Wild Trouble in Patagonia

by Kristine Tompkins
Fall 2002

Moving west on bad roads out in the Patagonian steppe, midway between the Atlantic coastline and the Andes, Malinda Chouinard and I were a couple of hours into a rambling discussion of protecting land in Patagonia. We had just passed Estancia La Susana, where a dead fox strung up over the mailbox served as warning to other predators of young sheep. It was spring, and the Patagonia Land Trust (PLT) was barely a year old but already gathering steam. Malinda was waiting for me to answer her question about the roots of PLT.

"Actually, this was all Yvon's fault," I said.

From the moment Yvon decided to name his fledgling clothing company Patagonia, I had imagined this faraway land. Though I managed the company, selected photographs of climbs and climbers in Patagonia for our catalog, and heard firsthand accounts of trips and adventures there, it would be many years and many pile jackets before I finally made the trip myself. Instinctively, I knew that Patagonia was a magical place. It was a kind of knowing before the known.

On my first trip to Patagonia, looking out the window of the plane as we approached Rio Gallegos, a town just north of the Strait of Magellan, I began an affair of the heart. Later, heading west toward the Cordillera, nearing a small town, I asked the bus driver to let me out so I could walk the rest of the way in. I wanted to be out there, with the wind blasting me backward, just feeling the vastness and wildness that was like water to a parched soul. I had found my place.

In those early years, my eyes were those of a new lover, unable to see the beloved with true sight. I saw only the endless grasslands of the steppe, the coastline steeped in the history of the early explorers, the alluring and romantic Argentine estancias, and the solitary lives of the gauchos. Slowly, though, after many years and countless miles driving and flying the region, I began to see the reality of this place called Patagonia.

The turning point came when I realized I had not wanted to see what was there all along. Where I had been enchanted by the vast grasslands of Patagonia, I now saw that those grasslands had been severely over grazed, often to the point of desertification. The Patagonian sheep-ranching culture is romantic but not healthy for the land or the wild animals that live there. Where I had seen large seal and penguin rookeries along the coastline, I came to understand that their numbers were but mere fractions of what once were teeming populations of wildlife. I learned of the devastation of Patagonian bird life by oil development, when hundreds of birds mistook pools of oil for pools of water. The romance of the land had turned to a chilling and depressing reality for me. Wild Patagonia was in trouble.

After 25 years with Patagonia, the company, I retired to southern Chile, where my husband, Doug Tompkins, and I have lived and worked on land conservation ever since. During our efforts to protect the Valdivian rain forests in Chile and the wetlands of northern Argentina, I often thought about conservation in Patagonia. During the spring of 2000 I decided to take the leap and formed the Patagonia Land Trust. Since then, Yvon and Malinda Chouinard and the Patagonia company, among many others, have joined with me to close the circle of this love affair with this land so far south.