More than a year after the death of her husband, adventurer and conservationist Doug Tompkins, the former Patagonia CEO is continuing their effort, dedicating her life to conservation work in Chile and Argentina
A Little over two decades ago, Kristine McDivitt and Doug Tompkins made a vow. Doug was the founder of The North Face and Kris headed up Patagonia. Respectively, they’d made substantial fortunes from outdoor clothing, and together they decided on a way to give a good deal of that back.
Their plan was wildly ambitious, their brand of conservation unprecedented in the countries on which they had set their sights. Yet huge swathes of protected land in Argentina and Chile now stand as testament to that mutual promise.
Kris, now 66, smiles as she recounts the story. It is not the way she expected her life to pan out. The adventurous daughter of an oil tycoon, she’d developed an early friendship with the renowned rock climber Yvon Chouinard. After college, she began to work at his outdoor apparel company, Patagonia, and ultimately became CEO, a journey of 20 years, during which she helped develop the brand’s reputation as an environmentally responsible “anti-corporation.”
In her early 40s and on the lookout for a new challenge, she met Doug Tompkins, a lifelong friend of Chouinard’s she’d first encountered in her ski-racing days. Doug had also spent many years in commerce, co-founding the fashion brand Esprit and outdoor company The North Face with his former wife, Susie Tompkins Buell. But he had left that world behind to pursue interests in deep ecology and conservation—or, as he put it, “paying my rent for living on the planet.”
When Kris met him, Doug had just purchased a rundown farm on the Reñihué fjord in southern Chile, and was buying up plots of land to protect it from developers. While his early interest in Chile had centered on hiking, kayaking and other gung-ho activities, by the ’90s his focus had expanded to preserving one of the Earth’s last remaining wildernesses from multiple ecological threats. Kris swiftly retired from Patagonia and left the States to join Doug in southern Chile.
By 1993, the couple had married and embarked on an extraordinary new chapter together. Flitting between homes in the U.S., Argentina and Chile, they founded various trusts through which they bought and restored millions of acres of forest, fjord, wetland, mountain and coastline before returning them to the public. There was no blueprint for their model of philanthropy in South America. “The process at the beginning was quite intuitive and organic,” Kris says, “propelled by the desire Doug and I felt to be together and to take this important habitat and protect it in perpetuity.”
Early suspicions about the real motives of these rich, attractive gringos—the couple was variously accused of being CIA spies, cultists and neo-colonialists—were quelled by the opening of Argentina’s Pumalín Park, which was expanded from the original land acquired by Doug in the ’90s to encompass 756,000 acres, mainly bought from absentee landlords.
In 2000, inspired by the success of the National Parks network in the U.S., Kris founded the Patagonia Land Trust (now Conservacion Patagonica) to support the creation of national parks, donating 165,000 acres for Argentina’s Monte León, Patagonia’s second coastal national park. By 2015, Tompkins Conservation and its partners had created five national parks, expanded a sixth and were in the process of creating seven more, including the joint Iberá National Park and Iberá Provincial Park, which will be the largest protected natural area in Argentina. Meanwhile, the couple lived ‘like gypsies,’ rarely spending more than a month in the same country. The only constant was their commitment to their work and their all-encompassing relationship.
But then, in December, 2015, Doug had an accident on a kayaking trip in Chile, which he had taken with Chouinard and other old friends. Even at the age of 72, the five-day, 18-mile paddle on General Carrera Lake should have been a breeze for the committed adventurer, who had said beforehand that the trip was “for old times’ sake, to keep our hand in there.” On the third day, however, the wind picked up and Doug’s two-man canoe capsized, plunging him into icy waters far from the shore. He was eventually rescued by helicopter and rushed to a hospital but died of hypothermia.
The loss of her husband was “an amputation,” the aftermath “a train wreck,” Kris says. “Doug and I had a remarkable marriage. We worked together, travelled together; we did everything together. The accident was a heavy-duty reminder that great love comes at great cost.”
But there was never any question that Kris might not continue the work they had started. If anything, she says, Doug’s death only made her “more fierce.” She also knew, though, that carrying on wasn’t going to be easy. “I had some extraordinary days working well, but privately I was in extremely deep grief. But to walk away would have been unthinkable. I recognize every day the extraordinary people with whom we’ve worked for so many years—because it was never a singular story of Doug and Kris. In some ways, it’s been my salvation to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do everything we started. We’ll keep going.’”
This past September, Kris accepted the prestigious Biodiversity Conservation Award of Latin America, on behalf of the Conservation Land Trust. That same month, she met with Argentine President Mauricio Macri to arrange the donation of the 375,000 acres of land that will become Iberá National Park. Simultaneous negotiations with the government of Chile have resulted in the donation of a combined 2.2 million acres to create and expand parks in Patagonia and the southern cone. While conflicts between conservationists and developers endure, governments have come to understand that protecting their natural landscape can have commercial value as well as environmental. “Both countries now see national parks as a source of tourism and, for both, that is an area of huge growth,” Kris says. Immense strides have also been made in the organization’s efforts to reintroduce species to their native lands.
Rewilding, as it is known, has become as central to the Tompkins foundations as land conservation. The past decade has seen the reintroductions of giant anteaters, green-shouldered macaws and tapirs, and the team is currently working on bringing jaguars back to the Corrientes province, site of the Iberá Park. “The jaguar is a top predator, so we expected a lot of pushback, but the opposite has been true,” Kris says. “The Corrientes citizens have welcomed us bringing back a species that is emblematic of the area and of the people.”
By the time the first phase of work is complete, Tompkins’ trusts and foundations hope to have recovered the populations of approximately a dozen threatened or near-threatened species and to have preserved 4 million hectares—the world’s largest expansion of national parks prompted by donation of private land for biodiversity conservation. The scale of the endeavor is astounding but secondary, Kris insists, to the belief that drives it.
“Edward Albee famously said that ‘sentiment without action is the ruination of the soul,’ and that’s really true,” she says. “The scale of what you do is secondary to your willingness and commitment to do something, consistently, for the things you love and that you feel need to be protected.”
As for Kris, her aim is to complete the work she started with Doug, namely “getting our conservation lands into national parks, increasing the populations of their endemic endangered or threatened species, maintaining our commitment to local communities.” She pauses and adds, “When will I feel I’ve done enough? When I die. It’s only then I’ll be able to say I did everything I could.”