Making conservation history: Interview with Kris Tompkins

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The new Patagonia National Park. Photo: Conservacion PatagonicaThe new Patagonia National Park. Photo: Conservacion Patagonica
Twenty-six years after Douglas Tompkins purchased the initial properties that would later form the world’s largest private conservation project in history, his dream has become reality. On Wednesday, Chile President Michelle Bachelet formally accepted a proposal from Tompkins Conservation, the non-profit organization formed by Tompkins to implement his conservation activities, to create what will become one of the great jewels of the world – a magnificent network of 17 national parks in Chilean Patagonia.
That network will be built upon in great measure what may be the largest private conservation donation in history to a country. Tompkins Conservation has donated 407,000 hectares (1 million acres) to Chile, which has been matched by nearly 950,000 hectares (2.35 million acres) of land from the government, to form 3 new national parks (Parque Nacional Pumalín, Parque Nacional Melimoyu and Parque Nacional Patagonia) and significantly expand 3 other existing national parks (Parques Nacional Hornopirén, Parque Nacional Corcovado, and Parque Nacional Isla Magdalena). Chile has also reclassified 4 national forest reserves as national parks (creating Parque Nacional Alacalufes and Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo and adding Lago Cochrane and Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni to the new Parque Nacional Patagonia).
Today, altogether 4.5 million hectares (11 million acres) in Chilean Patagonia are now added to the country's national park system. Chile can rightly claim to be a new worldwide leader in nature conservation.  
In the current edition of Patagon Journal, we feature an extensive interview Kristine McDivitt Tompkins did with Patagon Journal executive editor Jimmy Langman this past December at her office in Puerto Varas. We share here some excerpts, including her views on managing national parks, the legacy of Douglas Tompkins, more. 
LangmanBeyond creating more parks in the Patagonia region, is your “Ruta de Parques” proposal mainly just a marketing idea?
It’s really moreso an economic plan for the extreme south. We call it “economics as a consequence of conservation.” Southern Chile offers tremendous opportunities for growth in terms of tourism. And we’re hoping as well that the ranchers who are there stay there and that they’re successful. I’m not in favor of the Moab model where an area just becomes 90 percent tourism. I hope that all the economic possibilities for the area continue.
Will you stay involved in the rewilding programs you currently have in Valle Chacabuco once it becomes a national park?
Yes, we hope to keep going with the work we are doing there with pumas, huemuls, and the nandus.
Is that the future of Conservacion Patagonica (CP)? Last time we talked you said you’re not buying any more land for parks.
Well, never say never. The future of CP is 100 percent focused on completing everything we’ve started, and people don’t realize how much work that still is. We’re still finishing Valle Chacabuco. I have a lot of ideas about the future but I’m not going to worry about it right now because I want to keep focused on finishing chapter one in good style.
You have studied other national park systems around the world. How does Chile’s and Argentina’s compare?
I think that Chilean and Argentine national parks are like national parks everywhere. If you look at national parks in the United States, they’re all underfunded. They’re well-meaning people, but basically the funding is not always what it needs to be. So, I don’t see Chile and Argentina as being behind in terms of their national parks. It is a part of Chilean and Argentine society that is growing, and that’s a very good thing. I’m optimistic.
Chile’s national park service (CONAF) has historically been vastly underfunded. Aren’t you concerned that they may not be up to the task?
They certainly have been underfunded. No doubt about it. They would be the first to say so. But things change, you know? Sometimes things don’t change, too, of course, but we want to do all we can, post-donation, to support CONAF and support the concept of a “Friends of Parks” structure to help foster a culture of citizenry protecting their parks.
Why did Doug Tompkins and you move so strongly from private conservation toward promoting the national park idea?
Well, like in any effort, when you start out you’re not quite sure where you’re headed. Once we began to accumulate a lot of land, it kind of dawned on Doug that we could turn these into national parks. If you think about the future, our foundation a hundred years from now taking care of these parks doesn’t make sense. What will happen to the foundation in a hundred years? And look at the impact that national parks have had on the national psyche of the United States. We believe in them. We want people to get outside and fall in love with nature. There is also a democratic motivation to it - everyone gets to go to national parks. It doesn't matter who you are. Perhaps most importantly, the institutionalizing of protection for a place gives you the greatest possibility of success long-term. Doesn’t guarantee it, but it gives you something to hang your hat on. 
