The Tompkins and their Eco.Park

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Parque Pumalín

EVERYONE IN CHILE HAS AN OPINION about the Norte-Americanos Douglas and Kristine Tompkins. They reportedly made millions from their top of the line clothing companies, Patagonia and Esprit. Douglas has been a frequent visitor to the south of Chile since 1961. In 1988 construction was completed on the first major section of the Carretera Austral, only a two lane gravel road, yet a magnificent engineering feat, which for the first time opened up a vast sector of archipelagic and continental rain forest to vehicular traffic.

The Tomkins were aware of a long history of worldwide forest exploitation. In fact, Douglas has written the introduction to a remarkable series of essays, all by Chilean authors,¹ which accompany extensive photographic documentation of deforested Chile from north to south. That does not exclude some of Patagonia, where the government promoted the burning of huge sections of native forest, in order to create grassland for cattle.  Over large sections of the Carretera the green hills are decorated with old burned tree trunks.  Despite this, inaccessible sections of native forest remained.

In 1991, the Tompkins acquired a 17,000 hectare (40,000 acre) remote mountain ranch, Fundo Reñihue,² which lies at the blind end of a fiord by that name. Even in 2001, it must be reached by sea, by air or trail. Fundo Reñihue, however, constitutes only a small portion of the exploitable fragile adjacent ecosystem. So the Tomkins worked to acquire control of an entire pristine watershed. Conservation Land Trust, based in Sausalito, California, some 300,000 adjacent hectares (750,000 acres) were purchased bordering a large Argentine National Park on the Eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains.

Later the land, excepting the Tompkins property and a small residual 300 hectare ranch whose owner refused to sell, was declared a park.  It was open to trekking, camping. Extensive trails were established and are maintained. There is a small visitor center with a few rental units, and nearby camp site rentals, all at a nominal rate.  But, ownership was retained by the Tompkins’ non-profit organizations, to protect the park from such use as logging, mining, grazing, the building of dams, etc. It is a privately owned/operated National Park.

The land in mountain and archipelagic Chile at the time Pumalín was purchased was nearly worthless from a commercial standpoint; it could not be exploited without major investments in infrastructure. Though densely forested, the terrain is very irregular, much more inhospitable than our geologically older North American mountains. Annual rainfall is measured in meters, but from the virgin forests, the water still runs clear, with minimal erosion. So much water flows into the fiords that it is possible to drink from the surface of the sea there. Sheltered from the westerly winds by islands, the lighter sweet rain water floats for a time on the heavier seawater.

The Carretera Austral which traverses and pre exists the park, is the only practical access to it. In the long run the Carretera, has likely been vital to the park’s  survival, because hundreds of thousands of Chileans have driven their jeeps and broncos the 800 km length of the Carretera, stopping to hike the trails or to camp, and becoming aware of the importance of  preserving the native forests.  In February,  the height of summer, I climbed some 1,500 feet from to a mountain lake called El Tronador. The trail is maintained by Pumalín park, open to anyone without fee or permission.  Although the ascent is not long, it is steep, and wet, and almost one third consists of slippery ladders made from small tree trunks. All such trails are maintained by the park. But by Whom?

On the bus ride from the gateway town of Chaiten to Caleta Gonzalo, (a port on the Reñihue fiord, I sat next to Ysabel Jaramillo, who cooks for a Pumalín trail crew. Her brother-in-law, Carlos Alvarado, is a Tompkin’s right hand man, and was off somewhere with Douglas in his plane, exploring the possibility of opening trails to a new sector of the park. I have wanted to meet the reclusive Mr. Tompkins but failed for the second year in a row. Still, I have always found that one can learn as much, or perhaps more, from the arms and legs as from the brain and mouth of the famous. Maybe some far day I will be able hear the mouth, expressing the ideas of the admirable brain. Meanwhile, Ysabel  was a credible fount of information about everyday life of those who keep alive the park itself.

In an attempt to extend the native domain of  Parque Pumalín to the North, so that it might abut Horno Pirén, another Chilean National Park, other holdings were acquired by the Tompkins; usually in the  past these purchases were made  surreptitiously through third parties, which offended some;  it seemed to be a way to make sure that land remained very cheap. As the holdings of the planned park extension grew, a strong political and economic reaction developed, and halted the acquisition of a last 100,000 hectare holding. In a bow to political pressures the owner (La Universidad Católica via the Franciscan Order) refused to sell to the highest bidder, which was apparently Tompkins et. al. It is now in the hands of a holding company, preventing the unification of more than 2 million hectares of parkland.

