Kris Tompkins has protected 13 million acres, and she’s not done yet.
BY EMILY STIFLER WOLFE
The first time I try to call Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, she’s in Santiago, Chile. It’s a Sunday afternoon in September, and after three days with little sleep, she lies down for a nap and misses our scheduled Skype call. But I don’t really care: I’ll get to talk to Kris Tompkins.
As CEO of Patagonia, Kris helped lead the company from a small climbing gear manufacturer to an outdoor apparel titan and a pioneer for corporate responsibility. In 1993, age 43, she retired from Patagonia, married Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and co-founder of Esprit, and moved to a remote farm he’d bought in Chile’s Lakes District.
Tompkins Conservation—the umbrella organization for the nonprofit foundations the Tompkins established—has purchased roughly 2 million acres of private land for conservation in Chile and Argentina. It has taken on ambitious ecological restoration projects including reintroduction of native species, has donated most of its land as national parks and other protected areas, with the remaining acreage pledged for donation. Since Doug’s death in 2015, Kris and her team have also helped protect another 10 million acres of new national parklands in Chile and helped establish three new national parks in Argentina.
Kris is a world leader in large landscape and species restoration. Someone who gives all her energy, time and wealth to restoring functioning ecosystems. If you believe the idea that we need biodiversity to survive—and you should—you’ll quickly realize she’s not just saving wildlife, she’s trying to save humanity. If she needs a nap, she’s earned it.
"You’re never finished. Truly never. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, that’s the story."
In the meantime, I call her former boss from Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard.
“She was a juvenile delinquent like the rest of us, in that she didn’t want to take the straight and narrow path,” he says. The two met when Kris was a 15-year-old surfer, and Yvon, 28 at the time, gave her a summer job packing boxes at what was then Chouinard Equipment. “She went to school barefoot, and her teacher would tell her to go to home. The next day she’d show up with leather shoelaces wrapped around her toes.”
After college, where she ski raced for the College of Idaho, Yvon and his wife Malinda hired Kris to help them launch Patagonia Inc., the clothing company. “None of us knew how to run a business,” Yvon said. “We all learned together. And we didn’t want to run a business like everybody else’s. We broke a lot of the rules, and she’s more than happy to do that. That’s what makes her a successful person, really.”
That, and she’s a very effective leader.
“She could see through all the crap,” said Richard Siberell, a clothing designer who worked at Patagonia in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “She was your big sister and your best friend and kicked you in the ass and [would suggest], ‘You got work to do. You’re going to work all weekend until you get this shit done. If you won’t, you’re not going to be demoted—the whole company is going down in flames.’”
When Kris calls from Patagonia Park in Chile the following week, she and Malinda Chouinard (whom Kris describes as “beyond my closest friend—she’s like family”) are reviewing materials for a new visitor center and museum set to open in November. They’re also prepping to turn management of the land and infrastructure over to the Chilean park service in April 2019.
Roughly the size of Yosemite, 765,000- acre Patagonia Park is a seven-hour drive on a gravel road from the nearest commercial airport. It’s spring, and the buds are just emerging, Kris says. They’re working from a guest house Tompkins Conservation has already donated with the rest of the park. Kris describes life-size photos of pumas in the living room, and windows overlooking grassy foothills into the Andean peaks. They leave for New York in three days, and the energy through the phone line is palpable.
During our two-hour conversation, I ask about topics ranging from a childhood in Venezuela and on her great-grandfather’s ranch in Santa Paula, California, about the farms she and Doug bought in Chile and Argentina, and her 2018 meeting with Pope Francis. But first I ask about the news from the Greater Yellowstone: Two days before, grizzly bears were returned to the Endangered Species List in the Lower 48, and Malinda, whom I can hear in the background, was involved in the fight.
“We’re really excited, but we also realize these things are so fragile, and the next day you have to get up and face something else,” Kris tells me. “You’re never finished. Truly never. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, that’s the story.”
Moving from grizzlies to South American carnivores, Kris describes the local animosity toward pumas, the same species as North American mountain lions. Here in the southern cone, massive estancias, or ranches, reign, and the animals have a price on their heads.
To form Patagonia Park, another nonprofit Kris established bought 220,000 acres of private land to connect two federally protected reserves. The majority of that land was part of a large sheep ranch in the Chacabuco Valley, and the organization, Conservacion Patagonica, has removed 400-plus miles of fencing and restored overgrazed grasslands, allowing native wildlife, including pumas, to repopulate.
Tompkins Conservation has worked from the southern tip of Chile, establishing Yendegaia National Park in 2014, to northern Argentina, where the organization helped create El Impenetrable National Park and is now doing groundbreaking species restoration in the upcoming Iberá National Park. Since purchasing 340,000 acres there in 1997, the organization has reintroduced giant anteaters, tapirs, macaws, collared peccaries and pampas deer. It hopes to release jaguars by early 2020, which would be the first large carnivore reintroduction in Latin America, according to Ignacio Jiménez Pérez, who directed the Iberá rewilding program until mid- 2018.
