a guanaco alongside a lake surrounded by rolling mountains

How an unprecedented gift built a legacy of conservation in South America

An enterprising wealthy couple had a dream: Buy millions of acres across Chile and Argentina, then donate them to create new parks.

A guanaco, the wild form of the llama, arrives to drink at Laguna Seca in Chile’s Patagonia National Park. The 750,000-acre park combines public land with private property donated by Tompkins Conservation.
This story appears in the May 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Tompkins Conservation is a conservation partner of the National Geographic Society’s Last Wild Places initiative.

‘It was a desperate time. Doug never got over it.’

Kris McDivitt Tompkins sits before a coffee table covered with colorful maps of Chile and Argentina, talking about the controversy in the early 1990s that swirled around a place called Pumalín, in southern Chile. Pumalín was the chastening early experience that showed her and her late husband, the retired businessman and adventurer Doug Tompkins, how hard it could be to convert Yankee dollars and good intentions into landscape protection in South America

Beyond the coffee table, beyond the maps, beyond the big windows of this handsome stone guesthouse, built like an aerie atop a small hill, stretches a vista of rolling grasslands, tumbling streams, forests of southern beech, and midnight blue lakes: the stern natural glories of Chile’s Patagonia National Park, another Tompkins project.

The park comprises more than 750,000 acres, including the Chacabuco Valley, running west from the Andes. Together with Pumalín, some 300 miles to the north, and six other parks—created or enlarged by Tompkins persistence, in partnership with the Chilean government, and leveraged with Tompkins-donated lands—this network of wild places totals more than 11 million acres. The breadth and diversity are vast, spanning the length of Chile’s southern half, from the Valdivian temperate rainforest of Hornopirén to the rocky islands and glaciers of Kawésqar. But to understand the scope of what Kris Tompkins and her husband have done, as well as the obstacles they have faced, it’s best to start with Pumalín. She unfolds the maps and tells me the story.

In 1991 Doug Tompkins bought a derelict ranch in the Lakes Region of Chile, a country he knew from youthful visits as a vagabond skier and climber in the early 1960s. Later in that decade he and his first wife founded the outdoor equipment company The North Face, sold that business for not much money, then established the highly successful clothing company Esprit. By the start of the 1990s, by then quite rich, divorced, and disenchanted with ravenous consumerism, Tompkins had cashed out and walked away from the business world, devoting his life to the robust sports that first brought him south—mountaineering, skiing, kayaking—and also to conservation.

His plan to restore the ranch’s native vegetation morphed into a bigger idea. He created and endowed a private foundation, the Conservation Land Trust, and through it made purchases to assemble two big blocks of mostly wildland, Pumalín North and Pumalín South. Between them lay another parcel, called Huinay, then owned by the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, which was willing to sell. But powerful political interests, including then President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, opposed the sale. Kris McDivitt entered the picture at that point, having recently retired as CEO of another clothing company, Patagonia, and bringing her own wealth and convictions, which aligned well with those of Doug Tompkins. She and Tompkins were married in 1994.

Kris Tompkins is a small, forceful woman with a clinical intelligence; she reminisces without emoting. Huinay, yes, that was the piece that would have united Pumalín, she tells me. It amounted to roughly 130 square miles, not large compared with Pumalín North or South, but belting the Chilean mainland at one of its narrowest points, from the Gulf of Ancud to the Andean summits. Their efforts to buy it aroused suspicion, resistance, rancor. They were taking agricultural land out of production, some people groused, with all this buying and protecting. They were killing jobs. They were shaping “a fiefdom” in Chile.

Such reactions continued throughout the 1990s and into the early years of this century, as the couple expanded their land buying and protection to other parts of Chile (including the Chacabuco Valley, where she and I now sit). Who were these grasping gringos, and what nefarious plans did they have? Were they looking to build a nuclear waste dump or provide military bases for Argentina or steal away Chile’s water? Or did they just want to turn large chunks of Chile into their own private getaways?

In reality their goal at Pumalín was to buy land, create a park, and give it to the nation. But Chile had no tradition of private philanthropy outside of church and education projects. Such unfathomable generosity from a pair of Americans seemed patriarchal at best, sinister at worst. Huinay was especially sensitive because, though smallish, it stretched from border to border. If rich gringos owned that property, critics argued, the country would be cut in half.

“We had four or five years of being despised,” Kris Tompkins says. “People thought we were a cult.”

