Philanthropist and conservationist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins on Patagonia’s historic age of conservation
Patagonia has become synonymous both with the breathtaking wilderness of Chile and Argentina and with the sportswear company that has profited from the association. But because of her passion for pristine landscapes, the company’s former CEO Kristine McDivitt Tompkins has shown a commitment to preserving nature that is far stronger than the desire to chase commercial success.
After marrying her late husband Douglas Tompkins, a fellow conservationist and the founder of Esprit and The North Face, the new couple left the United States to start life together in the Southern Cone—the geographic region in southern South America that covers Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. The Tompkinses had amassed a considerable fortune after Esprit, The North Face, and Patagonia had become worldwide brands, and the two decided to use it to preserve the mountains, steppes, glaciers, and ice fields of the region that had long fascinated both of them.
The first land that the wealthy American expats acquired was in southern Chile. In the 1990s, the country was charting a new course after a decades-long dictatorship, and initially, Chileans were skeptical of the couple’s motives in the new political environment. Local communities and the political elite developed elaborate conspiracy theories about why the Americans were purchasing large tracts of land without apparently using it.
Even into the first decade of the new millennium, the couple was still battling with corporate and government entities to get their land purchases approved and accepted by the public. Eventually, though, their devotion to preserving nature for future generations of Chileans—and for visitors—became clearer. When they began their conservation mission, these expats were considered enemies of the state; today, the parks created from their land buys have become a point of pride for those in the Southern Cone.
In March 2017, Kristine Tompkins signed an agreement with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in which both agreed that some of the parks the couple had worked tirelessly to establish would be converted into Chilean national parks. This historic moment was bittersweet, however, as Douglas Tompkins was not alive to witness it. (He died as a result of kayaking accident in Patagonia in December 2015.) Even in her grief, Kristine Tompkins pledges to continue this extremely important work. She says that she is “fortunate to work in some of the most beautiful areas in the Southern Cone” and that they “are preserving ‘the best of the best’ in the region.”
“The donation package we are working on in Chile will create five new national parks and expand three more,” Kristine Tompkins explains. “Most of these parks are already open to the public. . . . Pumalín Park—the park we have been working on for the longest—is open year round and has cabanas, a restaurant, and over a dozen trails throughout the park.” Pumalín Park is one of three of the parks the Tompkinses created that will become new national parks. Existing national parks—including Isla Magdalena National Park, Corcovado National Park, and Hornopirén National Park—will be expanded, and two existing reserves will be reclassified as national parks.
As part of the process, Tompkins Conservation (the nonprofit founded by Kristine and Douglas Tompkins) has had to meet with local communities and businesses to present a case for ecotourism as a viable alternative to local industries like ranching and logging. As such, the idea is that these parks will be connected to each other, which “will provide a new, sustainable economic anchor for the region,” says Tompkins. She also emphasizes that the team at Tompkins Conservation and the government of Chile have a joint goal of ensuring that all the land is officially donated before President Bachelet leaves office in March 2018.
“Patagonia contains some of the last truly wild landscapes left on Earth, and it is just arriving on the map in terms of travel destinations,” says Tompkins. And while some national parks, such as Torres del Paine, have experienced an upsurge in the number of visitors in the past decade, Tompkins asserts, “There are still unclimbed peaks to summit, miles of undiscovered wilderness, and a pioneering local culture. Now is an especially exciting time to come visit our park projects as they are nearly done but haven’t yet been donated. It’s a chance to visit a world-class park before it becomes a national park.” She makes an analogy to the United States that may resonate with many Americans: “Can you imagine visiting Yellowstone before it became Yellowstone? It’s a historic time for conservation in Patagonia.”