“The biggest challenge for reintroducing any large predator is about the reaction of society,” Jiménez Pérez said. “The response of the neighbors, and the provincial and national society, has been phenomenal. They are really excited about getting jaguars back.” The largest feline in the Americas, jaguars are gone from 95 percent of their original Argentinian range and were extirpated from the Iberá area in the 1960s. Because they’ve been gone so long, the big cats aren’t seen as a threat, even among local cattle ranchers. The region is already benefitting from ecotourism, with a million annual visitors to nearby Iguazú Falls; plus, jaguars are part of the native Guarani folklore, considered a lost relative. “There is no mythology of hatred,” Jimenez said, contrasting them to wolves in the Northern Rockies.
The Tompkins didn’t start as rewilders: Their first projects, Pumalín and Corcovado parks in Chilean Patagonia, both had fairly intact ecosystems. It was a sea change in their work—a massive commitment that’s been the most difficult part, Kris said.
As with many new conservation effort—John D. Rockefeller’s efforts to expand Grand Teton National Park comes to mind—the Tompkins’ work received opposition initially. Although they often bought from absentee landowners, some residents worried the changes threatened the gaucho way of life. Others doubted their intentions: Like the U.S., these countries had relied on aggressive extraction, logging and hydro damming, and at the time Doug and Kris were beginning their work, many large-scale natural resource development projects were being proposed.
Chile also lacked a culture of philanthropy, wrote Tompkins Conservation spokeswoman Erin Billman in an email: “It simply seemed unthinkable that a wealthy foreign businessman purchasing huge tracts of property (even through nonprofit foundations) had benign intentions.”
The Tompkins were accused of planning to introduce North American bison, setting up a nuclear-waste dump or a new Jewish state (even though neither were Jewish), and were cited as a threat to national security when their purchase of the land that became Pumalín National Park stretched from the Argentine border to Corcovado Gulf, in the Pacific.
“It took us donating a few parks before people said, ‘Hey, this is real. They’re doing what they said they were going to do,’” Kris told the United Nations Dispatch in an interview following her 2018 appointment as UN Environment Patron of Protected Areas.
Kris credits her team for much of their success. There are around 200 employees, and dozens of volunteers and interns. The staff in Argentina are nearly all Argentine; in Chile, they’re mostly Chilean. The majority have been with the organization for years.
Partner organizations have also been key, helping leverage new land acquisitions; effecting ground-level change like the dam proposals recently shut down on Chile’s Baker River near Patagonia Park; and helping build powerful collaborations with other conservation leaders including preeminent biologist E.O. Wilson, whose Half-Earth Project is working to protect half the planet for biodiversity. Kris sits on Wilson’s Half-Earth Council, a small group of thought- leaders that includes Montana State Senator Mike Phillips. A wildlife biologist who led the effort to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park, Phillips now directs the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
“The real lingering value of Kris’ work, beyond the ecological impacts of her holdings in South America, is to inspire others to rise up and do the work of Half-Earth,” Phillips said.
"It was Kris talking to another woman, the President of Chile, working together, and she got it done."
Kris always led with Doug, although they fulfilled different roles in the organization. Doug was an outspoken visionary, driven by beauty and involved in every detail of their work. In 2015, following a kayaking accident in Lake General Carrera near Patagonia Park, he died of hypothermia. A grieving Kris poured herself into work, accelerating the effort they’d started together.
Tompkins Conservation has donated almost all of its conservation property, including working with former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who in January 2018 decreed 9 million acres of new national parkland alongside Tompkins Conservation’s 1-million-acre donation.
“It was Kris talking to another woman, the president of Chile, working together, and she got it done,” said Yvon, also a longtime friend and climbing partner of Doug’s.
Moving forward, Kris and Tompkins Conservation are working to connect wildlife corridors, including one between the Chilean Patagonia Park project and Argentina’s Patagonia National Park. They’re also advocating for marine protection adjacent to their terrestrial projects. In 2018, they launched a friends’ group to fundraise and advocate for Chilean parks, as well as a tourism campaign to promote the 1,700-mile road-and-ferry route connecting what will soon be a chain of 17 national parks.
“We’re trying to encourage other individuals, whether they have great assets or not, to sit up and realize they have a great responsibility toward this,” Kris said. “Forty years ago, we didn’t know what we know today. There’s a moral imperative to act.”
Emily Stifler Wolfe is a writer, climber and skier who lives in Bozeman, Montana. She was the founding editor of Mountain Outlaw. Find more of her work at emilystiflerwolfe.com.