Throughout 21 years of marriage, with their multiple far-flung properties and projects in Chile and Argentina and their restless interest in landscape, the Tompkinses spent considerable time in small, private airplanes. He had 15,000 hours as a pilot. She took the controls often but, never licensed, not for landings or takeoffs. “That’s when I’m happiest, flying,” she tells me. They always thought they would die together, she adds, because of all that bouncing around in the Cessna or the Husky amid these Andean canyons and peaks.

It didn’t happen. He died of hypothermia on December 8, 2015, at a hospital in the regional capital, Coihaique, after suffering prolonged immersion in a cold Chilean lake on a disastrously unlucky day, when the winds came up, the waves rose high, and the rudder on his kayak malfunctioned. The boat capsized, and the driving chop kept him and his paddling partner, the renowned climber Rick Ridgeway, from reaching shore. Ridgeway was rescued after an hour and survived, Doug Tompkins did not.

Kris Tompkins got the news by phone—a vague version, about an accident and maybe a fatality—then drove six hours to the hospital where her husband had been pronounced dead. “Him leaving so quickly matches whatever that marriage was,” she tells me. “Grief is just a continuation of whatever the relationship was that you had.” Intense lives shared, intense grief. So be it.

Her aviation nickname during their years together, for communicating by radio, was “Picaflor,” Spanish for “hummingbird.” Doug Tompkins’s handle was “Águila,” meaning “eagle.” Between the two of them, more intimately, those transmuted to “Lolo” for him and “Birdie” for her. But if she is birdlike, it’s in the manner of a storm petrel, buffeted and doughty, not a hummingbird. For the past few years, she has pursued alone only more fervently what they began together.

“It’s what kept me from going with Doug,” she says. Giving up, she means, lying on the widow’s pyre. “I couldn’t imagine life without him.”

Instead she refocused on their goal of leveraging Tompkins landholdings into a wondrous portfolio of national parks, scattered across Chile and Argentina. That took three years, but it accelerated quickly. Within two weeks of burying her husband, she reached an agreement to protect an enormous wetlands ecosystem known as Iberá, in northern Argentina. And by the end of March 2019, she finalized her commitment with the government of Chile to combine one million acres of Tompkins land with 10 million acres of government-held land to create five new national parks and enlarge three others. What once was the private reserve of Pumalín is now a public treasure: Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park.

After lunch at the guesthouse, Tompkins takes me walking to see some of the local landscape. Behind the main lodge of Patagonia National Park, a service road leads to a footpath up a creek drainage. We pause at a very small cemetery, squared within a stone-pillared fence, with 10 graves marked by wood crosses and small shrines, plus one vertically planted slab of stone, upon which is carved:

DOUGLAS RAINSFORD TOMPKINS

Birdie & Lolo

03-1943 12-2015

Staff members chose the headstone inscription without consulting her, but Tompkins says it suits her fine. She is briskly unsentimental in her conversations about her husband and his end, but unsentimental is not unemotional, and sometimes, she tells me, she comes back to this gravesite and lies on the grass quietly, remembering, communing.

The foot trail snakes out across stony hillsides and grassy flats tufted with neneo bushes, yellow flowered and spiny, rounded in profile so that from a distance they look like coral heads. It crosses a creek, shaded by beech trees, then climbs toward a campground, simple but well kept for visitors, and loops back toward park headquarters. At one point, I notice a small pile of dried, bone white scat. Yes, puma, Tompkins says, picking up a lump and breaking it open to show me the compacted fur. The increased puma population in the Chacabuco Valley is one dimension of rewilding, a major goal for Tompkins lands in Chile and Argentina that have lost signature elements of their aboriginal fauna. Rewilding means more pumas and huemuls (south Andean deer, an endangered species) and Darwin’s rheas (a large, flightless bird) here in Patagonia National Park, plus other wildlife restoration and reintroduction elsewhere.

Rewilding is also controversial, especially when it involves the return of predators such as the puma or (up in that great Argentine wetlands, Iberá) the jaguar. Only a combination of daring and patience could make it happen, and much of the patience is Kris Tompkins’s.

