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For three decades, Kristine Tompkins has helped turn millions of acres of Patagonia into protected national parks. Now she’s making sure the work outlasts her.
THE FIRST TIME Kristine Tompkins visited Patagonia, she demanded that the bus driver pull over and let her out. She wanted to walk. Or rather, she needed to walk, to take in the full picture.
“I had never been someplace so open, so wild, so extraordinary,” Tompkins said recently from her home in California, grinning fondly at the memory as though flipping through a stack of baby portraits. “I had never seen a landscape on that scale.”
The bus was approaching El Calafate, a lakeside Argentinian town that serves as the gateway to one of the country’s oldest and largest national parks, an icebound wonder called Los Glaciares. When Tompkins exited, she continued uphill by foot, marveling during her short walk into town at the surrounding mountains, plains, and grasslands.
In that moment three decades ago, Tompkins could not have known she would spend the rest of her life rescuing those very places in Patagonia, the staggeringly diverse region that encompasses most of South America’s distinctive Southern Cone along the Chilean and Argentinian flanks of the Andes. But beneath the organizational umbrella known as Tompkins Conservation, she has helped to create or expand 15 national parks, preserve nearly 15 million acres on land and 30 million on water, and reintroduce iconic species in a process of rewilding, namely the red-and-green macaw and the jaguar. Tompkins has been key to Chile’s 1,700-mile trail, the Route of Parks, and has worked to improve several scenic byways through the region’s jewels. The index of achievements stretches out like the continent’s cordillera.
Now, the job is ensuring that her work outlasts her. “It isn’t about us,” Tompkins, now 71, says dryly. “It’s a beauty-and-numbers game. How can you conserve, permanently, to the biggest degree you can? If it all stops with me, that really flows against those goals.”
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By the point her bus neared El Calafate in 1990, Tompkins — then Kristine McDivitt — had been the CEO of the burgeoning outdoor clothing company Patagonia for the better part of two decades.
In the late 1960s, her childhood friend Yvon Chouinard and a gaggle of adventuresome pals who called themselves “The Fun Hogs” drove a 1965 Ford Econoline thousands of miles south on the largely unpaved Pan-American Highway. They were dirtbags in search of Patagonia’s remote shores and daunting peaks, especially the elusive and tantalizing Cerro Fitz Roy. Chouinard subsequently named his fledgling gear brand for the sprawling region, the pink-and-blue Fitz Roy–spiked skyline remaining Patagonia’s logo today.
As Patagonia grew as a business, it struggled to retain its foundational sense of adventure and independence. “I was doing business just like everybody else,” Chouinard admitted during a 2016 speech. “I was growing for the sake of growing and not thinking about what I was doing.”
In the late 1980s, Patagonia hired a clutch of fresh-faced employees, young professionals the brand hoped would shoulder more responsibility as Tompkins entered her 40s, Chouinard his 50s. They corralled the kids for a trip to Patagonia, intent on demonstrating what had initially inspired the company as it aimed for a new era. Chouinard liked to rib that Tompkins had always been too busy with Patagonia the company to visit Patagonia the place. She agreed it was time.
Tompkins instantly felt its magnetism, particularly in the way the region’s notorious winds buffeted her amid the natural majesty — a metaphor for life itself rendered on the grandest imaginable scale. “The towns were small, far apart. You’re looking at the Andes to the west, rising out of the steppe,” she says. “For me, that was it.”
“It,” however, wasn’t mere scenery; “it” became a life transformation following the Patagonia team’s corporate retreat, where they rendezvoused with Doug Tompkins, Chouinard’s longtime adventuring buddy. A decade before Patagonia began, Doug founded The North Face, which he sold for $50,000 before joining Chouinard on the trip down the Pan-American Highway. In 1989, Tompkins also jettisoned his portion of the clothing company Esprit and returned to Patagonia; he wasn’t there for another crack at corporate life but, rather, to help save the imperiled landscape that had inspired him. And as Kristine soon learned, the very grasslands that had enchanted her weren’t wild at all — they’d been damaged by decades of overgrazing. Construction, deforestation, mining prospects, and fossil-fuel extraction threatened much of Patagonia.
In 1992 Doug moved to a seaside farm in southern Chile after his divorce and began buying up his surroundings, slowly piecing together what became the million-acre Pumalín Park. A year after that, Kristine retired on a Friday from the only job she’d ever had. By that Sunday, she flew to Chile to join Doug, making it just in time for Christmas. They married in 1994, united in a mission he liked to call “paying rent for living on the planet.”
The couple and their families invested nearly half a billion dollars of their own money in the effort by 2015. Kristine called it “capitalist jiu-jitsu.” They launched a veritable Patagonian empire of ecological conservation, restoration, and advocacy, transforming the region’s map and shaping a new model for combatting unchecked industrialization and climate change.
