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This Conservationist Left the Corner Office to Save Wilderness

Amid personal tragedy, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, is creating a legacy of new national parks in Chile and Argentina.   Get to know all 10 honorees, then vote every day for the People's Choice until December 16, 2016. The winner will be announced in January 2017.

Together, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, 66, and her late husband, Doug, saved 2.5 million acres of wild land, created five national parks, and set aside numerous reserves in critical habitat in Patagonia, making them two of the most important wilderness protectors in modern history.

Since the couple retreated from positions running the top businesses in the outdoor industry in the early 1990s (Patagonia and The North Face, respectively), they enacted large-scale conservation programs that could quickly accomplish outcomes that would take slow-moving governments and nonprofit organizations decades to pull off.

But that momentum seemed in jeopardy last December, when Doug, 72, died in a kayaking accident in Chile.

“We were inseparable,” Tompkins says. “We did everything together. We were each other’s lives. He always thought that if we didn’t die together in one of our planes that whoever was left behind would be demolished. He wasn’t wrong.”

Yet Tompkins has battled through her grief with even more focused intensity and, as she calls it, “ferocity.” "I felt a sense of urgency that propels me much more than even when Doug was here. It feels like I am on a rocket ship right now," she says.

Tompkins has doubled down on the work she and Doug began. In September 2016, she scored a major victory when the Corrientes Province in Argentina paved the way for the creation of the future Iberá National Park, which will save precious wetland habitat over 1.6 million acres. And she is continuing to press for a 650,000-acre Patagonia National Park. Those efforts have earned her a Lowell Thomas Award from the famed Explorers Club, and she (with her husband) received the Global Economy Prize from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy for 2015.

Tompkins is also spearheading one of the largest rewilding programs on the planet, returning extirpated, or locally extinct, species to the habitats they once called home within the parks. She sees herself working for what author, biologist, and environmental philosopher E.O. Wilson calls for in his book Half Earth: dedicating half of the Earth’s surface as a natural reserve to preserve something close to the biodiversity our own species inherited on the planet.

“We need to take on the mission of rewilding,” she says. “We need to take it on as part of the ethos and goals of the national park system. We need to make sure parks everywhere take the responsibility of working with science organizations or field biologists to make sure extirpated species are brought back.”

Tompkins first developed her desire to protect wild lands on such a sweeping scale by exploring them. Along with her husband, she climbed peaks in the Himalaya, paddled wild rivers, and set new rock climbing lines in the Sierra. Moreover, she served as the CEO of outdoor industry leader Patagonia, Inc., rising to that position from a start working for its founder, Yvon Chouinard, in the 1960s when she was just 15 years old. Under her guidance, Patagonia evolved from a niche company making technical hardware for the budding sport of rock climbing into a pioneering apparel business with a focus on activism.

She merged the bottom-line work of building a business with uncompromising ethics. With Tompkins at the helm, Patagonia transformed into the best of what a company can be by donating a chunk of its sales to social good (and today they enable other businesses to do the same through One Percent for the Planet).

But her years of exploration and visionary business accomplishment were only a warm-up for what she and Doug did after she moved on from Patagonia in the early 1990s. Instead of sitting back and retiring, Tompkins put the same relentless, uncompromising attitude that shaped the Patagonia brand into her conservation work.

Tompkins (then Kristine McDivitt) had already begun collaborating with Doug Tompkins—one of Chouinard’s climbing partners who was the founder of The North Face as well as co-founder of mainstream apparel giant Esprit with his first wife—to preserve land in South America. Their groundbreaking conservation efforts began in 1991, when Doug purchased a 42,000-acre parcel of land in Chile's fjords with the intent of preserving it from development.

In 1993, the two married and devoted themselves to spending their personal fortunes to realize an unprecedented mission. They sought to create private land reserves open to the public and new national parks in South America, where massive tracts of land were still untouched—but in danger of being overrun by private interests, extractive industries, and those who would exploit those lands for quick profits.

“People need to get up every day and do something that has nothing to do with themselves,” she says. “I hope they work in conservation or activism, but, really, just do something. We don’t have the luxury to sit back and do nothing. That’s my battle cry.”

Essentially, Tompkins and her husband bought privately held land adjacent to existing parks, and then worked with the regional governments to turn the property into parkland and increase the protected area (a method she still employs).

We can’t just enjoy adventuring any longer without taking responsibility for the places we love.
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins Adventurer of the Year

They built the currently 715,000-acre Pumalín Park, a nature reserve open to the public, which the Chilean government designated as a park and sanctuary in 2005. They also created 726,000-acre Corcovado National Park, south of Pumalín, which encompasses pristine coastline and an iconic volcano, and Argentina’s El Piñalito Provincial Park to save rain forest and critical wildlife habitat in the midst of devastating logging operations.

In 2004, the couple began the creation of the private, 650,000-acre Patagonia Park, which opened to the public in 2014 and is now on the path to federal protection. In total, the couple set aside 12 parks and reserves in Chile and Argentina through several nonprofit organizations they founded.

While locals were wary of the Tompkinses’ motives at first, the couple earned their approval. The idea is not for the parks to remain private; they ultimately go back to the people who live in Chile and Argentina. The Tompkinses also ensured that people who live within the parks and reserves can continue a sustainable way of life.

“The Chileans have welcomed our donations to create a new national park,” Tompkins says, pointing to the unique opportunity the couple found in South America for large-scale conservation. “It’s very difficult to have that kind of an outcome with circumstances as they are today in the U.S. Congress.”

Despite all these victories, Tompkins says she still has work to do. She wants more adventurers, more corporations, more everyday citizens to get involved in creating parks and reserves, in moving toward a “half Earth.” She wants the public recognition of her life’s work to be a rallying cry to change the entire planet in the same way she has already changed business and conservation.

“We can’t just enjoy adventuring any longer without taking responsibility for the places we love,” she says. “There’s no patience to be had, no glory to be had, for individuals who go to places to have a fabulous time and just skin the cream off the top. They need to fight for the things that they love. That’s my message.”


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