Rewilding Patagonia: A Conversation with Kris Tompkins
photo credit: James Q Martin
Kris Tompkins is the president and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation. A truly inspiring visionary, Kris has committed the past three decades to protecting and restoring wild beauty and biodiversity by creating national parks, restoring wildlife, cultivating activism, and fostering economic vitality as a result of conservation. Through Tompkins Conservation and its offspring nonprofits, Rewilding Chile and Rewilding Argentina, she has helped to create or expand 15 national parks, totaling 14.8 million acres, in Chile and Argentina, and is working to bring back species that have gone locally or nationally extinct, such as the jaguar, red-and-green macaw, and giant river otters in Northeast Argentina, and Darwin’s rheas and extremely endangered huemul deer in Chile.
GeoEx has worked closely with Kris and Rewilding Chile to create our new 40th anniversary Giving Back journey, Patagonia’s Untamed Landscapes, designed to celebrate and directly benefit the organization’s work. I recently was thrilled to speak with Kris about how she initially fell under the spell of Patagonia, how her efforts have evolved over three decades, and how she views the role of tourism in supporting and furthering conservation and community preservation.
I hope you enjoy our conversation! (A transcript follows after the video.)
Don George: Kris, thank you very much for taking time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it. To begin, I just want to say that all of us at Geographic Expeditions are thrilled to be working with Tompkins Conservation and Rewilding Chile to support the extraordinary work that you’re doing. It’s really been an honor for us to work with you and your team to craft the itinerary for our new trip, Patagonia’s Untamed Landscapes, and to help fulfill your very inspiring vision.
Kris Tompkins: Well, thank you for having me today, and also thank you to GeoEx for partnering with us in this way. It really is an honor. I’ve known GeoEx for many, many years, and I represent everybody at our foundation when I say we’re very excited about this. Thank you!
We are, too! It’s a beautiful partnership.
I want to begin our conversation by asking you how the seed of your current vision first got planted, how you first fell under the spell of Patagonia.
Well, really it was Doug, my husband, who was the vector for saying that we would end up in the Southern Cone. He used to train as a ski racer down there and had a lot of climbing experiences in the Patagonia region, so when he left his business career and decided he wanted to become involved in conservation, Chile and Argentina were obvious possibilities. And that’s where we ended up!
You had been in a different line of work before that. Could you talk about what you were doing before you moved down south?
Yes, I was working for Yvon Chouinard part-time during my summers when I was going to college. When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I would do, so I just went back and started working for him.
We were making rock and ice technical climbing equipment, and then a couple years into that, or maybe less, he decided he wanted to start making clothing for all of us, and hence was born Patagonia. I was fortunate enough to help lead that company until I retired in 1993 and moved south to Chile.
It was the perfect segue: You moved from helming the company Patagonia to the region called Patagonia.
How did that feel at that moment? You were at the height professionally. You were in charge of an incredibly enlightened, progressive, wonderful company, and you leapt from there and went to Patagonia.
That’s exactly what happened: I retired on Friday and moved to a roadless area in South Chile two days later. Of course, it was a leap of faith—I’d be lying if I said otherwise—but it was also something I was absolutely ready and designed to do. It was running towards something.
At the same time, I never have left Patagonia the company. I’m still working with Patagonia, but after being in charge day to day, I was ready to do something else with my life. I didn’t know what it was and how it would evolve, but I knew that this was a real opportunity.
And of course, falling in love, you know, that’ll settle everything. You could go to the ends of the earth for love.
As it should be.
Yes, as it should be.
And how did the initial conservation efforts of you and Doug, how did those get started and grow?
Well, by the time I got to South Chile, Doug had already bought what would become Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, one of the first properties for that project. We didn’t exactly know it was going to evolve the way it finally did, but we knew that Doug really was on to something.
Like most things in your life, it sort of starts growing organically, and you make mistakes, and you pivot. But we really hit a stride, I would say, and ended up helping to create 15 national parks between the two countries. So, did we start out to do something like that? No, but it worked out that way!
To everyone’s betterment! That’s such an extraordinary journey and really inspiring. It’s incredible!
Well, I think we always have to remember that the beauty in all of this is that it’s not Doug and Kris but the teams in both countries who really were the fulcrum of success for us. I mean, you couldn’t move two feet without people who want to live in often isolated and difficult places and face a lot of political headwinds. Really, they are the heroes of this story.
Yes, thank you. That’s so true. What’s your goal now with Tompkins Conservation and especially, what’s your dream in regard to conservation and restoration work in Chile?
Once we got all of the final first round properties donated and tucked into new national parks, I thought: Well, let’s go faster, farther, bigger than the first generation of projects.
I really see the future of the human and non-human world in this because humans were always related to nature, but modernity has kicked the stuffing out of that sense of relationship. For me, it’s fundamentally important that there is a retaking of those vows, and that in the meantime you really are protecting not only the jewels of a place but also helping to create renewed dignity and prosperity for neighboring communities.
So you can’t start any of these kinds of projects without starting that community.
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s been one of the hallmarks of your efforts, getting the community involved and empowered.
