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Vast Chilean wilderness saved Bay Area tycoon reaches sanctuary agreement with government

Glen Martin / SF Chronicle 4jul01

pumalin park chile

In a landmark deal that environmentalists say could serve as a template for international environmental accords, Bay Area entrepreneur Douglas Tompkins has concluded an 11th-hour agreement with the Chilean government that preserves a chunk of inviolate coastal wilderness the size of Yosemite National Park.

Tompkins, a dashing figure who co-founded the San Francisco-based clothing company Esprit, made millions in the clothing and outdoor equipment trade and is a globally renowned mountaineer. He had been fighting with Chilean politicians for years over the fate of Pumalin Park, a 700,000-acre expanse of ancient temperate rain forest, stunning fjords and snow-capped peaks in southern Chile.

Tompkins has spent more than $30 million assiduously piecing together Pumalin from parcels purchased from local landowners during the past decade. By all accounts, it is one of the largest private land holdings in the world. But Tompkins faced fierce opposition from conservative Chilean politicians, who felt Pumalin was hampering development in southern Chile and was an affront to the country's sovereignty.

Pumalin is characterized by vast stands of giant alerce trees -- conifers similar to California sequoias -- and stunning fjordlands where 10,000-foot mountains plunge to crystalline inlets. It is home to a variety of rare animals, including the Andean condor and the diminutive southern pudu, the world's smallest deer.

"It is absolutely stunning," said Michael Brune, the director of campaigns for Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group that lobbies for the preservation of ancient forests. "It is mostly primeval wilderness," he said. "Tompkins has not only preserved the intact parts, but he has accomplished some remarkable restorations on trashed farms."

Though Tompkins fiercely protected the land, forests and wildlife of Pumalin, he operates a variety of ecotourism ventures and organic farms on the property.

Pumalin was seen by many Chilean nationalists as a land grab by an arrogant North American -- an impingement of national interests and the rights of Chilean businesspeople. Pumalin's fjords are considered prime territory for commercial salmon farms, and its alerce stands have long enticed timber interests.

Though Tompkins signed a 1997 agreement with the government that supposedly cleared the way for establishing firm legal protections for the preserve, a coalition of Chilean politicians fought implementation of the accord.

Tompkins, who lives on the property, grew so exasperated over the opposition to Pumalin that he vowed to walk away from the park, abandoning the 450 staffers -- virtually all Chilean citizens -- who worked there. In the end,

an intervention by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos ended the impasse.

"It was really an 11th-hour salvation," said Christopher Hatch, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network. "It was brinkmanship on both sides. Doug got to the point where it looked like he would get out, but at the end of the day it was too big a deal for everybody. They couldn't walk away from it."

Under terms of the deal reached over the weekend, the government agreed to designate the property as a "nature sanctuary," according to news reports. In exchange, Tompkins will file an environmental impact statement on the project, which will entail a complete public review, and will create a Chilean-run foundation to administer the sanctuary.

Hatch said the significance of the deal extends well beyond the land that has been preserved. "It actually casts a protection shadow over an area much larger than the park itself," Hatch said. "It encourages similar usages on adjacent lands."

The deal also points to a new strategy for ambitious international preservation schemes, Hatch said.

"It was collaborative, and it involved (U.S. residents) driving protection by investing in it," said Hatch. "The historical trend has been for Americans to invest in deforestation and other types of resource exploitation -- this is the opposite of that. And it's now the prevailing trend. Chile just killed pulp and logging projects by Boise Cascade and Trillium (two large North American forestry products firms)."

Hatch said the Pumalin deal is especially heartening because it follows a recent agreement to preserve about 1.5 million old-growth conifers in the Great Bear wilderness in British Columbia.

"Those are two very similar ecosystems on opposite sides of the equator," Hatch said, "and they were both preserved through market-driven strategies. The Great Bear was saved because of pressure put on retailers who sold products made from (Great Bear trees). It's a new era."

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