And then, in December 2015, Doug died after a kayaking accident in Chile. Subsequently, Kristine began looking toward their legacy, developing a plan to ensure that the couple’s work would continue on without them. Tompkins Conservation hatched two independent organizations, Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile.
“We could have spent our money on so many different things. In the end, I think we’ll leave behind some things that show how important we thought wildness, beauty, dignity, and human community are,” Tompkins said haltingly, as if trying to digest three decades in an instant. “That’s all you can ask for, really.”
Two days after Christmas in 1831, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy pushed the HMS Beagle out of port in Plymouth, England. Aboard the 90-foot British survey ship was a young Cambridge student torn between what seemed his preordained future as country clergy and his budding love of science, taxidermy, and nature at large. The Beagle’s five-year global circumnavigation enabled the latter option for its 22-year-old naturalist: Charles Darwin.
Just nine months after leaving England, Darwin and the Beagle landed at the northern edge of Patagonia, a region christened three centuries earlier by Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he mistook its natives for giants. As the Beagle charted both sides of Patagonia’s coast, Darwin collected fossils, cataloged birds, and considered the ways the landscape and its species interacted.
Those early observations ultimately helped shape Darwin’s world-shifting theory of natural selection. They were driven by Patagonian splendor. “The plains of Patagonia are boundless,” he wrote in “The Voyage of the Beagle.” “They bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.”
But Darwin was wrong about what was to come. During the next two centuries, Patagonia emerged as a land of opportunity and intrigue for much of the world, a frontier colonized by successive waves of invasive Europeans. As Chile and Argentina stretched southward, conflicts with native tribes raged. Cattle farms chewed the terrain like cud. Naturalist W.H. Hudson rode its rivers, shooting birds “to secure one very perfect specimen.” It was a slash-and-burn, use-and-abuse economy.
Sprawling sheep ranches launched by European settlers near the end of the nineteenth century mauled the sweeping steppe. Decades later, the English writer Bruce Chatwin arrived in search of the fossil of a giant sloth (which he’d mistaken for a Brontosaurus), a quest captured by his classic fantastical travelogue, “In Patagonia.” The book doubles as a chronicle of the land’s Welsh and German immigrants, who had transformed Patagonia into a series of simulacra for their lives back home while they sought new wealth. In their hands, the Argentine steppe became a virtual desert, a look that Tompkins had unwittingly loved that day from the bus window.
When Doug and Kristine Tompkins first began buying parcels in Patagonia in the early 1990s, the region’s exploitative history hamstrung their efforts. They were but another pair of gringos, locals chattered, tapping resources for profit. Tompkins sighs while wading through the reasons that skeptics concluded they were there — to ship Patagonia’s water back to the United States, to develop a reservoir for atomic waste, to start a new Jewish state. Their phones were tapped. Military planes surveilled their home.
“We thought, ‘Oh, everyone is going to love this idea.’ We were neophytes. We didn’t understand that the conservation of land could be so contentious,” Tompkins said. “That was awful and scary, but it taught us what conservation looks like. If you take land out of production, you’re going to have a shitshow — now I know that.”
Political shifts eventually took much of this surreptitious pressure off the Tompkinses. But they also used those doubts as a kind of masochistic motivation, a way to ensure they adhered to their mission of protecting land and returning it to the region’s people. They surveyed their neighbors’ properties so the natives could obtain their titles from the backlogged government. They constructed trails and campgrounds and opened the land to the public. When they built schools for their employees, they kept them public too, so no one could accuse them of amassing a cult deep in the Chilean rainforest.
These doubts also galvanized their local commitments. They could not, for instance, become charitable globetrotters, applying their Patagonia strategy to every troubled region. Chile and Argentina were their charges now, the places they could have the most direct effect. “We were very focused people. That’s why we got a lot done in a relatively short amount of time,” says Tompkins, stranded in California by the COVID-19 pandemic and set on returning in January 2022. “To do deep and, hopefully, long-term work, you have to be on the ground. You can’t pop in and out.”
That sensibility spiderwebbed into their hiring processes too. Rather than import Americans to show up and tell the Patagonians how to handle their problems, they looked to their neighbors. They focused on converting former ranchers into wildlife rangers and recruiting high school teachers to lead community programs. “We wouldn’t have done anything without these teams,” Tompkins says. “We might have bought land, but we would have done nothing with it.”
Born in the city of Bahía Blanca, Sebastián Di Martino worked for decades as a biologist at parks in Neuquén, the Argentine province at the northwest corner of Patagonia. He was drawn to the efficiency ingrained in the Tompkins Conversation model — use private funds to secure public land, trimming as much bureaucratic fat as possible.
Now serving as conservation director for Rewilding Argentina, Di Martino oversees a fleet of projects focused on restoring what individual ecosystems have lost. He is, for instance, reintroducing red algae off the coast of the Chubut province and creating new seabird colonies there. His contemporaries in Chile have worked to rebuild populations of the rhea, the ostrich-like bird that was crucial to Darwin’s theories.
