Patagonia's Newest Nature Park Courtesy of US Tycoon ; Chile's Parque Pumalin, Created by Esprit's Cofounder, Will Be Declared an Official Nature Sanctuary Tuesday

Article excerpt

American travelers have long been drawn to the rugged beauty of Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America. Its sweeping vistas are reminiscent of Wyoming, Utah, or Montana.

These days, though, some wealthy Americans are making it a permanent address.

With the cheap price of land in both Argentina and Chile, Americans are part of the great foreign buy-up and some of the leading players in reshaping what is still home to some of the last great wilderness on earth.

One of the biggest players is Doug Tompkins, cofounder of the sportswear company, Esprit. "I fell in love with the land," says Mr. Tompkins, who has created a network of 11 wilderness parks covering almost 2 million acres across Chile and Argentina. Tompkins operates under the banner of the US-registered Conservation Land Trust.

The centerpiece of the trust is Parque Pumalin in southern Chile, which covers 738,000 acres of pristine temperate rainforest and cost Tompkins more than $30 million. After six years of delays, it will officially be declared a nature sanctuary Tuesday at a ceremony here in Chile's capital, Santiago.

This agreement will give protection to the park, ban development, and offer tax breaks. Control of the park will formally be handed over to a seven-member Chilean directorate, though Tompkins will continue living there with his wife in a personal paradise. The park already attracts 10,000 visitors a year who come to enjoy the forests, waterfalls, fjords, and hot springs. There are no entry fees.

Tompkins has visited the area regularly since the early 1960s, and in 1991 purchased his first piece of land that marked the start of the park. It quickly became his new home as he left behind corporate life in San Francisco. He lives seven months of the year in Chile and the rest of the year in Argentina, pursuing his conservation projects.

While Tompkins is helping preserve the land, several large developments have sprung up recently, bringing a much needed economic boost to the region, especially on the Argentine side of the Horn.

Billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, based in New York, is one of the largest private landholders in Argentina. He also owns a stake in Banco Hipotecario that is a major lender to the building industry and is valued at more than $10 billion.

Before Argentina's economic crash in December 2001, Mr. Soros was the biggest cattle owner in Argentina with 170,000 head. He owned at least 2 million acres and was the leading shareholder of the luxurious Hotel Llao Llao resort at the heart of tourism in Patagonia.

According to Clarin, Argentina's leading newspaper, Soros had invested $731 million in Argentina. …