Patagonia Dreaming: Kris Tompkins Works to Build the Best National Park

Kris Tompkins’s quest to build the world’s best new national park in the uttermost part of the earth

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins—then McDivitt, always Kris—had not made many big life changes, so maybe it was time. On the Sunday before Christmas 21 years ago, she closed the door and turned the lock on her beach house in Ventura, Calif., a place right on the water where she and her surrogate family of work friends had hung out for 20 years. One gave her a lift to LAX, where she caught a flight to Santiago, Chile. There she boarded a second, smaller jet bound for Puerto Montt. After a 26-hour trip she arrived at the farmhouse of her future husband, Douglas Tompkins. He lived off the grid, without a phone, at the far end of the Reñihue fjord, surrounded by thousands of acres of temperate rain forest. The nearest supermarket was two hours away. Kris had with her two duffel bags, spoke only gringo Español, and had “a one-line résumé,” because, she adds with a quick laugh, “I’d only had one job my whole life.”

For 13 years she’d been chief executive officer of Patagonia, the California outdoor apparel company famous for its high-end parkas, eco-activism, and advertisements to shop less. Starting as an assistant packer at 19 during a college summer, she had figured out whatever needed figuring out when founder and owner Yvon Chouinard’s method for underwriting his hobbies—fly fishing, mountaineering, surfing—became a growing business in the early 1970s. On her watch, the company more than quadrupled to $120 million-plus in annual revenue. Still, she was restless. “I looked around and I could see the rest of my life. There would always be interesting challenges, but I’d be doing the same thing in 10 years, at 50 and 60. So I took a giant leap of faith.”

Kris at Chouinard Equipment in 1973
Photograph by Gary Regester

Doug, the man she was off to see, had likewise dropped out midcareer, having made a name for himself as the co-founder of the North Face, and, two decades later, in the 1980s, a fortune with Esprit, the women’s wear brand he built with his first wife. In 1991 he relocated to Chile to purchase the Reñihue farm and 756,000 more acres on the fjord to create his own nature reserve. He called it Pumalin Park, after the puma, the region’s most charismatic predator. It was there that Kris, then 43, came calling in time for Christmas in December 1993.

She never left. McDivitt and Tompkins married in 1994, the second time for both, then embarked on one of the most ambitious private conservation projects on the planet. Over the past two decades, the two American clothing executives have accomplished more than many nations at establishing a network of new parks, expanding existing ones, and linking them into wildlife “corridors”—a continuous habitat that reflects migratory patterns and animals’ range rather than lines on a map. They’ve financed much of this with their own fortunes. In all, they’ve conserved nearly 2.2 million acres across the Patagonia region and won national park status for three parks, in Argentina and Chile, that didn’t exist before they got involved. They’ve spearheaded the reintroduction of endangered species—giant anteaters, Pampas deer—in programs watched by wildlife biologists around the world. Jaguars are next.

“What they have done, it is not at all easy to do,” says M. Sanjayan, the former chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy who now is at Conservation International. “Some will say oh, if you have the money, you just buy the property and put a fence around it. But you have to be politically savvy, legally savvy, and people-savvy to keep it saved.”

“They make an incredible team,” says their friend Tom Brokaw, the former NBC news anchor. “With Doug—social skills are not his strength. But among those I know, no one is bolder at acting on his imagination. And Kris knows how to communicate his vision.” Theirs is not a case of the great-woman-behind-the-great-man, Brokaw says: “They are each strong leaders, with different styles.”

April 17 (Bloomberg) –- In 1993, Kris Tompkins walked away from her career as Patagonia's CEO, packed her bags and moved to Chile. Kris and husband Douglas Tompkins have since dedicated their lives to conservation projects in Chile and Argentina. Her current project: creating "the Yellowstone of South America." (Source: Bloomberg)

Later this year the two plan to open Patagonia Park in Chile, the crown jewel of their park-making efforts. The intention is to invite the public with a grand opening in December and pursue formal national park status in the years ahead. And this one really is Kris’s baby. In 2004 she used $1.7 million of her own equity from Patagonia in the purchase of the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a ranch of historical significance in the Aysén district. Combined with adjacent parcels, it spans nearly 200,000 acres. Despite the recession, she and Conservacion Patagonica, the nonprofit foundation that endows and manages the park, have raised and invested about $45.5 million in the park’s infrastructure, soft-launching a well-appointed eco-lodge in 2011. On top of three new trails, the park-in-progress offers white-water rafting, fly fishing, and a chance to closely observe pink flamingos and guanacos, which look like llamas with camel necks and are innately comical. Several travel magazines have already gushed about it. Bruce Babbitt, the U.S. secretary of Interior under Bill Clinton, has given it the equivalent of a dust jacket rave, predicting that it “will be the Yellowstone of South America.”

