Photo by George Steinmetz
Photo by Beth Wald
Local gauchos take visitors into the wetlands using horse-drawn canoes in Iberá National Park, Argentina.
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins—who has worked tirelessly to conserve the wild lands of Patagonia—encourages travelers to become better custodians of the places they visit in a post-COVID-19 world.
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Kristine McDivitt Tompkins was finishing a three-month stint checking up on her various rewilding initiatives in Patagonia National Park when the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down Chile’s borders in late March.
Tompkins, the cofounder of Tompkins Conservation, took one of the last flights out of Chile that month, but her conservation work hasn’t slowed.
From her family’s ranch in Southern California, she’s been working harder than ever to ensure that all her conservation projects in South America—which range from jaguar reintroduction in Argentina to marine conservation—continue to move forward. She’s also using her time in quarantine to remind the world that the fate of humankind is connected to the health of the planet. “It’s a moral imperative that every single one of us steps up to reimagine our place in the circle of life,” Tompkins said in a TED Talk that she delivered from her living room on May 26. “Not in the center, but as part of the whole. We need to remember that what we do reflects who we choose to be. Let’s create a civilization that honors the intrinsic value of all life.”
Tompkins, the former CEO of the outdoor brand Patagonia, started Tompkins Conservation with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, in 1992 to conserve and rewild large tracts of land in Chile and Argentina. And since her husband’s passing in 2015, Tompkins has only deepened her commitment. In 2018, Tompkins Conservation gave 1 million acres to Chile’s national park system, the largest private land donation in history.
We caught up with Tompkins, an AFAR Travel Vanguard winner, to talk about rewilding, the concerns and opportunities that she sees ahead, and what travelers can do to become better custodians of the planet.
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What are some ways that travelers can give back to the places they visit?
People should be actively asking, how does this happen that I can have these experiences? Who is saving Patagonia? And connect their philanthropy directly to their joy. They’re not separate. Take responsibility for the things that you have found you really love. And without question, go with the right people. Figure out who they are, whether it’s Patagonia or anywhere else. You might go to Africa and visit one of the parks managed by African Parks. You go there and say, this is fabulous: I saw seven elephants this morning. Then you should say OK, African Parks, what do you need? How can I contribute? They’re better at doing that than most.
What makes Patagonia such a special place for you?
It’s wild. And it’s huge. I’m from the West in the United States and it still feels huge. And when you go there the first time, you don’t really understand what you’re looking at, as is always the case. The grasslands were actually hammered by a century of overgrazing, but at the time you don’t know any of that. And there’s a lot of mythology in Patagonia. So whether you see it with your own eyes or through somebody else’s eyes, it sticks with you.
And then Doug and I just wanted to leave business to work on conservation. We loved the Southern Cone, so that’s where we got started.
How much of an impact has the tourism shutdown caused by the pandemic had on the region?
In Chile, the national parks are in a different stage of evolution than U.S. parks, which are massively visited. You don’t have that incredible influx of tourists there like you do in Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. But will it have an impact? Absolutely. Chile and Argentina are planning with the assumption that foreign visitors will be few, and internal visitors will be driving around the country for their holiday, getting to know their own country, when usually they fly to Miami or someplace outside of the region.
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