“Doug was the bomb thrower,” I was told by Gil Butler, a peer in conservation philanthropy. “Kris is, ‘Let’s go get it done.’ ”

On the Argentine side, Tompkins rewilding initiatives are proceeding busily at Esteros del Iberá, in the northeastern corner of that country. It’s a vast, soggy ecosystem, a paisley mosaic of marshes, dark-water channels and sloughs, lagoons, platforms of floating vegetation, hummocks just high and dry enough to support tiny patches of forest, and some areas of solid savanna. Caimans and waterbirds are abundant, and with luck you can spot a yellow anaconda. Sunshine presents it all brilliantly—the name itself is from the Guaraní language, y berá, and means “shining waters.”

Iberá lies within Corrientes Province, a mostly rural region bordered by Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil, with a strong element of native Guaraní culture and language and an ethos of frontier independence. Iberá’s history for a century included marginal cattle ranching, as well as hunting for meat and hides; local people often traveled by boat or wet-footed horse, but there wasn’t enough terra firma to support many humans or cows. The alternative future was trending toward commercial-scale rice farming and pine plantations.

Then, in 1997, Doug Tompkins happened to visit. He became intrigued with the place and, one summer day, flew his wife back for a look. “We got out of the plane, and I just said, Hey, let’s get out of here,” she tells me. “It’s hot, it’s buggy, it’s flat as a pancake. Get on the plane.” But he saw something she didn’t—its biodiversity, its possibilities—and bought a ranch on an island amid this great swamp without even discussing it with her, a rare thing. That ranch, Estancia San Alonso, became the first Tompkins foothold in Iberá and, eventually, because of its remoteness, a logical site to begin the most dramatic act of rewilding: the reintroduction of jaguars.

Not far from the San Alonso ranch house stands a cluster of well-engineered enclosures: stout rebar fencing and steel poles, 16 feet (five meters) tall, T-shaped at the top to prevent animals from climbing out, electrified wire around the inner perimeters. Jaguars can be restless, especially when caged, and athletic.

Each enclosure also contains a tree platform, low brush, or some other natural furniture to provide cover. Eight jaguars were in residence when I visited, including several adult breeders borrowed from zoos and a pair of year-old cubs, born there and being raised for release. The cubs inhabited a larger pen at the back, with plenty to eat but no human contact—even glimpses of their keepers minimized—so that when liberated, they would fear people, not associate them with food, and possess other good, wild survival habits.

I watched as a live capybara—a native rodent, huge and meaty—was introduced to one pen; but the adult female inside either wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t hungry. She would find it in due time. A big male jaguar known as Nahuel paced back and forth along a fence line, muscles rippling under his smooth, patterned fur.

These cats are ferocious as well as beautiful, of course, and will kill livestock in any area where cows and sheep have supplanted their natural prey. The San Alonso island is now cow- and sheep free, its grass supporting many marsh deer and an almost comical abundance of capybaras (thanks in part to the long absence of their jaguar predators), some of them topping 150 pounds. That’s why San Alonso is the right place to start. The first releases may happen soon. Reestablishing jaguars throughout a wider area of Iberá will be more complicated, requiring both social acceptance and available wild prey.

Tompkins Conservation is addressing that with a campaign of education and events, intended to nurture jaguar appreciation as part of the proud legacy of Corrientes Province. At a first-birthday party for the two jaguar cubs, in the town of Concepción, I watched more than a hundred people, adults and kids, celebrating in a courtyard amid brightly painted animal murals, guitar and accordion music, small children twirling colored streamers, free cookies in the shape of a jaguar paw, and a puppet show. Kids took turns posing for pictures in front of a huge jaguar poster, each kid delivering a jaguaresque roar. “Corrientes Ruge,” read the poster legend—Corrientes Roars.

The rewilding effort also involves red-and-green macaw, pampas deer (a threatened species), collared peccary, giant otter, and giant anteater. Some of the preparatory work with those animals occurs at a quarantine compound, down a narrow side road and behind two layers of fencing, near the town of Corrientes, the provincial capital.

A local woman named Griselda “Guichi” Fernández, who formerly worked as a cook and cleaner and joined Tompkins more than a dozen years ago, is now the expert foster mother to the little orphaned anteaters raised here, each of which has its own pen. Fernández offered a bottle to one, known as Quisco, which clung to her lovingly as his very long snout found the nipple and his noodlelike tongue came out to lap the milk. After the feeding, he luxuriated in the attention as Fernández tickled his tummy; but that easy intimacy couldn’t last.

“They are such instinctive animals, they can’t be raised as pets,” she said. “After they’re a year old, they have big claws and they’re dangerous.”

