Melimoyu and Isla Magdalena

This region of coastal Chile located around latitude 44 degrees south is a complex coastal zone of canals and fjords, with many islands and amazing scenery. In most places, the evergreen Valdivian rainforest reaches the sea, and extends towards the interior of valleys and covers the hills of lower altitudes. Above them rises the Melimoyu Volcano, its summit and snow-covered flanks looming above the expansive green forest.

The military government in power during the 1980s carried out a colonization program for the Melimoyu area, after having annulled its status as Puyuhuapi National Reserve. After just a decade, only a few of the fifty families that had moved there remained. Through the years the Conservation Land Trust received many queries from potential sellers who had been part of the government’s ill-conceived settlement program, and had tired of trying to earn a living in such a remote place.


Between 1999 and 2005, Doug Tompkins purchased three contiguous tracts along the Canal Refugio, a spectacular interior fjord. Although some of the property had been degraded by logging and cattle grazing, it had great conservation potential. The livestock were removed, and the land began to heal. The conservation area was significantly expanded with acreage that Fundacion Pumalin received from the Chilean government in a land swap; in exchange, Doug Tompkins donated a large block of land around the Melimoyu Volcano. Fundacion Melimoyu, a Chilean nongovernmental organization, has been pushing for expanded protections for the greater Melimoyu area, ideally the creation of a future Melimoyu National Park. If that idea succeeds, these already assembled conservation lands in the area would be donated for inclusion in the new park.

Isla Magdalena is a large and lovely island along the remote southern coast of Chile near Puerto Cisnes. The bulk of the island was protected as a forest reserve by the Chilean government in the 1960s, and was later upgraded to national park status in 1983. The park, which covers approximately 80 percent of the island, is wild and little visited. The national parks administration maintains no infrastructure or personnel there.


Private inholdings, mostly relatively small tracts owned by absentee landowners, cover the rest of the island. Between 1993 and 1999 Doug Tompkins acquired several of these inholdings for conservation. Six properties were subsequently donated to the state for inclusion in Isla Magdalena National Park. The remaining tract, Estero Pangal, which was purchased in 1994 and covers approximately 1,458 acres (590 hectares), remains in private ownership and is strictly protected for its wildlife habitat value.

The growing complex of protected areas in this part of Chile is a model for other nations to emulate. If a future Melimoyu National Park can be established, a string of wilderness jewels would dot the coast: Isla Magdalena, then Queulat National Park just to the east across Canal Puyuhuapi, then Melimoyu National Park immediately to the north across Canal Jacaf, with Corcovado National Park and Pumalin Park a short distance northward along the coast. This extraordinary system of wilderness parks safeguards an irreplaceable part of Chile’s national heritage, supports thriving wildlife populations, and is increasingly a magnet for adventure travelers.