Yes, that’s true. We made some mistakes in the beginning; we weren’t very popular in the very beginning because it was new and people were suspicious of the alleged outcomes that we were looking for. So, like any town, like the one I’m sitting in right now, you have to work hard to become a good neighbor. You have to prove yourself. That’s the day-to-day, shoulder-to-the-grindstone work that you have to do to deserve people’s respect.
I have always understood that and knew that wherever we were in the world, that love of good neighbors exists. Cultivating these things takes years.
Yes, absolutely, and this is the 30th year of your efforts, your 30th anniversary. Congratulations! That’s extraordinary.
Yes, well, gosh, if you add up the people who have worked with us over 30 years, it’s hundreds of people and so, we need an echo machine out there to bow down to them because these are the real heroes.
Yes, indeed. What is it that continues to drive and inspire you?
In a certain kind of way, it’s despair. I mean, it’s not just for the love of good community and beauty and healthy landscapes, but I do think that we as humans are on a collision course that is really out of our control in many ways, and I want to be on the team that fights against that trend.
So that’s my motivation—as well as, of course, all the people I love and all the species I love. Basically, in some ways at this point I think you have to choose sides, because standing in the middle is completely unacceptable, inaction is completely unacceptable.
So that’s my motivation. I don’t know what else to do with myself in a certain kind of way. I mean, I have lots of things I can do, but the breakdown of the human and the non-human worlds, this should be on everybody’s list every morning when they get out of bed. I don’t see how you avoid it. I have lots going on, but I don’t want to do anything else.
I agree completely. What do you feel is the role of tourism in supporting and furthering this kind of marriage of conservation and community preservation?
Number one is that tourism has in many ways over the last 100 years or so been great for conservation because it can fuel neighboring communities around conservation areas, whether they’re national parks or whatever they are. That can fuel a lot of conservation development. On the other hand, as we’ve seen during Covid, it’s rough when you have local communities depending upon how people are doing in their financial lives thousands of miles away, around which they have no control. That’s true with the globalized economy in any sphere, not just tourism.
So I hope that tourism continues because it adds so much to communities around the world, but I also think that the ethos and the actual mechanics of tourist agencies and travel companies, whether they’re industrial tourism or smaller boutique travel companies, I think they have to start actively calculating and paying a kind of tax—you could call it a beauty and life tax—wherever they go. Wherever it is, there should be a beauty and life tax that goes into the projects that people are visiting, and that goes back into the communities that the travelers have passed through.
I think this has to be much more direct and accepted, that you can’t just go around the world skimming the cream off the top and not being participative in the salvation of those places we love to death.
Absolutely! I think that’s exactly why we’re all so thrilled about this trip that we’re doing with you, because it gives right back to you and right back to the communities that we’re enjoying and that we want future travelers to learn from and engage with. It’s critically important.
Yes, and I think that GeoEx has that ethos baked in the cake for most of its existence. You guys are a model for what should be happening. It’s difficult because the economics of tourism haven’t included that, but I really think that has to change.
Yes, so do we.
As we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about our anniversaries: GeoEx is 40 years old this year, and your efforts are 30 years old this year. Thirty years is a very substantial amount of time, Kris! Congratulations! Looking back on that journey, with all of its triumphs and challenges, how do you feel today, what do you feel today?
Even having lost the love of my life a few years ago, I feel that I have a charmed, extraordinary life, from the day I was born until next week when I’m 72. Working at Patagonia is the only place I’ve ever worked, and then doing this work with Doug and the teams over so many years, I just feel grateful for every moment I have in my life.
I’m not an angel, but I do try to live with that recognition of what I’ve been given. As someone said, “Of those to whom much is given, much is asked.” And I feel that. We grew up that way.
I’m probably my harshest critic and toe the line on myself more than anything else, because I know what kind of life I’ve led and I know that it’s blessed. Plus, I love this!
Well, you’re an incredible inspiration, and I think I speak for all of us at GeoEx when I say that we think you’re one of the planet’s great treasures.
Oh, my goodness, thank you! Thank you very much!
We are absolutely thrilled to be partnering with you.
Oh, my lord, this is a big deal for Rewilding Chile. The head of Rewilding Chile has worked with us for 27 years. She’s a pistol. And so is the whole team in Chile. We’re so honored to have GeoEx as a partner in this way. It’s a model and it’s also a gift.
Thank you. We’re going to do great things together!
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Kris. I really appreciate it.
You bet! Same here!
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To learn more about our 40th Anniversary Giving Back trip, Patagonia’s Untamed Landscapes benefitting Rewilding Chile, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.
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Do you have a comment about conservation or a memory of travel in wild places you’d like to share? Please add your comments below. We love to hear what’s on your mind!
WHAT A GREAT CONVERSATION! Two very inspiring people and such a model for the travel as it should be now. Giving to the places we are privileged to visit and the people we are honored to meet. We all need to be in this regenerative mode, messengers of peace, Love and conservationists of our Planet!. I had already written to you about the importance of travel. I certainly know what you do with AHF also as I am very connected with them and dream to pursue this kind of work. Thank you!
Wonderful inspiring interview. Thank you!