Patagonia Park has also become a lightning rod for local grievances. In the transition from cattle and sheep to tourism, local leaders say, the park has cost the region jobs, left rancher families destitute, and driven up prices on livestock. Much as American ranchers fight the reintroduction of wolves in Wyoming, the Tompkinses’ critics also say that studying pumas, rather than killing them, has led to livestock losses on bordering properties. Moreover, locals and even foreign academics lament that in their zeal to protect wildlife, the Tompkinses will drive the gauchos, the cowboys of Patagonia, into cultural extinction.

“From 2005 onwards, there is no economic activity in Valle Chacabuco,” says Patricio Ulloa, the mayor of Cochrane, the nearest town of any size. “Tompkins has built his park with pretty buildings but hasn’t made a single contribution to the local economy.” The Tompkinses, he says, are “no good for the Aysén region, where we need productive activity. Eighty percent of the region is already parks and reserves. We don’t need any more.”

Covering 386,000 square miles and shared by Chile and Argentina, Patagonia comprises a variety of landscapes, from Serengeti-like grass steppe and British Columbia-like rain forest to volcanoes and bare granite peaks that cradle deep blue lakes and tower over rivers that run an almost chem-lab turquoise. The coasts are rugged, often sheer, and on the tail of the continent, the southern Andes shoulder a massive ice field, the biggest glacial mass in the hemisphere outside Antarctica. If there’s one thing all the terrain shares, it’s wind. “It’ll blow the freckles right off your face,” Kris says.

It can take five to nine hours to drive to Valle Chacabuco from the nearest airport. The pavement ends about 90 minutes in, and the condition of the road dictates one’s progress. It’s a stunning drive, and the Tompkinses have published a glossy coffee table book about it, Carretera Austral, in the hope that it becomes, like California’s Highway 1 (Big Sur) or Italy’s Amalfi Coast Road, a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s ironic that two people who fight tirelessly to prevent construction of roads elsewhere advocate paving this one, but they’ve become accustomed to compromises. “Tourism is not a panacea,” Kris allows, “but it will be an improvement on overgrazing.”

On a sunny and, yes, windswept morning in January, the couple sit in the front room of the Butler House, a residence five minutes up a gravel road from the park’s lodge and main office. It was paid for by a donation from Gilbert Butler, founder and president of the Butler Conservation Fund in New York, and is intended for visiting dignitaries and big donors. It’s also where the Tompkinses stay when they’re on site, about three months out of the year. (The other nine they split among El Amarillo, Argentina; Campo Laguna Blanca, their most ambitious land restoration project, also in Argentina; and Reñihue, Chile, which is home.) In the next room, a man who looks to be in his 30s and is dressed neatly in a red sweater and wool slacks waits to speak to Doug Tompkins about a business opportunity. Tompkins has long wished he could have a hand in the ice cream business, and now, at 70, he has his chance helping a former Serbian investment banker open a franchise of his Belgrade ice cream shop in Santiago this November.

The Tompkinses on the grounds of the Butler House
Photograph by Pablo Cabado for Bloomberg Businessweek

Inspired by rail stations from 19th century Great Britain, the Butler House’s interior has exposed wood beams, large black-and-white photographs of wildlife and mountain summits in wood frames, and even bigger windows that flood the room with sunlight. Doug wears his uniform: collared button-down dress shirt, wool fisherman’s sweater, jeans. He offers fresh cherries from a cardboard box dropped at the front door.