You’ve lived in Patagonia now for almost 25 years. When you first got here it was a lot less developed and a lot less visited. Are you concerned that Patagonia may attract too much tourism?
Yeah, sure. You can love a place to death. I think that’s true of almost everywhere. But, if you look at the impacts of tourism versus the impacts of mining or other extractive industries, I would have to roll the dice on tourism in terms of the net impact. And I also think that tourism is a way for the community down in the south to keep doing the things they’re doing now, like ranching, but also develop economic models that keep the kids there, Tourism provides another economic option for them. Industrial tourism, though, which is the largest industry in the world, it israpacious in many places. There is a downside. But you just hope that you build systems, such as trail systems, to spread people out who do visit the parks. That’s the problem with Glaciares and Torres del Paine; they never developed a system there and so everybody’s doing the W trail and now it’s closed. And they’re right to close it. But here they are, closing a very recent part of that park, the best-worst trail.
Should there be limits on visitation to some parks?
I certainly think so for some areas. They did this in Yosemite National Park for several years -- you had to make reservations, even for hiking. The Patagonia Park has a national highway going through the middle of it, so you’re never going to limit something like that. But Patagonia Park’s not even finished yet and we can already see that we’re going to need to take reservations for camping. It just gets too crowded and then the experience goes down. But that’s where people outside of the park come in: they build campgrounds and offer services that the park cannot.
Kris at Patagonia National Park. Photo: James Q MartinKris at Patagonia National Park. Photo: James Q Martin
What do you think Doug Tompkins’s legacy is?
His adherence to beauty is absolutely part of his legacy. If it’s beautiful, it’s probably whole; If it’s not beautiful, something’s wrong, and I believe that’s true. And I think he’ll be remembered for conservation of these vast big landscapes, and for doing it against great odds. He had a very strong voice in terms of activism for things that were obviously not popular opinions, and he stuck with his beliefs. I think he’ll be remembered for his adventures over his entire life, for how much he loved nature and believed in defending wildlife who have no voice of their own. And for his wilderness point-of-view and that healthy, human communities are essential and that depends on a healthy ecosystem. Nothing stopped him, and that’s rare.  People like him, and David Brower, these are people who had sort of take-no-prisoners stances, no compromise, and they were right. I learned a lot through that, and I love him for that. He was not perfect, but he was often right. 
He seemed to relish challenges.
Oh, yeah. I think the greater the challenge, the happier he was.  I would say that when something would be almost impossible, or at that moment really impossible, is probably when he did his best work. If you look at the Doug Tompkins scorecard: for the very difficult, complex issues that he took on, whether it was conservation of landscapes or wildlife or confronting the salmon industry, whatever it was, he moved the needle. He changed things. That takes a very special person in terms of determination, clarity and confidence. He was a very ethical person.
Patagonia Inc. founder Yvon Chouinard went on that famous trip to Patagonia in a van with Doug and others in 1968 to climb Fitz Roy. How do you think that trip affected them?
You’d have to ask them that, but I think both felt that the place and the trip was a life-changer. It was definitely an exclamation point in their lives. Why do you do a magazine about Patagonia, you know? Why is it so alluring? Each person has to define that for themselves. Certainly if they hadn’t made that trip, a lot of this wouldn’t have happened, because the whole Patagonia thing started out of that trip. The notion of the territory itself started out of that trip.
Twenty-five years from now, what do you hope Patagonia will look like?
In my heart of hearts, I hope that the mining disappears and that the terrible onslaught of the petroleum industry on each side of Patagonia comes to an end. And that there’s good organization wrapped around these protected areas. I hope there’s a strong string of national parks that people can visit, and that they’re not developed on the inside, rather the communities outside the parks are the ones who develop the economics around them. And I hope that there’s a great incentive for ranchers to stop destroying the grasslands and that the Patagonia steppe can regenerate, but a lot of it won’t. It’s desertified already. It will take a lot of government intervention and subsidies to turn things around. Thousands of families are living very tough lives because of the collapse of the grasslands. I’m sympathetic to every one of those families, but if we don’t change the way we’re managing livestock, then the grasslands will never come back, and wildlife, such as pumas, foxes, and guanaco, will be persecuted and eventually you just won’t see them again. It’s very difficult to change a system, but it has to be changed.
Read the full interview with Kris Tompkins in Issue 13.

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