S2, E16: The Making of a Patagonian National Park

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we talk with conservationist Kris Tompkins about jaguars, rewilding, and her enduring fascination with Patagonia—all the subject of a new documentary.

When Kris Tompkins, former Patagonia CEO, moved to Chile in the ’90s, she and her late husband, Doug Tompkins, began a decades-long conservation project in both Chile and Argentina. They faced obstacle after obstacle, but persevered, eventually creating more than a dozen national parks. It’s all the subject of a new documentary, Wild Life, streaming now, and of this week’s episode of Unpacked. Hear from Kris as she shares her story, from jaguar reintroduction to her enduring fascination with South America.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that tackles one tricky topic in travel every week. And this week, we’re going to unpack what is, essentially, a love story. There are three main characters in this story. We have Kris Tompkins, CEO of the Tompkins Conservation, who we’ll be hearing from today. We have her late husband, Doug Tompkins. And then we have Chile, the country they both called home for decades—and the place in which they dedicated their lives to creating a series of national parks.

If their names sound familiar, here’s why. Doug founded the North Face outdoor apparel company, and Kris was CEO of the Patagonia outdoor apparel company for 20 years. But in 1993, they met, fell in love, and Kris moved to Chile to be with Doug, where they spent the next decades of their lives buying land throughout Chile and Argentina with the ultimate goal of preserving it as national park land. They faced adversity and skepticism almost every step of the way, and then in 2015 tragedy hit. Doug died in a kayaking accident, and Kris was left to forge ahead alone.

Despite her grief, she persevered. And in 2019, she followed through on the promise she and Doug had made all those years ago: She turned over 1 million acres of land to the Chilean government, creating five new national parks and expanding three more, completing the largest ever donation of private land to the public.

It’s all the subject of a new documentary called Wild Life that’s streaming beginning today, May 25th, on the National Geographic Channel, and starting tomorrow, on Disney Plus. This film is both gorgeous and heartbreaking, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I spoke with Kris about the challenges she and Doug faced, their emphasis on working with local communities, and the incredible work she and her organizations have accomplished since 2019.

Let’s hear what she had to say.

Aislyn: So, hi, thanks so much for being here today, Kris. I really appreciate it.

Kris Tompkins: Oh, I’m happy to be with you.

Aislyn: Well, starting with Wild Life, how did the film come about?

Kris: The film came about because Jimmy Chin, one of the two team members, started coming down not long after Doug died. And there was a lot going on, a lot of governmental work, a lot of field work, and he just decided to start filming with no specific idea about how he would use it or if he would ever use it.

And then as we started to gear up toward the big donation that took place in Chile and the donations that were simultaneously taking shape in Argentina, um, they talked to me about actually making a film out of it and becoming more directed. And at first I was hesitant. Um, we’re not really public people in that sense. And then, first of all, I would never have done it if it hadn’t been Chai [Vasarhelyi] and Jimmy, because I trust them implicitly. And, uh, I thought this is a good way to talk about conservation, talk about rewilding, bringing species back, and so on. So that’s why I decided to do it.

Aislyn: It feels like a very honest tracking of all of these years. How, how did you feel about how much of your own life is kind of included in, in the film?

Kris: Well, I think it’s what’s most important to me, and if Doug were here, he would say the same thing is that we’ve had lots of partnerships. We have had hundreds of team members who really made all these things possible. So when, when I go out and talk about our work or even my own experiences in conservation, I’m always, um, talking about our projects and we—I never think of it as me personally or Doug personally, because these kinds of projects require unbelievable teamwork and, and partnerships that we would never have been able to do what we’ve done in the absence of those two key areas and all the communities, uh, the national governments.

So it truly is a film about hundreds of people rather than simply Doug and Kris.

Aislyn: Yeah, that makes sense. And it comes through. Um, well, speaking about your personal experience just a little bit longer, the film opens with this choice that you made after Doug’s death to kind of “go to work and don’t stop.” And I was curious how these projects were kind of a guiding light for you. Like what, what helped you make that choice?

Kris: Honestly, I’m not sure I ever actually had a choice for my personality, for my, um, sense of responsibility, for all the team members, governments, we were working with, uh, local, regional, national communities. So, I’ve thought a lot about it, since I saw the film fairly recently, and it wasn’t a singular choice to keep going—it, it may never have been a choice.

It was always something I was going to have to do because I would be letting down hundreds of people had I not.