For several years the Chilean press has been peppered with arguments on the subject of the Tompkins, chiefly from detractors. Typical of the polemic are a series of letters to the editor in December 1999; an editorial on the same subject appeared in June 2001. They reflect the emotion and rhetoric regarding the Pumalín project.³ In response, the Tompkins and friends have attempted to inform legislators and VIPs by inviting them a few at a time to see for themselves what is being done. They have continued to maintain a model park operation that makes Pumalín accessible to tourists along the Carretera Austral and informs them about the ideology behind the project. The outcome is still unclear, and the Tompkins recently threatened to pull out. Pumalín is still  an endangered one million acre park, separated from other parks to the north, by Huinay, a 250,000-acre ranch stretching, like Pumalín, from the sea to the Andean crest at the Argentine border.

I met the stubborn owner of the 300 hectares just south Tompkin’s Fundo Riñihue.  He refused to sell because the ranch has been in his family for generations. Though it has been very marginal for farming, he provides boat rides to visit the local sea lion colony; the Carreterra has, for the very first time, made the ranch a money-making asset, and life there is easier. That  seemed quite reasonable to me; nonetheless, after we had observed and photographed the large colony of sunning sea lions, the driver solicitously gunned his motor and rushed toward the shore so that we could enjoy the sight of hundreds of panicked lobos de mar, “sea wolves”,  splashing into the sea. I don’t think he took my objection to heart; other tourists often tip him for the extra excitement provided by panicked, barking golden fleeced bulls, and their cows and calves.

I admire the Tompkins. If I had the resources and tenacity, or passion, or even the strength of character to do something like that, Would I?  I tried in the ’80’s, and once was the only bidder on a large tract of remote 9000 hectares, but the offer was withdrawn by the government. Yet I can see why some Chileans object to the Tomkins. There is something of the “Ugly American 2.0″ in the green movement, and in the formation of a park like Pumalín; something about the arrogance, and use of wealth and power, that rankles. For those who want to preserve and conserve parts of the pristine world. The obvious problem is, “Preserve for whom?”

For if this park, like Yosemite, is accessible to all, then it will no longer remain pristine. And if it is for a few, who are they? For me, for I will go again and again, life permitting. Pumalín certainly is not at present for the average low wage earner, excepting those who work at the park, where all I spoke with were very glad to be in the employ of Tompkins. But thanks to Mr. Pinochet’s road, it is accessed annually by many thousands of backpacking young people and middle income tourists. The guest book at Caleta Gonzalez, the park’s small rental complex,  is filled with comments from Chilean vacationers who visit the area each summer, to trample the moss and mud of a Southern rain forest, or to worship in a grove of 3,000 year old Alerce4 trees. As in the USA, however, most don’t walk more than a few kilometers from the road. Should access be reserved for the unborn, who, like Annie’s tomorrow, are always a day away? Or the young and agile, (as yet mainly) unproductive members of society? Or the wealthy who can even afford to be carried? Or those with political or economic power? Or for “nature,” that mythic and beautiful siren, who periodically morphs into the greatest destroyer of life of all?

A Chilean can clearly understand eco-prophesy, and still ask: “What about me?” And, if we Northerners really do believe in democracy (which is prima facie doubtful, despite our soothsaying), if we believe, then who has the mandate to mold a Chilean present, or future? Those backward and ignorant Latinos, or  we wise foreign voters and politicians? Can we, with our more prescient awareness of what is really important, wait for them to come around, or must we intervene, like the Tompkins? Intervene in the name of the Greater Good, of course. As so many examples in history will attest, that is a specious proposition.

For myself, this continuing miscegenation between the various Americas, our languages, our cultures, between several rights or wrongs, is what is most moving, most fascinating, most enlightening about our hemisphere. Characteristic of this colorful and vibrant interaction is the struggle of the Tompkins to move the South American continent just a little to the north.


1. La Tragedia del Bosque Chileno, Adriana Hoffman, 1998

2. Parque Pumalín Centro de Información, Caleta Gonzalo, Carretera Austral, Chile

3. El Mercurio Cartas al Editor R.P. Baldo Santi, and Miguel Letelier Valdez December 1999: Report by Juan

Andres Quezada and Patricio Alegre, La Segunda, June 2001.

4. Alerce: Fitzroya cupressoides. Young trees look like conifers, but after about 300 years develop into a large

slow growing red-barked tree with bare trunk, topped with a broad cumulus top, reminiscent in form, and size,

of the Sequioia gigantia. These ancient trees have been exploited extensively so that large individuals are

scarce, found mainly in small remote groves.


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