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Kris Tompkins, 65

The ultra-conservationist talks buying—and preserving—Patagonia and her husband Doug’s enviro-entrepreneurial legacy.


Interview by Tim Neville

For a generation, Kris Tompkins worked for Yvon Chouinard, putting in the hours it took as a CEO to grow the outdoor clothing company Patagonia fourfold to more than $120 million in annual sales. It’d been hard work, good work, but was this her calling? In 1993, at age 43, Tompkins quit and moved to a remote farmhouse in Chile.

For the next 23 years, Kris and her husband Doug Tompkins, the cofounder of The North Face and Esprit, enjoyed the most meaningful enterprise of their lives—purchasing vast swaths of land in Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, restoring it to a near-native condition, and then handing it back to the public as nature preserves and national parks. All told, Tompkins Conservation has helped protect some 2.1 million acres. The effort places the duo among the planet’s most accomplished conservationists.

As has been widely reported, Doug Tompkins died in a sea kayaking accident in Chile in December 2015. His death has only inspired Kris to expand their work. In January 2016, the Chilean president and interior minister approved the Tompkin team’s proposal for five more national parks, including the 200,000-acre Patagonia Park, while expanding three existing parks. Eventually, a 1,700-mile-long scenic route would link 17 parks from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn.

  • Kris and Doug Tompkins take a break among the Lenga bushes, at the base of Cerro San Lorenzo and adjacent to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, in Argentine Patagonia. Photograph: Beth Wald

I worked for Yvon for 25 years, so Patagonia, the place, was in my bones. When I finally visited the region I thought: extraordinary. I loved the grasslands, the open spaces.

My original environmental ethics come from Yvon and Malinda Chouinard. I grew up understanding my role in nature, and the way they set out to use their company as a force for environmental activism also influenced me.

People call us hippies. That’s an insult. We are so far from being hippies.

I don’t talk about the accident. When you lose something like Doug, it’s an amputation. I don’t talk about it in public. I’m going through what will be the toughest road in my life, so why would I want to relive that with you?

People who found Doug incredibly opinionated and stubborn in his philosophies are somehow the people who miss him the most. Doug was an entrepreneurial visionary.

The point of our work has been the love of wild nature.

Do you really need me to tell you why we need wilderness? We are of wilderness. The question should be why wouldn’t we protect it?

As you get older and become more aware, hopefully you won’t get stuck in a rut and let that become who you end up being. If you’re paying attention, you’ll evolve.

It’s more meaningful than ever that you finish what you started, and be reminded in the most painful of ways that you don’t have much time on this earth.

You need to live your dreams. If not, it is the ruination of the soul.

I won’t die with regrets. I won’t wish for things we didn’t do.

From our Early Summer 2016 issue.

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