Wild Transformation

Kris Tompkins
Holiday 2006

Each of us, at some point in our lives, will come to realize that most of the ordinary things we take for granted are, in fact, almost never permanent and, in fact, often fragile. The unraveling of my confidence came in 1973. That year, I realized that the seemingly perfect wild nature in which we had been climbing, skiing and hiking for years was actually in big trouble. By then I’d been working for Yvon and Malinda Chouinard at Chouinard Equipment for three years. Patagonia clothing, as we know it today, was just a big idea with not much meat on its bones. We were very cramped for working space at that time, but Yvon and Malinda handed over one of our scarce offices to someone who was trying to recover the polluted and overly impacted Ventura River in hopes of allowing steelhead to run once again up its waters.

I was taken aback by this gesture. It was the early ’70s and the Vietnam War was still raging, but besides that, life was good. I couldn’t imagine why on earth the Chouinards would give up needed office space for such a project. I had crossed that river thousands of times in the course of my daily life.

What needed fixing?

I didn’t know it then, but losing that office to someone trying to save one of nature’s keystone species would, many years later, become one of the touchstones of my life.

For the next 20 years, we worked together building Patagonia the company and also following the Chouinards’ lead, 20 years earlier, of establishing Patagonia as a leader in the environmental movement in the United States. Weaving together business and ecological values is like tightrope walking and swimming in a sea of contradictions, but even with its imperfections, Patagonia – as the company’s mission statement reflects – is still determined to be a model for business in a finite world.

In 1993 I retired as CEO of Patagonia and moved with my husband, Doug Tompkins, to southern Chile. Since then, through Doug’s foundation, Conservation Land Trust, we’ve purchased land to conserve it – working to place nearly two million acres into some form of permanent protection. In 2000, I founded Conservacion Patagonica (CP), a land trust focused exclusively on conserving land within the Patagonia region – an area depleted by intensive overgrazing, mining, oil drilling and logging. Yvon and Malinda Chouinard and the Patagonia company have joined this effort, along with other friends and lovers of the region.

In 2001, CP purchased Estancia Monte León, one of the oldest sheep ranches in the Argentine Patagonia, located on the southern Atlantic shoreline a few hundred miles north of the Straight of Magellan. Monte León had long been one of the priorities for Argentine National Parks because of its richness and diversity of species, including Magellanic penguins, sea lions, elephant seals, leopard seals and several migratory seabirds. CP purchased this 155,000-acre estancia, crafted a master plan for its transition to a national park and, in 2002, donated the property to the Argentine National Parks Administration, creating the first coastal national park in Argentina.

In 2003, a conservation opportunity of a lifetime arose when one of the largest ranches (173,000 acres) in Chilean Patagonia came up for sale. The Chilean National Parks had made this ranch their number-one conservation priority for over 35 years because it formed the center of prized habitat in the region. CP set about finding the funds to make the purchase – by far the largest of the foundation thus far – and by mid-2004, the property belonged to CP. From the beginning, the plan has been to join this estancia to the neighboring 460,000 acres of Chilean national reserves and create the new Patagonia National Park, which would eventually be more than 650,000 acres. This park will represent every ecotone found in the Patagonia region: grasslands, Andean foothills, the Andes themselves, and arid and semi-arid Patagonian steppe. There are also lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands and undisturbed native southern beech forests. Virtually all of the original species of the region are still intact and, especially now that conservation steps have been taken, there is a real opportunity to see species such as the nearly extinct huemul deer make a comeback. The new Patagonia National Park will increase their open range area by more than 30-fold.

A year and a half into the project, we are going full steam on the development of the future Patagonia National Park. We have been putting the estancia in order, selling down the sheep and cattle, working on conservation plans and taking species inventories. We work closely with the Chilean government on issues pertaining to the huemul protection program in our area and are generally becoming a part of the local community; in turn, the community is participating in the creation of the new park. Patagonia employees have volunteered during the spring and summer seasons to take down fences (only 290 miles of fencing to go!), eradicate exotic species, and work in the burned-out forest understory – just some of the jobs to be done as we transform the estancia from a working ranch into a new national park.

So I come full circle to steelhead in the Ventura River. Ten years ago, most biologists thought the Patagonia region could not recover. But today, steelhead swim up the Ventura River (thanks to the fellow who got that office 32 years ago), and today in Patagonia, one can witness a resurgence of grasslands and wildlife within protected areas.

Private wildlands philanthropy, mixed with political will, can create wildlands restoration and preservation on a grand scale and swing the pendulum of extinction back on wavering species.

Proof positive. Land conservation can change the end of the story.

About the Author

Kris Tompkins, head of Conservacion Patagonica, was a founder of Patagonia, Inc. and is a member of our board. For the past 12 years she has lived in Patagonia, working with her husband Doug Tompkins to save and restore vast tracks of potential wildlands in Patagonian Chile and Argentina.