The Lure of Patagonia

The desolate tip of South America has always drawn explorers and poets, fortune seekers and misfits. Now they are joined by a new type of environmentalist. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins on preserving the wild.

Could you let me out here?"

The bus driver just looked at me and kept driving. We were in the middle of a long stretch of Patagonian highway near Esperanza in Argentina, 160 miles north of the Strait of Magellan. We hadn't seen another car for hours, but I knew this was the place.

Once I was standing there by the side of the road, I finally began to feel that I'd really arrived in Patagonia. I was alone, a tiny speck on an enormous landscape.The region spans both Chile and Argentina, covering some 300,000 square miles, and includes steppes, forests, lakes, fjords, and glaciers. The wind blew east, picking up speed as it crossed the Andes out in front of me. Head down, shoulders hunched forward, I walked the few miles to town.

After spending 19 years helping launch and run the Patagonia clothing company (named by the founder, Yvon Chouinard), I felt ridiculous that I'd never visited the region. I had a hunch it would suit me, and my first trip in 1991 confirmed the feeling. There was no fanfare, just the quiet sense of belonging that comes when the anchor hooks ground and pulls tight.

I returned to California and my work at the company, but my heart had been left 7,000 miles to the south. Two years later my soon-to-be husband, Doug Tompkins, cofounder of the clothing company Esprit, entered my life and swept me off my feet. Within a year we had finished our business lives, moved to southern Chile, and begun to buy land to preserve it through his foundation, the Conservation Land Trust. Doug's biggest project was Parque Pumalín, in Chile's temperate rainforest. It's a powerful, almost primeval place, with trees that live up to 4,000 years—a constant reminder of how short our own stint here really is.

In 2000 I created Conservación Patagónica (CP), a foundation concentrating on the preservation and restoration of key habitats within the entire region. That year CP bought its first property in Argentina, 155,000 acres on the Atlantic Coast called Monte León, not far from where I first got off the bus. Full of sea lions and penguin rookeries, the area has such plentiful wildlife, it gives me an idea of where I belong in the food chain, a sense of humility. It is also silent, and I like silence.

When I'm asked why I do what I do, I always say the same thing: Each of us tends to protect those things we love, those things we identify with. In Patagonia, it was love at first sight.

In the past 14 years, the Tompkinses have put two million acres into different forms of regional or national conservation. Donations can be made through conservacionpatagonica.com and theconservationlandtrust.org. Parque Pumalín is located 125 miles south of Puerto Montt, in Chile's X Région (cabanas available at Caleta Gonzalo from $95; pumalinpark.org). Monte León National Park is located 140 miles north of Río Gallegos, Argentina (accommodations at Hosteria Estancia Monte León from $320; monteleon-patagonia.com).