Such orphans often are left behind when the mother is killed in an altercation with a hunter and dogs, during which a dog sometimes dies too. An adult giant anteater is a magnificent, improbable creature with brindle fur down its back, white chaps, a racing stripe of black, a huge furry tail that can serve as a blanket when it sleeps, a gracefully curved snout that works like a vacuum attachment, a tongue half the length of its body, and those claws. Eight adults resided in larger pens not far from Quisco’s, and when Fernández arrived with their dinner—a slurry of cat food and water, since their caretakers can gather only so many ants in a day—two came promptly to lap it up. Once released to the wild, they would revert by instinct to a diet of ants and termites.

The struggle to rewild Tompkins properties at Iberá, to combine them with government lands (both national and provincial) into a great public park, and to nurture tourism-based economic development in communities around the wetlands’ perimeter, has been long and fraught. Sofía Heinonen, now executive director of Tompkins Conservation in Argentina, who started managing the Iberá project in 2005, told me that people first spoke of Doug Tompkins as “the gringo who wanted to steal the water.” It became an opposition slogan: “Los gringos vienen por el agua. The gringos are coming for the water.” Argentines found difficulty—as had Chileans, during the Huinay time—in believing that two rich Americans would buy land in order to give it away. Some officials of Corrientes Province also were suspicious of the big-park vision, as were major local landowners, embracing the older economic model of cattle, forestry, and rice.

Support from Corrientes officials was critical because, apart from Tompkins properties and land held by the national government, much of Iberá belonged to the province. “We knocked the door, we knocked the door,” Heinonen told me. Corrientes officials wouldn’t open it. But mayors of the small towns surrounding the wetlands, gateways to the ecosystem, were showing more interest in the potential tourism revenue from a big park. And the national government in Buenos Aires, especially the Ministry of Tourism, also saw Iberá as a promising new destination. By 2013, at least one politician in Corrientes, Senator Sergio Flinta, realized that the province was on the wrong side of this fight and began pushing park-creation bills in the provincial senate. But it was still a deadlock. Then an event broke the impasse: Doug Tompkins died.

Immediately, amid her grief, Kris Tompkins took action. She told Heinonen to call Flinta and close the deal on compromise terms—involving 415,000 acres of Tompkins land, plus Corrientes provincial land, plus Argentine national land, all linked (but no sovereignty subsumed) to form a single great park. Within two weeks Tompkins, Heinonen, and Flinta were in the office of Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s new president, and the deal was made. Tompkins could have worn widow’s black to that presidential meeting, playing on sympathy, but she turned up in a white sweater and managed a smile, expressing the implicit message: Enough political quibbling, life is short. Let’s get it done.

Five years on, former critics have come to see both the heritage value of rewilding and the economic benefits of tourism. “There were people who didn’t like Doug because he was a Yankee,” Flinta told me. “And now they say thank you.”

Back in Patagonia National Park in Chile, I ride up the Chacabuco Valley one day with a bird guide to view Chilean flamingos and grebes and coots and other waterfowl from an overlook above Lago Cisnes, Swan Lake, a reed-rimmed widening of the Chacabuco River. The namesakes are there too: black-necked swans, so elegantly pied, and little coscoroba swans, white-faced, with black wing tips. At the lake’s west end, álamo trees (known elsewhere as Lombardy poplars), shade a table and a small sign: ÁREA DE PICNIC PICAFLOR Y ÁGUILA. Lolo and Birdie first camped at this spot in 1993, on their way to explore Argentina, and returned to it nearly every year until his death. Today a family of Chileans from a nearby town, with their Santiago visitor, are sharing lunch at the picnic site. I speak with the wife, a lawyer named Andrea Gómez Jaramillo. Yes, she says, we have come here before, we enjoy the wildlife, the guanacos are fun. The museum down at park headquarters is spectacular. Once, a year ago, we even saw a puma—including Renata, my daughter here, yes, she saw it too. An experience to remember.

That evening, while we eat a pasta dinner Tompkins has cooked, she mentions that she will fly off early next morning in the Husky, with her pilot, to look at an interesting place on the Chilean slopes of Cerro San Lorenzo, just south along the high Andean border, that might merit buying.

“When does it end, Kris?” I ask.

“It doesn’t,” she says. “Until I kick the bucket.”

The nonprofit National Geographic Society helped fund this article.
David Quammen’s most recent book is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Chilean photographer Tomás Munita focuses on social and environmental issues.

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