Doug met his wife through Kris’s former boss, Chouinard. Tompkins and the Patagonia founder met in Yosemite in the early 1960s, when both were climbing Yosemite Valley’s big granite walls. Tompkins sold Chouinard’s climbing gear and harnesses at the North Face in San Francisco. In 1968, he, Chouinard, and some other friends took off on the road for six months—from California all the way down to FitzRoy, Patagonia’s signature mountain (the one on the corporate logo). The plan was to make a first ascent of FitzRoy (they eventually did) and shoot alpinism’s equivalent of The Endless Summer with a 16mm movie camera. Viewed now, Mountain of Storms, as their documentary was called, is like watching the secret origin myth of the $289 billion outdoor retailing industry: a group of friends risking everything and having the time of their lives in exotic locales. On that trip, Tompkins was already planning his next business venture with his first wife, and together they built Esprit, which by the late 1980s had made him a multimillionaire. His first marriage and Esprit ended in divorce (the last of the company was sold in 1994), and in 1991, as he detached from it, he looked for where he could have the most impact as a conservationist. He considered Norway, Southeast Asia, and Northern California. Then he returned to Chile, where he’d made all those formative trips as a younger man, and the exchange rates made him a veritable Ted Turner.

Kris had met Doug in passing over the years but got better acquainted in 1992 when she and several other trustees and executives from Patagonia held their first corporate retreat in its namesake place. Tompkins, an accomplished bush pilot, flew over for a visit in his twin-propeller Super Cub. “My wife, Malinda, and I, we didn’t think it would work out,” says Chouinard of Kris’s move to Chile one year later. “The thing about Doug is … he’s difficult. He finds people’s weaknesses, and he attacks them.”

In Kris, now 63, Tompkins finally met his match. Five feet two, fit, and direct, she’s warm but not touchy-feely. Her friends say she’s comforting in a crisis, but her impulse is more to fix whatever’s wrong. The word most used to describe her by former Patagonia associates is “determined.” “Intense” scores pretty high, too. She’s a pistol.

Kris was 10 and living in Venezuela when her father, an oil services engineer, died suddenly of a rare form of polio. Her mother left her with friends to collect her brother and sister from boarding schools in the Caribbean, then they all returned to their family’s ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif. She stayed there until leaving for the College of Idaho, which she chose for its ski racing. “People hear about [Venezuela] and sort of assume that’s how I learned Spanish, but we didn’t speak it there. We were among other Americans,” she says. She regrets not having many memories of her father, but still has her mother, who is 95.

Chouinard, in his memoir of building Patagonia, Let My People Go Surfing, jokes about his MBA theory of leadership—management by absence. When asked if she subscribes to this school as well, Kris gasps. “Are you kidding me? I was the one who always stayed behind. In fact, it was really telling: One night at a party, Yvon and I were standing around and someone asked me if I was going to go on a particular trip. I think it was to Nepal. And Yvon just turned to that person and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. She won’t go. She won’t leave work.’ And it was true.”

“In my view, Patagonia was co-founded by Yvon and Kris,” says Rick Ridgeway, who was there from the start and is now vice president for environmental affairs. “I don’t think the company would have ever become what it did without the combination of their efforts.”

In the early days, it was really two businesses: one forging and selling hardware for rock climbers, such as pitons and carabiners, and a second that started out selling canvas shorts and “pile” sweaters sewn from toilet seat cover fabric, the proto-fleece. Kris took on the role of CEO in 1979 and, having limited experience with financial matters, she says, “I’d call up bank presidents and just tell them, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing—can you help?’ And they did. People love to help.” In the ’80s the company introduced several fabrics, including Synchilla and Capilene, that led to dramatic sales growth.

In 1989, Chouinard Equipment, the original hard goods company, filed for bankruptcy amid liability lawsuits its insurers refused to fight. A flash of exasperation still passes over Kris’s face when this comes up; the claims against Chouinard Equipment were not because of flaws in the gear but because it had not sufficiently warned people against unintended uses for them. (Several former employees, led by Peter Metcalf, bought the remaining assets of Chouinard Equipment out of bankruptcy to form Black Diamond Equipment, a Utah-based outdoor sports and lifestyle company that went public through a reverse merger and forecasts $235 million in 2014 sales.) In 1990, she recruited a new CEO and focused on brand management. That didn’t last: As the country entered a recession, Patagonia produced way more than it could sell, and the CEO hired to replace her departed. Kris stepped back into her old role in an effort to right the ship. A year later, she fell in love.

