of the guys we have working as a wildlife warden today, used to hunt and kill pumas because he was protecting the sheep. He was really good at it, and now he’s protecting the pumas.

Autumn colours in Patagonia National Park’s Chacabuco Valley

People are seeing that there’s a way to work with Chilean cowboys but also have a different relationship with nature. The truth is this ranch was overgrazed and it was hard for it to be a sustainable business. Letting species like guanaco and puma come back has really helped ecologically restore the grasslands.

The idea isn’t to say ranching is dead and now we have conservation. It’s to live side by side with people’s livelihoods and say here’s a model where conservation also exists, there are also tourism-based jobs. 

Without communities you have no national parks, they’re vulnerable to ranching or to mining companies that can make deals with the government.

Local youth hiking in Patagonia National Park

Pumalín & the Route of the Parks

Tell us about Pumalín, the park most closely associated with Tompkins 

The first park we created was Pumalín – now Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park. It’s close to where I live! Chaitén is the community there and we’ve had the longest relationships there. Some people who are now working as national park rangers had been Tompkins conservation rangers before that. It’s just an incredible park, I mean, all the parks that we’ve gone into have their own characteristics, but . But this is Valdivian rainforest and a lot of it didn’t really have much interference at all so it was relatively intact. There’s alerce forest that’s really easy to access, which is generally very difficult because historically it got logged out. There are mountains and volcanoes with glaciers, there are a lot of lakes as well as coastal waters. It’s got a lot of diverse features, it’s perfect for hiking.

Lakes and mountains of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park
Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park (Image: James Q Martin)

Tompkins was also involved with the Route of the Parks, the 1800-km stretch of protected land running down Chile, is that right?

If you drive through Patagonia, there are a lot of incredible parks and incredible landscapes, and this new model aims to distribute visitors over a much larger area, where all these small communities that are located around the route can benefit too. The Route of the Parks contains 17 national parks and over 60 communities throughout the length of Chile, from where I live near Puerto Montt all the way down to Cape Horn. 

It was formally launched in 2018. The idea came from Doug Tompkins to have a vision for the region as a place of conservation, with nature-based economies. It was a strategy for us to create these parks because working with the Chilean government, for the millions acres that we donated, they redesignated 10 million acres as national parks which didn’t have a higher level of protection, creating seven new national parks in three expansions. And so suddenly, when you look at the map of Chile now 91% of their protected area is in Patagonia – the whole map in the south looks green! What we would like to see now is marine protection mirroring the land, because so little of Patagonias seas are protected.

The fjords of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park

Looking to the future

How have attitudes to environmental issues changed since Tompkins began their work?

I think there’s more of an environmental awareness now, and there’s definitely more of an appreciation for Patagonia and the parks. 

For us it’s about trust built over a long period of time. As Kris Tompkins has said, we’ve now worked with a dozen different governments in Chile and Argentina and we have a good understanding of what it takes to work with them. And that helps when initially, they wanted to make a couple of parks and then we realised, well we can do a lot more, so we’re still working on

Carolyn McCarthy of Tompkins Conservation

What is the long term plan?

Doug and Kris spent almost $400 million creating parks. In the process of doing that we got more donors on board. At first, it was just Doug spending down his personal money. But Kris’s idea was always that the organisation should stand on its own feet. So from Tompkins Conservation we now have Rewilding Chile and Rewilding Argentina. These are two separate independent entities that we helped create and they partner with us. They’re continuing and expanding the work and we work a lot with them to support them in an advisory capacity.

Kris is involved with some initiatives looking at rewilding elsewhere. She wants to be a voice for supporting rewilding and against climate change and the extinction crisis. But we’re still remaining heavily involved in Chile and Argentina.


Swoop Patagonia run trips along the length of the Route of the Parks, including to Patagonia National Park and Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park.

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Paul Clammer

Swoop Guidebook Editor

Paul came to Swoop after spending nearly 20 years researching and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet.