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Kristine McDivitt Tompkins is the cofounder and president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas. The former CEO of Patagonia, Inc, she has spent the last twenty-five years protecting and restoring Chile and Argentina’s wild beauty and biodiversity through creating national parks, rewilding, inspiring activism, and fostering community vitality through conservation. A key figure behind the establishment of eleven national parks in Argentina and Chile, she has helped to protect approximately 14.5 million acres through Tompkins Conservation and its partners. She also serves as Chair of National Geographic Society’s Last Wild Places campaign. Along with her husband Douglas Tompkins, who passed away in 2015, she is considered one of the most successful national park philanthropists in history.
Kristine Tompkins will speak on conservation at the 2019 Fall Festival, happening October 1–3 in Boston’s Seaport. Learn more and register here.
Lindsay Gearheart: How does your background as an entrepreneur inform your approach to conservation?
Kristine Tompkins: On the scale, I’m somewhere between the entrepreneur and the bean counter. It was my husband Doug who worked as if nothing was impossible. I think it helped a lot that we both came from the business world—he founded The North Face and Esprit and I had been the CEO of Patagonia. It has utterly informed our work, in the way that we talk to people and form teams. Coming from the world of business, we were used to planning and execution with the rigor of staying focused. Beyond that, I can’t underestimate my desire to be very results-driven. When Tompkins Conservation donated a million acres to Chile to create national parks, the government chipped in with nine million acres. I’d say that’s an excellent return on our investment.
LG: What initially attracted you to South America?
KT: The Patagonia region was in our bloodstream from Yvon [Chouinard]. I finally went in 1990 and it was love at first sight. Then Doug came into my life and he had that same love for it. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you just recognize yourself in a place when you can’t in another. Something in me loves harsh beauty and big wilderness–Patagonia has that in spades. Later we discovered the Ibera Wetlands in Northeast Argentina, another place I’ve come to love dearly.
LG: Can you explain the importance of large-scale wilderness recovery and how Tompkins Conservation is undertaking this effort?
KT: They say that humans have already modified almost half the Earth’s surface. Meanwhile, our population continues to grow, and we continue to use the planet’s resources as if they were infinite. But they’re not. As a result, wild places are becoming few and far between, especially in some parts of the world.
It’s a simple idea, but very important. We need wilderness with intact ecosystems, not only for ourselves but for all life on the planet. Of course, nature nurtures us in many ways. But even the most cynical can understand that clean water and air are fundamental.
Initially, we started to create national parks in order to preserve these extraordinary wild places. Along the way, we realized that just the act of creating parks wasn’t enough. We see these parks as whole and complete only when every member of an ecosystem is restored to its rightful place. We started rewilding programs to bring back species which have become endangered or locally extinct. In Ibera that means bringing back jaguars and giant river otters, in addition to other key species. The planet is facing the greatest extinction crisis the planet has ever seen. We think it’s important to do something. In addition, we have gotten involved in creating protected marine areas, as the ocean is also suffering the dire consequences of abuse.
Some people question the value of national parks, compared with all the other needs in the world. But I think in these terms: if you take this away, what would be lost? You can’t look at anything on the planet in terms of itself, you have to see the bigger picture.
LG: What do you believe is the connection between environmental activism and conservation efforts?
KT: I don’t see how you can be one and not the other. You are acting when you preserve wild places, you are investing and taking a stand. I don’t distinguish between marching in the street and buying land to protect it or going to bat to preserve large marine areas.
LG: What project are you most proud of in your career?
KT: I have been very lucky in both my careers, first at Patagonia, Inc., which formed me, and where they continue to do extraordinary things, and now as a conservationist. Although it’s not just about what I’ve done. To create parks and work to restore ecosystems, it means taking part in enormous collaborations that require so many—from volunteers, to donors, our staff and governments. Success depends upon all these people coming together so each can play their essential part.
LG: How can the HubWeek community support Tompkins Conservation and its mission going forward?
KT: All of us don’t have to look further than our own feet. You’re the one who can move the needle. This is going to sound harsh, but maybe it should. These are decisive times we’re living in. Anyone who is not an activist today gets what they deserve.
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