Aislyn: That makes sense. Well, you have also spoken about how much Patagonia meant to you, and it seemed to kind of grab you from the beginning. So I was just curious if you could describe what that first meeting was like for you and how you feel about it all these years later.

Kris: The first time I visited Patagonia, the region, was in over on the Argentine side, down way in the south, close to [El] Chaltén. And even though I grew up in the western states of the United States, the, the scale of the landscape was just phenomenal to me. And I was on a bus with the people whom we were traveling with, and I asked the bus driver to stop and let me out. And I walked the last—wasn’t very far—half a mile, mile into town by myself out there because it, it was an epiphany in a way for me to be in these landscapes and the grasslands, even though they were beat up, I would come to understand this later, uh, for me it was as powerful as when I was in Tibet. It has that kind of vastness to it that is so compelling.

Aislyn: I visited about five or six years ago and it’s still one of the most phenomenal places I’ve ever been. Absolutely. Hands down. How much time do you spend there now?

Kris: Well, because of COVID, I only came out to the States, back to the family ranch at the onset of COVID, actually Jimmy was down there filming and so on, and we all split up and everybody else went to, to the United States. And I stayed in Chile and—just like I always would. And then as things became more black and white about the virus, then I decided to leap. I, I don’t think I’ll live down there full-time anymore, but I’ll spend half the year between the two countries.

Aislyn: That sounds like a pretty dreamy life in many ways.

Kris: I’m very fortunate. Very.

Aislyn: Well, you hinted at this with, you know, what you said about rewilding, but I was curious to, if you could kind of walk us through what you’ve been doing since that big donation in 2019 and since the creation of those initial five parks and the expansion of three, how has your work grown since then?

Kris: Well, I would like to add that during the big donation of the five new national parks and then enlarging the other three, we were also in Argentina—actually a little before that—donating our Iberá National Park. And so, um, there was a lot going on. But even before we made those donations in both countries, we were working on new projects. We just weren’t talking about them.

Uh, in Chile, we have a very large project going on down in the Strait of Magellan. It’s marine and terrestrial, and Rewilding Chile and Rewilding Argentina, we’re working together on a project called Patagonia Azul, which is, I just came from there a couple weeks ago, and it’s phenomenal, it has a terrestrial component, which is not small, but it’s really focused on, um, marine protection.

So yeah, there are a lot of big projects going on. And I would say the commonality between both countries is that it [is] really going for conservation of land and sea simultaneously.

And in the first decades we, we, we focused more on, on land conservation and rewilding of extirpated species and working, um, like helping set up the Ruta de los Parques in Chile, all those kinds of ancillary things which are key to conservation. But now we’re really equally focused on land and sea.

Aislyn: Well, and just stepping back a moment for our listeners who may not be familiar with the concept of rewilding, would you explain what that is and what it means?

Kris: Yeah, I’d be happy to because it’s, it’s half of our work.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah.

Kris: It’s really important. Rewilding uh, is not a, a phrase we coined. It really comes out of the conservation biology movement. And what it says, essentially, [is] it’s not enough to just preserve territory. Where there are missing species, especially keystone species, critical species, you have to commit yourself to bringing them back.

And we have this phrase that we use probably too often, but it’s so clear: “Landscape without wildlife is just scenery.” And we’ve been working with species in Chile since the very beginning, whose numbers were low or fragile. So that, that, in fact, in some cases, that’s been a big motivator why we would get involved in a particular area or not.

Aislyn: Got it.

Kris: But in the last 15 years, we have committed ourselves to bringing back species who’ve been gone for up to 70 to a 100 years from an area. And that’s highly complex and very, uh, you have to be really committed to get involved in all of this, but we see it—I would never commit to a project in Tompkins Conservation and nor would the two groups in the Southern Cone, without committing yourself on the front end of, yes, protecting the sea and landscape, but also how healthy is that landscape and trying to bring it back.

Aislyn: Absolutely. And the red-winged macaw, was that one of the examples of a species, because that was an interesting story, right? Like I think you had said it was 100 years since this—

Kris: Yeah, it’s, I mean, technically, they’ve been gone 130 years and it’s by far the most complex project we’ve ever taken on in terms of rewilding.

Aislyn: How so?

Kris: Well, there are very few red, red-winged macaws and so the first macaws that we were able to work with were coming from zoos or private collections. So they don’t know how to fly. They don’t know what to eat. We had to train—this is a long story. I could talk to you for four days just on the red-winged macaw. You’re, you’re teaching a species how to do what it was born to do and never had the opportunity to do it. And that means flying, just basic flying.

Aislyn: Wow.

Kris: How do you protect yourself against prey? What is prey? We have gotten into puppetry and all sorts of things to train these birds, and today we have macaws flying free and chicks born in the wild. So that, that’s that, that a film could be made about the return of the jaguar, and the working with the huemul deer, and the macaws, their stories [are] all their own.

Aislyn: That is pretty incredible and such dedication. I would imagine there are many setbacks along the way along the road to reintroduction.

Kris: There are. We haven’t had many, uh, actually the first four macaws we set free, um, a few of ’em died because they didn’t know—they, they weren’t prepared and we, nobody really understood what it would take to bring birds back into the wild, um, in, in, in this way. So everybody’s on a steep learning curve, as ever.

Aislyn: Yes.

Kris: Always.

Aislyn: Always. And why the emphasis on both land and sea? Why did you make that shift? Or expansion, I should say?

Kris: Well, you know, our good friends, Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall, who I just saw the day before yesterday, they—people understand that though you can’t see what’s under the surface of the water, the, the marine habitat is by rights this teaming, truly gloriously complex ecosystem that is dying very, very quickly.

Aislyn: Mm-hmm.

Kris: And a lot of regulation has to be done within the fishing industry. And also beginning to look at the sea as something we also have great responsibility for, meaning the big we, not us, per se.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Kris: So, to the point where today I don’t even distinguish between their importance. For me, in every big project, combining land and sea conservation is probably the central pillar now of how I see conservation, tied to rewilding of species.

Aislyn: And rewilding will continue within the ocean and within the seas?

Kris: Well, I think so much of the ocean, of course it’s very complex, but just changing a lot of the fishing regimens. It’s like ranching and farming on the land. If you change your management policies and means of doing things, then we can reboot the Patagonia and steppe grasslands. We can see that there are squid and octopus and so on in the seas, so they’re very, um, one’s easy to see. The other one is very difficult to see because it’s under the water.

Aislyn: Yes, absolutely. Uh, we actually just did a story on Costa Rica’s focus on marine conservation and the politics of that. And, you know, it’s very complex.

Kris: It’s very complex, in some ways. Um, creating protected areas on land is very complex. It requires the same kind of governmental, private-public cooperation and partnership, which it’s always been central to our work, but ever more so on the marine side.

Aislyn: Well, going back to that community aspect, you did face pretty significant, you know, opposition early on in Chile, and I was curious to know what your efforts were like in terms of pulling the community or working with the community and, and showing that you’re invested in them and, and what is the view nowadays towards conservation?

Kris: Well, I think every place is different, of course, depending on, um, how local communities are using the lands and their territories. They’re the ones who’ve been there all along. Um, in the case of Iberá wetlands up in northeastern Argentina, there are 10 communities around this 2 million acre wetlands.

And because of rewilding, it’s essential that we work very closely with not only the—like jaguars, let’s take those for an example. If you’re trying to bring back a top carnivore, you can’t just decide to do it. The, the, the nation, then the province, and then the communities around, in this case, Iberá, have to be not only, um, willing, but really participative.

And today we have somewhere between 14 and 20 jaguars breeding in the wild, giving life to cubs in the wild, very specifically because of the work that was really in partnership from the beginning with all of these communities and provinces and, and national governments. They are, they are there before you get there. Those are their territories and we learn so much. We call it consulting the geniuses of the place, but it’s true because they are. Most, most of the creation of land parks are, um, with local and regional team members from the beginning.

Aislyn: I see.

Kris: And, um, it’s a, it’s a partnership. And it’s really hand-in-hand, year-by-year helping to develop, uh, ways to create more tourism in both countries. In Chile, we, we, uh, created what’s called the Ruta de los Parques, the Route of Parks, which is 2,500 miles long and now 18 national parks.

Aislyn: Yeah. Wow.

Kris: And so we, we know that it’s not enough just to create and donate a national park. You’re never done. But the local communities have to be part of the architects and the architecture of any project because their ability to create economic flow into the local communities, the durability of those parks depend on it.

Aislyn: What were some of the concerns of the community specifically related to, say, Iberá and the jaguars?

Kris: Well, it’s very funny because we prepped for three or four years before we even mentioned the word jaguar in terms of—nobody had ever established a breeding center for jaguars before and then releasing the offspring of those original individuals. So there was a lot of suspicion, anyway, because it was the first one of its kind in the world. But, we were prepared to go out into all the communities of Corrientes and with, with education, with, uh, hundreds, thousands of hours of talking about it and so on, and by chance, and I mean that this is not, had nothing to do with us, Corrientes, their, their, their spirit animal has been the jaguar for hundreds of years.

Aislyn: Oh, interesting.

Kris: So finally what we thought was going to happen was the reverse: They were pushing us to go faster, [they wanted] to see jaguars walking out and into the wild.

Aislyn: Oh, that’s great.

Kris: And the, the red-winged macaws is another great example of that, also in Iberá. When we got to a place where we thought we could really release a substantial number of them with pretty high certainty of their survival, the, the teams from Rewilding Argentina started going out on local and regional radio and everything else to talk to people in their homes [and say] that “If you see one flying, call this number because we’re trying to track them.” And, and you can’t believe the response. People started from—

Aislyn: Oh, really?

Kris: —you know, they, they’d note the time. “It was 11:02 in my backyard. There was one. And the characteristics around the beak and the . . . ” and what happened? They belong to the communities and those birds are flying on the community territory, which is today a provincial and national park. And if somebody monkeys with a red-winged macaw, they’re hundreds and hundreds of people whom you’ll have to answer to.

Aislyn: Oh, I love that.

Kris: And the giant anteater, the same thing. Wherever we’re working, we need to stand back eventually, um, it’ll be the, the communities around Patagonia National Park in Chile, the Chaltén, the community that’s right outside of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park.

Those are the people who have developed this rightful sense of ownership and responsibility for, um, these parks and the wild animals in them. I mean, it’s, it’s joyous. This, this has really changed my life.

Aislyn: That is incredible. And I guess that’s what you want, right? Like they will ultimately be the protectors of this place. And to have that sort—

Kris: Of course.

Aislyn: —of total buy-in is really, really wonderful.

Kris: I always think they were there long before we arrived, and they’ll be there long after we go. And our going in Chile and Argentina is when we donate all of the land back to the state. Then we do everything we can to support that effort.

Aislyn: Yeah. I was curious how Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile came about and the ways that they’re connected to the Tompkins Conservation.

Kris: So, of course I came from a business background and I retired sort of at the top of my game running Patagonia. So I really understood the importance of having a succession plan.

And when Doug died so suddenly, within a month and a half, I was sitting in our living room on the edge of Iberá wetlands and I told Sophia, who’d been running Argentina all along with us, “You have to become independent. You have to. I’ll give you five years. Let’s make a plan because if something happens to me, then I want our legacy not to be the first 30 years, though I’m extremely proud of it, but our legacy needs to be what’s happening from today forward.”

And if I die, I want them to have a um, the financial cushion that we provided for five more years, that my contacts, my everything. I help fundraise and I still work with them on strategies and stuff, but I very specifically insisted that, uh, Tompkins Conservation Argentina become Rewilding Argentina, but they picked their own name, which they did.

Aislyn: Yeah.

Kris: And that they both, both countries become independent. Because what’s important to me is actually the third generation of, of leaders and fourth generation. My, my time—I’m 72. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live, but we haven’t done our job if the people we have utmost faith in and have worked together in some cases almost 30 years, they need to be able to stand as independent and just keep going regardless of what happens to me. That’s why we did it.

Aislyn: Very wise. So you’re not very involved in the day-to-day operations of either?

Kris: No. I’m the chairman of the board of Rewilding Chile, and I’m an advisory counselor, the grandmother really in Argentina. I, I love strategic stuff, not like on a piece of paper, but mapping and, you know, are real arguments? “Should we be in, should we be out?” I love all that stuff, so, but I’m so deeply proud of them.

And then we have the Tompkins Conservation team here in the United States, and, um, so all three of them are, I’m very proud of them. All three teams are running really well and I’m very grateful.

Aislyn: That’s cool. Well, why do you think tourism is so key to these parks?

Kris: Well, I, of course, we grew up in the U.S. National Park system in the sense that we’ve visited an awful lot of them and we always wanted people to come visit the parks that we donated. We very specifically didn’t want them to be privately held by us because 85 percent of the reason to do it was to flip them back to be owned by all citizens of the country so people can come. All are welcome, I firmly believe, and I think all of us do that—you can’t fall in love and protect something you don’t know.

And I always give this example of, if I buy a Picasso and it’s sitting in my living room, my friends and family will see it. But if I donate that Picasso to MoMA or wherever, millions of people will see it every year, and that it will help inform their thinking about beauty, about art, whatever it is.

