In 2000, Kris Tompkins founded Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit incorporated in California, to protect Patagonia's wildlands and ecosystems. Since then, Conservacion Patagonica has focused on building new national parks in Chile and Argentina's southernmost region, Patagonia.
As Kris tells it, "We conserve the places we love and care about. Patagonia has occupied a central place in all of my adult life. Over forty years ago, when I was eighteen, my mentor, friend, and future boss, Yvon Chouinard, left our California beach town for six months, heading far south to Patagonia. During that trip, Yvon climbed Mount Fitz Roy, Patagonia's tallest and most iconic peak, with my future husband, Doug Tompkins.
"Soon after that trip, I started working for Yvon, making clothes at a company he decided to name 'Patagonia' as an homage to his life-changing journey south. For the next 20 years I worked as part of the team building the company, eventually becoming its CEO. During those years, I had the opportunity to visit the region our company was named after. The wildness, vast open spaces, and animals of this region lodged themselves in my heart. When I retired from the company in 1993, I moved to Chile with Doug to work full-time on conserving this region, another step in of a long love affair with a place, with a name—Patagonia."
During Kris's first years in Chile, she collaborated with Doug and the Conservation Land Trust, the conservation foundation Doug created, to build Pumalin Park, a 715,000-acre nature sanctuary in the temperate rainforest of southern Chile, and Corcovado National Park, a 726,000-acre coastal protected area just south of Pumalin.
Every year, Kris and Doug traveled further south to explore Patagonia by foot, horseback, and boat. As she experienced firsthand the ecological damages inflicted on Patagonia by overgrazing and shortsighted development, Kris grew increasingly interested in launching a program to protect and restore the landscapes and ecosystems she loved. In 2000, Conservacion Patagonica, a US-based nonprofit, was born. Its mission: build new national parks in compelling, ecologically critical areas of Patagonia.
Along with a team of dedicated conservationists from Chile and Argentina, Conservacion Patagonica dug into its first project: Monte Leon National Park. By 2002, the people of Argentina had a new 165,000-acre coastal wilderness area to enjoy and protect in perpetuity. Read more about the creation of Monte Leon National Park here.
With this major success under its belt, Conservacion Patagonica decided to tackle an even more ambitious project: the creation of Patagonia National Park in Chile's Aysen region. The heart of the park is the Chacabuco Valley, a biologically critical east-west valley that forms a pass over the Andes and a transition zone between the Patagonian steppe grasslands of Argentine Patagonia and the southern beech forests farther west. Two existing Chilean national reserves lie on either side of the valley. For over thirty years, the Chilean parks service had sought to conserve the valley and unite the reserves and create one large protected area. However, it lacked the funds to realize the dream. The Estancia Valle Chacabuco, one of the largest ranches in Chile, was struggling economically due to a collapsing market for wool and meat, but buying the land remained prohibitively expensive.
Kris had heard about the conservation potential of the Chacabuco Valley, but not until she visited the area did she see the urgent need to rewild and protect this critical area. As she remembers, "When I drove through the Chacabuco Valley for the first time, I saw the extra-high ‘guanaco fences’ designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley. The grasses looked patchy and dead. Nothing left for wildlife. Previously one of the most biologically rich areas of Patagonia, the Chacabuco Valley was a sea of sheep and cattle. Not a guanaco to be found among them."
The vision for Patagonia National Park emerged soon after this visit. The future park would restore damaged grasslands, protect the entire 650,000-acre area, develop durable and inspiring public access infrastructure, and spark a local economy based on conservation, not unsustainable sheep ranching. Conservacion Patagonica began collaborating with the Chilean government, building a talented on-the-ground team and launching numerous initiatives to establish an enduring park.
Now, thanks to our workers, volunteers, and generous donors, Conservacion Patagonica has managed the unthinkable: crossing the halfway mark toward the creation of Patagonia National Park. In 2004, we purchased the 174,500-acre Estancia Valle Chacabuco and set about improving the odds for wildlife through selling off livestock, taking down fences, restoring grasslands and forests, and developing species-specific restoration programs. We are currently open as a park-in-progress, with campgrounds, trails, a visitor center, employee housing and a restaurant complete or in progress.