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Tompkins Conservation

By Jessica Cargill Thompson
Kris Tompkins, of Tompkins Conservation, has done what few would dream of, in creating massive new national parks in Chile. How did she do it?

In 15 March 2017 this year, the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, travelled to a remote mountainside in Pumalín Park nature reserve, Chile, to sign a historic pledge expanding the country’s national parkland by 11 million acres, a momentous show of support for conservation of and public access to some of the most stunning natural landscapes on the planet. Put into context, this is three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. It will eventually lead to the creation of five new national parks across Chile and Argentina, and a ‘route of parks’ running 1,500 miles down through Patagonia, from Puerto Montt (in the lake district of Southern Chile) to Cape Horn. This is expected to generate US$270 million through ecotourism and employ up to 43,000 people. 

The driving force behind this event, and a cosignatory of the pledge, was conservationist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the dynamic director of international conservation group Tompkins Conservation: custodians of more than 3.4 million acres of wetlands, grasslands, forest, agricultural land, mountains and coast across Chile, Argentina and the USA. Indeed, part of the pledge saw Tompkins Conservation donating 1.3 million acres of its own conservation lands to the national parks network, and becoming one of the key partners in a new Friends of National Parks foundation. 

For Kris, this has been a 25 year labour of love; alongside her late husband Doug Tompkins, she has worked tirelessly and passionately to help reverse the impact of human activity in Argentina and Chile (forestry, mining, hydro dams, and industrial aquaculture). Both traded in top-level retail careers (Doug was the founder of The North Face and Esprit; Kris is the former CEO of sustainable outdoor clothing brand Patagonia) to build up a portfolio of national parks, promoting carefully managed biodiversity. In 1990, Doug began accumulating land that would grow to become 800,000 acre Pumalín Park: in 1997 purchasing a farm in the Iberá wetlands, northeastern Argentina, that would grow into a a second. And in 2000, Kris founded the Patagonia Land Trust (now Conservacion Patagonica), leading to the creation of Monté Leon National Park. The couple’s conservation work has meant delicately balancing land restoration and the reintroduction of species, with the area’s use by the local population and its appreciation by visitors (more than 2.7 million in 2015). Work has included improvements to roadsides, accepting the need for roads but attempting to minimise their impact; the creation of scenic highways promoting widespread appreciation of the landscape; reintroduction of species; making agrarian landscapes aesthetically pleasing; engaging local communities. Following Doug’s untimely death after a kayaking accident in December 2015. Kris has carried on the work, campaigning around the world, meeting with the presidents of both Argentina and Chile to engage them in the need to promote national parks, and recently starting the foundation’s first projects in marine protected areas in Argentina. She’s been called ‘one of the most important wilderness protectors of our day whose work and intellect influence the global conservation field’ by The Garden Club of America (GCA) who awarded her its Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal for outstanding achievement in March 2017. 

At one of the foundation’s remote projects, we asked her to tell us more about the role of national parks globally, reversing human impact, the importance of aesthetics, and the delicate balancing act of conserving and living in the landscape. You talk in the intro to your book ‘25’ (celebrating a quarter century of Tompkins’ work) about the benefits of wilderness and the problems of humans trying to over-domesticate and over-humanise landscapes. How do you manage these wild spaces without over managing them? 
By institutionalising the protection of a place, in our case creating national parks, you provide the greatest possibility of long-term success of natural and human communities. This doesn’t guarantee it, but it has proven to be the most consistent and successful conservation strategy around the world. If you look at the impacts of tourism versus the impacts of other industries, I would have to roll the dice on tourism in terms of the net impact. I also think that tourism is a way for communities to retain their identity and cultural practices, like ranching, but also develop economic models that keep their children there. Tourism provides another economic option for them. We want people to get out and fall in love with these landscapes, because you will not protect something unless you love it. Industrial tourism, though, is rapacious in many places. It is, as you put it, a delicate balancing act.