Throughout this past year, Rewilding Argentina released seven jaguars into the wetlands of Iberá following their 70-year absence there. The groundbreaking project took a decade. By the end of 2021, the organization hopes to release the first male jaguar, Jatobazinho, into the wild. They helped rescue the feeble adolescent after he was found hiding in a boat near a school, having climbed the banks of the Paraguay River.
For Di Martino, pristine shores and apex predators offer fellow Argentines employment opportunities beyond environmental extraction on someone else’s behalf. He ticks off a manifest of jobs that the parks provide, like canoe captains or horseback guides, and the resurgence of traditional languages and recipes he’s seen in such places. This is a new economy of possibility, he reckons, built on extending the fruits of preservation and restoration to Patagonian communities.
“Rewilding is based on recovering what is lost, not just preserving what we have. This tourism is based on wildlife coming back,” says Di Martino. “Instead of being employees of cattle ranches or the forest industry, people are starting their own business. They recover their pride.”
Such a regenerative cycle is just one way Kristine Tompkins’ work should last beyond her lifetime. Another is the corporate culture she helped inspire. Though Tompkins hasn’t worked at Patagonia in nearly 30 years, she remains on its board of directors. It’s easy to trace the influence of someone who fled the corporate world altogether to focus on environmental justice. In 2012, Patagonia became the first California company to enlist as a B Corp; the brand is a consistent case study for sustainable business practices.
Jeff Johnson, Patagonia’s first staff photographer, recalls an early lunchtime lecture he attended at the company a decade after Tompkins left. The speaker was Jane Goodall, just stopping by to speak over sandwiches. “I remember thinking that this place was on a different level, that this wouldn’t be happening at another company,” said Johnson. “It all came down to environment.”
Tompkins demurred about her impact on Patagonia, giving credit instead to a generation of empowered young employees and the constancy of Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, Patagonia’s lifelong North Stars. They were, after all, the people who first warned her of a dawning ecological crisis in the ’70s. They inspire her now just as then to keep working, she says, until — to paraphrase Darwin — there is no end in duration for the Patagonia plains.
“I want to do everything I can until I either drop dead or am gaga,” Tompkins said, chuckling. “I love the people I get to be around. I love the beauty I am faced with. It’s a tonic for despair.”
If it wasn’t for Jeff Johnson’s extensive documentation of his first trip deep into Patagonia, it might seem like mere fable, a feel-good fabrication meant to suggest that, yes, even your wildest dreams can come true.
Around the start of the new millennium, as the tale goes, a Patagonia employee snuck Johnson a battered VHS labeled “FITZ ROY,” the name of one of the region’s most iconic peaks and the brand’s insignia. The tape actually contained “Mountain of Storms,” the 53-minute film that Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard made of their crucial 1968 adventure into Patagonia. The footage fascinated Johnson and his dirtbag buddies, including famed surfing filmmakers the Malloy Brothers. They began to fantasize about retracing the route of their heroes, perhaps even completing an ascent of the imposing Cerro Corcovado, which only Tompkins alone had done.
In 2008, Johnson and Chris Malloy led an expedition into Patagonia to do just that — climbing, hiking, fishing, surfing, and fraternizing with legends Chouinard and Tompkins at their side. Tompkins was nearly two full decades into his work building national parks in Patagonia; Chouinard was at the helm of Patagonia the company, which was experiencing a boom despite worldwide financial woes.
The team indeed completed a first ascent, summiting what Tompkins christened “Cerro Kristine” for his wife. (They just missed the peak of Corcovado.) Around campfires, they talked about ecology, sustainability, and what Tompkins dubbed “the demise of nature itself.” The inspirations had become the inspired.
The trip prompted a compelling documentary, a coffee-table book, and reams of photos by some of the most acclaimed modern adventure photographers, including Jimmy Chin and Johnson himself.
Johnson is no fabulist; he’s a dreamer persistent and daring enough to pursue what likely sounded crazy at the time. A dozen years later, he is still stunned to have been there. “It was this thing where you had to pinch yourself a lot,” Johnson said recently en route to a Thanksgiving vacation with his family in Yosemite. “These are the guys who set me on my path, who affected my life. To document them with my friends … I still can’t believe how cool that was.”
—Grayson Haver Currin
Grayson Haver Currin is the hiking columnist for Outside Magazine and a music journalist for the New York Times, Pitchfork, MOJO, NPR, and many others. He is also a long-distance hiker based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Jeff Johnson is a freelance photographer, director, writer, and brand ambassador based in Santa Barbara, California. He divides his time between the mountains and the ocean.
Vincent Perini is a Texas-raised, Los Angeles–based portrait photographer with a background in art history and large-format photography.
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