The coastal temperate rainforest carpets the valley bottoms and clings to the steep slopes of a succession of long, blue-green fjords. Estuaries are alive with bird life, and glistening streams fall from the mountains as rainfall and snowmelt find their way to the sea. From the vantage of a floatplane at an altitude of about 4,500 feet, the coastal range stretches away out of sight, suffering not the slightest visible scar from the hand of man.

This is not, however, the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia – though it sure looks a lot like it. No, we are flying over Parque Pumalin, one of the world's most remarkable conservation areas and, from a distance at least, an almost mirror image of British Columbia's wild coast.

But unlike the B.C. coast, where almost every contested and protected acre has been fought for through wilderness campaigns, blockades, native rights claims, and bare-knuckle public policy scraps, what unfolds below our airplane is the conservation vision of one very determined and very wealthy American couple, who decided that the best way to save the planet is to buy it. Or at least a piece of it.
Doug Tompkins is a legendary mountain climber (and buddy of another climbing legend, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard). Tompkins founded The North Face, and later the Esprit clothing companies. He eventually became disenchanted with his own role in “creating false desires for products that nobody needed.” He cashed out almost 20 years ago, and for a while honed his environmental credentials through the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Then, along with his wife Kris (a former CEO of Patagonia), Doug started assembling large parcels of land in southern Chile. So large, in fact, that he came under the unhappy scrutiny of the Chilean government, the military, the Catholic Church, and local people who were suspicious of this rich gringo who, by buying up an initial 800,000 acres of rainforest, literally cut Chile in two.
Since then, Doug and Kris have helped assemble almost 2.5 million acres of mostly wild lands in Chile and Argentina. They have allayed many people's fears about their intentions by donating large parcels of land to both countries to help create national parks. And they have spent huge sums of money to take previously degraded farm lands on the edge of the parks, and make them more productive, more biodiverse, and much more stable sources of jobs and income for local people.
Their farms are wonderful to behold. Gorgeous buildings (reminiscent of the best of Canada's west coast shake and shingle style architecture), neat stone paths, twig fences, gardens and greenhouses bursting with fruit and flowers and vegetables, small herds of cattle and sheep, beehives everywhere (the farms produce honey, jams, and woolen goods), and even nurseries to grow cypress and alerce seedlings for replanting where logging has taken place. Artisans produce furniture, and small mills produce lumber to augment materials salvaged from old barns and other buildings.
Doug and Kris are meticulous, design driven, and unafraid. They aren't shy to use their muscle, too, in fights against damming rivers and building roads they think will compromise their conservation legacy.

What they have done in Chile is hardly a model for global conservation. They might have saved a corner of the world from exploitation, and for sure they have invested in a more economically and ecologically diverse future for the areas under their control. Doug, who is sometimes so sour about the prospects for what he calls “the over-developed world” (too many people, too much consumption, too much technology) that he makes Thomas Malthus sound like a giddy optimist, insists that “we are immersed in a serious crisis, and we have to rethink the living arrangements on the planet.”
His critics, of course, point out that not everyone – in fact hardly anyone – can arrange how they live quite so elegantly as Doug and Kris Tompkins. Kris, for her part, says that it might look like they've been working on a personal utopia near the bottom of the world, but she is proud of what they have produced, of what she calls “conservation as a consequence of production.”
Which sounds a lot like what Ecotrust Canada is trying to do.
In the end, our plane banks over a glacier and then more forest unfolds, now coated in a fine grey-brown dust. A couple of minutes later, the source of that dust comes into view: the Chaitén volcano, which exploded last May and is still active. Below the plane now, the mountains are covered in a thick, stifling layer of dust. The trees are all burned. The landscape is one of utter desolation. The volcano is also part of Parque Pumalin. A powerful reminder that you can “protect” as much land as you want, but you cannot control nature. Not here. Not anywhere.