When rewilding an area, is there a particular era that you are taking it back to, given that new species of flora and fauna, and new landscape forms, continue to evolve or be created? How do you decide what to keep and what to change?
In most cases we are not aiming to restore the landscape to a certain era, rather we are supporting the populations of those endemic species that still exist. The goal in each park is restore, monitor, and protect as many endemic species as possible. Our biggest and boldest projects now involve reintroducing animals, a form of ‘rewilding’ – for example, at our project in Iberá Park in northern Argentina, we are working on a massive project to reintroduce the jaguar, which hasn’t been seen in the province in 75 years. Before starting this project, we of course had to be sure that the landscape could again support a population of jaguars. We think it should be common practice for national parks all over the world to protect complete ecosystems with as many endemic species as possible. All we can do is try to reverse the damage done by humans, then let nature take its course. 

You have lobbied long and hard – and successfully – for the creation of new national parks. What are the benefits of land being an official national park, as opposed to, say, an independent or private conservation project?
National parks are the gold standard of conservation, providing the longest-running and most durable mechanism for permanently protecting landscapes. And there is a sort of democratic nature to them – they belong to everyone. The plan has always been to return these landscapes back to their countries of origin; we cannot manage them forever nor would we want to. Weaving national parks into national identity is an essential part of our long- term strategy. We are, however, firm believers that private-public partner-ships are key to conservation success. The Chilean Park Service (CONAF) just celebrated its 90th anniversary, and like in the US and most park services around the world, they are in dire need of more funding and resources. 

This institution of national parks is the best long-term option for wilderness protection, but private individuals have the power to fill in the gaps and elevate these protected areas into world-class park systems. What role does landscape architecture play in your work?
My husband Doug was the visionary behind the landscape architecture at all of our family farms as well as the parks. He had an exceptional eye for beauty, the grace and the curves of a landscape, alongside his commitment and love for beautiful, organic food. His eye for detail is apparent in every building and every garden – every fence and road sign. We are especially proud of Laguna Blanca (NE Argentina). The beauty of this particular farm has worked to bring attention to agro-ecological thinking and the importance and viability of ecological agriculture. The power of beauty was something Doug understood better than all of us, and it continues to be a driver in all of our projects today. 

Beautifully done architecture and landscape architecture work to inspire value in a landscape that may not have been recognised before. Architecture has the power to connect people to a place they otherwise would have overlooked. Doug’s vision for the lodges, cabañas, and hosterias at our various projects, as well as the landscaping around them, was to harmoniously blend them with their surrounding park. Because people must experience these parks in order to ensure long-term protection, landscape architecture and standard architecture has and will continue to play a role in how we interact with, and therefore protect, these wild places. So, can human intervention sometimes improve landscape? Personally, I think it is very tough to improve on original natural landscapes, I can’t think of one example of this. Minimising impact is essential. Agriculture uses nearly half of terrestrial land suitable for production and, by and large, the system is toxic, erosion is rarely managed to maintain top soil, and mono-cropping is not healthy for nature. 

How would you like to see Tompkins Conservation’s work feeding in to other international conservation projects? Are there any areas around the world that you are aware of that would benefit from being national parks? 
Right now in the US we are in the middle of the fight for our lives to protect our national parks and monuments from an administration that is hell-bent on destroying them for short-term gains. Never before have we seen such a direct threat to public lands. Parks that are national monuments or reserves have fewer protections than national parks and so are in more danger. The US government should be looking to countries like Chile and Argentina and taking note of the action they are taking to protecting their natural heritage. Just this spring China announced plans to create a new national park to protect some of the last Amur leopards and Siberian tigers, both of which are dangerously close to extinction. I recently heard the sad news that Poland is about to lose its last remaining primeval forest, Białowiez˙a National Park, due to over logging and skirting national parks regulations. It’s the last primeval forest in Europe, which in itself is incredibly devastating. Once those are gone, no amount of money or energy can bring them back. 

Your South American parks and projects makes the UK’s national parks seem so small, but do you have any advice for those managing or seeking to create national parks here?
We are at an advantage in Chile and Argentina because it is possible to purchase large tracts of largely wild landscape, which is a much more rare opportunity in Europe, but conservation is absolutely possible at a smaller scale. We had the opportunity of a lifetime to work on one of the largest grassland restoration projects in history, but you don’t have to protect 700,000-acres, you can protect 10, or five, and still make an impact. We just hope more people start taking action to protect every remaining piece of wild nature.

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