“As a fellow conservationist, I am dumbstruck, really, both by what she’s set out to do and what she’s done,” says Wendy Paulson, who became friends with the Tompkinses after her husband, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, then the CEO of Goldman Sachs, arranged for his firm to donate property it owned in Patagonia in 1999. Paulson says Kris’s single-minded focus makes her effective, but that she’s able to step back, too, and gain some perspective. “I think that Hank is intense and Doug is even more so. Kris and I have a lot of laughs about our husbands. I think that’s one of the things that’s made us such good friends. We both chuckle about the same things.”

One quick way to draw the contrast in style between her and Doug is how they talk about their lives before Chile and the decision to pack up and leave. He all but sneers that he was done “making clothes and countless things no one needs.” Kris says she’s gone from “trying to make the best clothing in the world … to trying to make the best, most high-quality protected areas in the world.” In many ways, she says, the values are the same. And the work ethic definitely is. “I think I’m working much harder now than when I thought that there weren’t hours enough in a day at Patagonia,” she says. “But it’s just different. We move around a lot more.”
As wealthy outsiders, the Tompkinses made an easy political target in the early years. Because Chile is a narrow north-south country, Pumalin Park’s east-west sprawl struck some right-wing Chilean pols as an attempt to divide the nation in two. In the late ’90s, Chile’s president and prominent members of the Catholic Church accused the couple of evicting tenant ranchers and denying them work. From there the accusations got more fanciful: They were stealth Zionists come to form a new state. They were working with the CIA to undermine Chile and empower Argentina. Their real plan was to bring back the American buffalo, or ship Chile’s water to Africa. Any of these struck many Chileans as more probable than someone buying up land to take it out of production, return it to a natural state, and give it to the government for free.

To some extent, the Tompkinses have become more accepted, in part because they did what they said they would do. Today, Pumalin Park is well visited by the Chilean public, not just foreign tourists and journalists curious about Doug and Kris’s excellent expat adventure. Official Chile has shown a willingness to work with them, with the military contributing substantial tracts (and even forfeiting its requested artillery range) to endow Corcovado National Park, noted for its lakes and two volcanoes. This January, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera designated Yendegaia National Park, in Tierra del Fuego, a joint venture among Chilean conservationists, the government, and a Tompkins foundation.

“They’ve really changed people’s perception of what you can do,” says Amanda Maxwell, the director for Latin America projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “There hadn’t been a tradition of donating land or a culture of philanthropy in Chile and Argentina in general. And wildlife conservation, like many things, is trial and error, and they’ve had some success.”

Tompkins says that they focused on areas where the flora and fauna are mostly intact. In this way they can protect not only individual species but also an entire ecosystem. Just as often, though, it’s serendipity—finding out a beautiful property was up for sale and making a bid. “Much of what we’ve done has been following our nose,” he says. But “we do have missions and goals. They’re very specifically to make national parks. From a pure conservation perspective, that’s the gold standard.”

With Patagonia Park, they are trying to take all they’ve learned, and the goodwill they’ve amassed, and get even more ambitious with the park’s infrastructure to create a world-class, bucket-list destination. To do so, though, the Tompkinses sold off the Estancia’s 25,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle, leaving 1,000 ovines and 100 bovines for park workers to eat—and disrupting all the various jobs from veterinarians to shearers that the ranch supported.

Many in the region say they are not opposed to the park in principle so much as eager to see a direct benefit from it, and some worry it’s too high-end for people who live there to enjoy. “I think the idea of a park is great, but the cost for this infrastructure makes me believe they built something that it is unthinkable for the government to handle,” says Rodrigo Rivera, a Cochrane city council member. “Conservation can be done without having such infrastructure.” Rivera also raises the complaint that protected pumas living in the park have caused many livestock deaths “as its hunt field has expanded.”

