A vision of beauty: How we helped Chile to create ten million acres of stunning national parklands

A morning breeze blows through the grasslands of the new Patagonia National Park, in Chile, where southern beech forests frame the towering Andes mountains and condors circle high above. The park’s varied ecosystems—including grasslands, riparian forests, and wetlands—provide habitats for hundreds of plant and animal species, including armadillos, foxes, guanacos, and pumas.

In late January, this was the setting for a ceremony where Kristine (Kris) McDivitt Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation, and Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet signed decrees that will add ten million acres—comparable in size to Switzerland—of new national parklands in Chile. They include one million acres of land from Tompkins Conservation—considered history’s largest donation of land from a private entity to a country—as well as an additional nine million from Chile.

The new national parks will expand Chile’s national parklands by nearly 40 percent. They will serve as the cornerstones of the Route of Parks, an unparalleled network of 17 national parks that will span 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of scenic highway across the country’s pristine wilderness. The Route of Parks, or the “Ruta,” was the vision of Doug and Kris Tompkins, conservationists and former business leaders.

The Route of Parks will stretch the length of Chile. Photo credit: Tompkins Conservation

A team of three McKinsey colleagues—based in Chile and San Francisco, passionate about conservation, and inspired by the Tompkins vision—worked with Kris and the Tompkins Conservation team, providing pro bono support to develop an economic model ensuring that the parks would be sustainable.

“We looked at the economic-development potential that this amazing ecological and conservation opportunity presents for Chile,” explains Tony Hansen, director of McKinsey’s Global Infrastructure Initiative, who led the project. “Our analysis suggested that ‘ecotourism’ could create more than 43,000 jobs and generate a boost of around $270 million to the economy in the regions surrounding the parks over the next ten years.”

Aparna Singh and Francisco Faine worked alongside Tony on the study, drawing specialist input from McKinsey and other global experts. “As a Chilean, it has been very exciting to see the great influence that this project has had across the world and the visibility it gave my country,” explains Francisco. “I believe the Ruta will contribute to the development of the south of Chile and be a legacy for future generations.”

Tompkins Conservation was founded by Kris and Doug Tompkins, business leaders behind iconic US clothing brands such as Esprit, The North Face, and Patagonia. In the 1990s, they changed the trajectory of their lives when they began their conservation work in Chile and Argentina, devoting their funds, time, and passion to fight what they saw as the world’s biggest crisis: the loss of biodiversity.

“National parks represent the ‘gold standard’ of biodiversity conservation,” says Kris. “They offer a unique set of ecological attributes, cultural values, and economic benefits to local communities, while also guaranteeing long-term conservation.” Kris and Doug purchased, restored, and conserved over two million acres of land in Argentina and Chile over the past 25 years.

Doug, who died tragically in a kayaking accident in December 2015, saw the Ruta as a way to support conservation, promote ecotourism, and ensure economic development—the blessings of conservation on an unprecedented scale.

If anything can save the world, I would put my money on beauty.

The team is now looking at how public and private institutions can work together to secure sustainable financing so that the parks are protected for the long term and realize their economic potential.

Tony Hansen first visited Patagonia over 25 years ago. He now shares his love of its beautiful wilderness with his wife and children on family holidays.

For Tony, the collaboration with Tompkins Conservation was an opportunity to bring together his professional expertise and his deep personal connection to the wilderness of southern Chile. He first visited Patagonia with his kayak, paraglider, and ski-mountaineering gear in 1991 and has returned more than a dozen times since.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to contribute to the creation of such a huge area of new national parks in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth,” Tony says. “As Doug Tompkins himself was quoted saying, ‘If anything can save the world, I would put my money on beauty.’”

Find out more about opportunities for making an impact.

Never miss a story

Stay updated about McKinsey news as it happens