And so for us, it was essential that these are accessible to all people and that they’ll go hiking and be miserable and rainy and cold. And those are the days we remember, don’t you think?

Aislyn: Absolutely. Yes.

Kris: And, and you fall in love with those experiences and that if we could give anything as a gift per se, that would be it.

That we’ve had so many programs getting young kids into the park, going backpacking, uh, binoculars around their necks, all of these things because that’s how the young, the new generations, almost come back to the understanding that we are part of a very big hole, not at the center of it.

Aislyn: What type of, just, you know, a few examples of the types of experiences that people could have?

Kris: Oh yeah. If you’re in Iberá, you can go out with some of the local, uh, landowners into the—they’re the only ones who really know how to get around the wetlands in the interior. You can go on horseback, you can go in canoes. The horses pull canoes, and these are dugout canoes. These aren’t Coleman canoes. Um, you can go to their homes and, uh, eat a real Corrientes meal, over the fire. Absolutely genuine. You can go stay in really any of the 10 communities, they have all sorts of different levels of accommodations, over in the Chaco, you can go take a kayak and go down the Bermejo River.

You see tapirs, you see all sorts of wildlife and getting into the Chaco, which is one of the most, um, important ecosystems that is not being protected today. And in Chile, you can go horseback, you can go hiking, camping, go to estancia, have an asado, go, go out riding with some of the gauchos. Um, down along the coast there’s hiking. There’s, if you’re brave enough, you can swim. You know, penguin rookeries, different species of whales, dolphins, sea lion, they’re, each territory has its own, own uh, cultural climate and things to do, but it’s very active. There are lots of things to do.

Aislyn: Well, going back to the film, what do you hope it sparks for viewers?

Kris: Gosh, my, my hope for Wild Life, the film is that people are inspired to do something, maybe not change your life the way we did such 180 degrees, but that at any age you can change your life and not to be afraid of that, and it doesn’t require lots of money and so on. I know that makes it easier, but um, so I think in terms of how one sees their life, I hope they see messages of that, or I hope people realize that we just cannot abdicate our future because we’re not sure what we should be doing.

Everybody, regardless of where they come from, how much money they have, how much education they’ve had, whatever it is, if you wanna go out and work towards your future, every town, certainly every city, every state, every province, every country has a labyrinth of ways to participate.

You could help count butterflies in your area. You can, you can put money together and buy half an acre. It, it, it doesn’t matter to me what it is, as much as it matters deeply to me that we feel like stepping up and becoming part of billions of people who are really trying to imagine a world that is healthy, dignified, sane. And I mean that sincerely.

I know it sounds like just a statement you toss off, but it isn’t. And that’s what I hope people come away with. The importance of community, the importance of the community between humans and the nonhuman world, I, that’s a language we all need to learn to speak.

Aislyn: Hear, hear. More broadly speaking, what do you hope for Patagonia and kind of the Southern Cone in general?

Kris: Well, I see lots of good points of light in the Patagonia region in the Southern Cone, whether it’s in Argentina or Chile. Um, there are a lot of us, uh, ranchers who are changing their, their method of ranching, grazing, um, systems that a lot of ranchers are using Great Pyrenees or other breeds of dog to protect their flocks from predators instead of just poisoning them and killing them. I think Patagonia, the region, has enjoyed tourism for a long time, but I think it’s very exciting that some of these other areas, for instance, down in the south of Chile, that is like a gold mine. It’s little known and so extraordinary. And there are places to camp. They’re, they’re small hosterias or beautiful explorer lodges.

So it’s really, it’s quite open in that sense. And, um, I hope whoever visits Patagonia or wherever it is, that people do fall in love and they have a sense of leaving something positive behind, whether it’s money or, um, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s that we have responsibility for those places we love and participate in their well-being. That’s what matters to me.

Aislyn: Well, thank you Kris, so much for your time and for all the work that you’ve done and continue to do. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Kris: Well, thank you for having us.

Aislyn: Thank you, Kris, for your time and your work, and your inspiration. And that’s it for this week. We’ll share a link to the documentary, which you can watch on the National Geographic Channel and on DisneyPlus. And we’ll link out to her organization the Tompkins Conservation, tompkinsconservation.org. We’ll also link to the two, now independent organizations that manage conservation within the parks, Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile. And we’ve covered all the Chilean and Argentian parks extensively, so we’ll link to resources for travelers as well. You can follow Kris on Instagram @Kristine_Tompkins.