Cristian Saucedo, wildlife manager for Patagonia Park, says the number of kills is exaggerated. A veterinarian who previously worked with the Chilean forest service, he has completed a four-year study of pumas in the park. “We found that pumas were feeding on guanaco [and] very low numbers of sheep, only a tiny fraction. There is not much objective data that shows pumas are increasing or predating more than before,” he says. Saucedo appreciates the skepticism over the park but believes that people throughout the region will be won over. “For me, it’s like the new generation will appreciate this,” he says. “For older people who are very close to their traditions and the local culture, it’s not easy for them to see this grass and understand why there’s no cows or sheep eating this grass. It doesn’t fit in their mind.”

“What they’ve built there is quite beautiful,” says Carlota McAllister, “and their long-term vision great, but they could have been more sensitive to the cultural traditions. They’ve been so clumsy with community relations, they’ve hurt their own cause.” McAllister, an anthropologist and director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at Toronto’s York University, has been conducting extensive fieldwork in the region for more than a decade. And she’s been active in an eight-year battle to block several proposed megadams on Patagonian rivers, including the Baker River, which forms part of the park’s western boundary. Proposed by HidroAysén, a subsidiary of Colbún, Chile’s second-largest energy producer, the dams would be hydroelectric and eventually send power thousands of miles north to Santiago. The company declined to comment for this article.

The Tompkinses have donated to several local protest groups opposed to the dams and paid for an extensive media campaign, Patagonia Sin Respresas (“Patagonia Without Dams”). “They’ve been effective, no question,” says McAllister, but she adds that their hostility to the gauchos has helped competing interests, such as HidroAysén, win over locals. One even led a “Patagonia Sin Tompkins” demonstration at the park entrance. While Conservacion Patagonica has fixed up a cemetery near the new lodge, McAllister asks, “Why have they committed to making a museum about their ecological beliefs and not including more about the historical heritage?” The Tompkinses may not be colonial in a traditional sense, taking resources from the area and sending these riches back to the center of the empire, but their insistence on doing things their way, she says, can come across as colonial in its imposition.
On March 26, a fire broke out near the junction of the Carretera Austral and the road that leads into the Tompkinses’ Patagonia Park. Most likely caused by an animata—a candle in a roadside shrine—it raced across the parched meadows (March is the start of autumn) and climbed into the forest. Everyone on the project mobilized to fight it. For more than a week it appeared the blaze might engulf the headquarters.

Guanacos after the wildfires in Valle Chacabuco
Photograph by Nadine Lehner

“I worked the radio for four days straight,” Kris says via Skype. “We basically didn’t sleep for three days.” The wildfire came to within a mile of the lodge before rain suppressed it. Three weeks later, after the Chilean forest service and Army had joined the fight, the fire finally came under control. It charred 4,942 acres. (On Saturday, April 12, a second unrelated fire destroyed a dormitory for 25 workers. None were hurt.)

The fires provided a frightening reminder of how precarious things are in such a remote region, and gave conspiracists fresh fuel as well. “What caused it is still not clear,” says Ulloa, Cochrane’s mayor. “We will investigate why Douglas Tompkins didn’t let the firefighters and authorities in charge onto his land. The second day of the fire he forbade entrance of machineries to stop the fire, and that is why it expanded.” (The Tompkinses counter that all they did was wait for a more experienced fire marshal to begin digging firebreak trenches.)

Kris acknowledges there’s room for improvement with the local communities. “Of course, we want to and can further our relationship with Cochrane,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We believe that the park will be a central force in creating economic opportunities that will only grow in the future.” The couple have limited the number of guest accommodations at the park deliberately so tourists will support the regional economy at nearby resorts, motels, and towns. She says they just need to give it time.

“You can’t get everybody to agree on anything, anywhere,” Doug says. “But what you do find out is that with a national park most everybody agrees after the fact. This is the interesting thing. Around the world, parks face fierce local opposition. Five, 10 years go by and that opposition sort of evaporates. … If you went to West Yellowstone and you told them there that they were going to decommission Yellowstone National Park, well, they’d threaten to shoot ya, or write you off as a nutcase. But if we go back to Yellowstone—wow, there was all sort of opposition in the beginning.” Kris similarly takes comfort in the story of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, 47 years in the making.

“We’re trying to think 100 and even 150 years down the road,” she says. There are parts of Patagonia that are just as they were when Ferdinand Magellan and, later, Charles Darwin first set eyes on them, “and that’s really our goal—to have some of this remain just as they found it.”

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