Kris Tompkins Has Helped Create 7 National Parks in Chile. A New One Is on the Way.

Tompkins has been working for decades to help rewild South America. The next few years will be even more ambitious, she says.

Snow-covered mountain peaks with a cloudy sky

Tompkins Conservation helped recategorize Cerro Castillo as a national park in Chile in 2018.

Courtesy Tompkins Conservation

In April 1994, Kris and Doug Tompkins were traveling through Chile’s Valle Chacabuco by car, a month of camping ahead of them. Tired after hours on rough roads, they decided to rest in the shade of poplar trees, bordered by blue lagoons, and Andean peaks beyond that. That night, tucked into their sleeping bags, they shared a thought: Wasn’t this valley beautiful? Wouldn’t it make a lovely park? Doug, cofounder of the North Face and Esprit, had in 1990 left the business world to dedicate his time to environmental conservation. Kris was the longtime CEO of outdoor retail company Patagonia. They were not ones to let an idea go easily.

A decade after that first thought—in 2004—the Tompkinses bought 174,500 acres of land in Valle Chacabuco and spent the ensuing years restoring it to its original health: letting the land recover, engaging surrounding communities, and reintroducing native species. (Doug passed away in 2015, but Kris has continued his legacy.) In 2018, their organization, Tompkins Conservation, donated the land to the government of Chile, and a national park was born. To date, the organization has helped conserve 15 million acres in Chile and Argentina.

On May 21, 2024, the Patagonia company will publish Patagonia National Park: Chile, a book exploring the story of Patagonia National Park. Ahead of the book’s release, Afar sat down with Kris to talk about conservation, rewilding, and what’s next for Tompkins Conservation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Woman wearing puffer jacket standing in a field and smiling with mountains in the background

Kris Tompkins in South America in 2021.

Courtesy Marcelo Mascareno/Tompkins Conservation

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We just signed a protocol agreement with the [Chilean] presidency for Cape Froward, a new national park. That’s very exciting because we get to design the master plan for the infrastructure. This is in a very wild area, which I love. It’s on the Strait of Magellan, the last point on the South American continent. Physically, it’s not so far away from Cape Horn. This will be the first park we’ve made since we donated everything in 2018, which seems like a century ago.

You were a 2019 Afar Vanguard and spoke then about some of the challenges you faced when you first started working in South America in the 1990s: remote landscapes, often no roads, no phone service, suspicion from locals. What are the biggest challenges now?

The politics are really the same regardless of who’s president; we understand what’s necessary to work with a sovereign leader to form new parks. It used to be that we would pick up one species and get that going, pick up another one. Now we have all of them running concurrently. That’s challenging.

That sense of urgency seems to be the biggest challenge. How can we get enough done? This is when you’re really happy that you have a relentless personality. Because that’s all this is. You get in a ditch and you go forward as fast as you can. It isn’t formulaic and I don’t want to give you that impression. But I really believe in the school of hard knocks, whether I was starting Patagonia or starting [Tompkins Conservation] with Doug in the 1990s. It’s really trial by fire, which I feel for my personality is the best education possible, much clearer and sharper than sitting in a classroom. It’s not that things don’t happen every day that catch you off guard, but it’s different. I just see the freight train coming down on us like mad in terms of climate, the extinction crisis, the destabilization geopolitically.

But as the world shrinks in terms of communication, the wheel spins faster. And so we want to increase the impact we have. We need to do it faster. And we’re all very conscious that a pace we might have kept 25 years ago isn’t nearly fast enough.

I’m curious how you see community integration and partnership as necessary to success.

Jaguars can be back, and there can be more deer in Chile. But I think the question of durability for any park, anywhere, falls into making communities the front line—considering that those parks are part of their community, and it’s their territory. I think you have to prove through showing and doing that conservation can be an economic driver for communities who are close by. You have to help create real circumstances where communities benefit from these parks.

There’s a town of about 3,500 people next to [what is now] Patagonia National Park in Chile. In 2005, right after we bought 180,000 acres of this estancia (plot of private land), we went to that town. We stood in the community center and explained [our vision]. But it was a rough go. You have to earn local community confidence and trust and be a good neighbor and all the things that you can imagine are necessary. In March of this year, I went back to the same center. It was packed. I had tears in my eyes. And I said, “When I was here 20 years ago, I was standing exactly where I’m standing right now. Now that park is your park.” This is the arc of a project starting at zero and bringing it to this side, and that community is a masterful part of it.

Lake with mountainous peaks in the background

Tompkins Conservation and Rewilding Chile donated 230,000 acres for the creation of a future national park in Cape Froward.

Courtesy Eduardo Hernandez/Tompkins Conservation

Widening it out even more, I love this idea that parks are a model of democracy.

To be really clear, the first couple of years, we didn’t know that we could make national parks. But once we got onto that, we thought, Oh, I wonder what it would be like to just donate things to the state.

I am sure now that the only way you can get people to protect something is if they can fall in love with it first. And the only way I can fall in love with something is because I know it, because I’ve felt it, because I’ve walked it.

As we burn through the stuff that’s not protected, eventually the pressure on parks will grow. It already has. So I feel very strongly about making them points of beauty and wonder where all are welcome.

Go into the parks. As I always say, be miserable. Get rained on, get snowed on. Oh my God, what are we doing? But those are the days you’ll be talking about when you’re 95 years old.

How do you think about navigating that tension: encouraging people to visit these jewels of a place while also being conscious that traveling to those jewels can be detrimental to the environment?

The first thing I say is: All that’s true. It’s a giant conflict. But if you want to see something badly enough that you’re going to go [to], then you need to help protect that place.

When I first started going to Antarctica, I would take the monetary [equivalent] of that trip, which is not small, and I would donate that amount to a conservation group. It’s not because I’m a good person. It’s because I understand that I can’t be so frivolous: Oh, I just want to go here. Those days are over. So, if I’m going to go somewhere, what am I going to do to contribute to this place I’ve been dreaming about for 45 years? The question is, what form does it take?

Climate and nature are interrelated, right? So how does rewilding help mitigate the effects of climate change?

I think about creating healthy ecosystems by reintroducing these species, which in turn plays into these bigger ecosystems. In the aggregate of conservation, it has a big impact. I’m more comfortable going small, going specific. If you go species by species we can tell you backwards and forwards what their addition is to the health of an ecosystem.

Smiling man, woman, and dog on a boat in a lake.

Kris and Doug Tompkins began working in South America in the 1990s.

Courtesy Tompkins Conservation

Tompkins Conservation started in 1992, a little more than 30 years ago. What do the next 30 years hold?

I know exactly. I’m so glad you asked. We have done a lot, and I’m so proud of it, but it’s not fast enough. We were talking about this a little while ago. It’s not fast enough, it’s not relentless enough, and it’s not impactful enough, considering the volatility and velocity of how things are unwinding.

How should we start looking at this work rather than, Here’s a huge piece of land, and we’re rewilding there and over here and over there? Let’s look at rewilding on a continental scale. Let’s sew back together the southern cone of South America with the rest of the continent. How do you get into Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, and make sure that these species are going out and dispersing? Not that we’re going to work all these territories, but we’re going to give what we know about rewilding to really highly curated partnerships in these countries.

For someone who’s almost 74, this is a project I won’t see the end of. And that makes me really happy, because that means a third generation of leadership, a fourth generation of leadership, can really take the foundation of what Tompkins Conservation has done and keep going and expanding it.

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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