Pathfinder 1: The Vigilante
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Kris Tompkins has combined sharp business acumen, out-of-the-box thinking, and a rebel spirit to conserve over 57,000 square kilometers in Patagonia and Chile over the past quarter century.
Like many millionaires, Kris Tompkins has spent the past 27 years buying land. Unlike most millionaires, however, she has given away almost every acre she has bought.
Tompkins Conservation is best known for purchasing over 4,000 square kilometers of Chilean land, only to rewild it and gift it to the Chilean government for conservation in 2018. At the time, that kind of private gift was unheard of.
Fortunately, Kris was no stranger to rebel environmentalism when she joined Tompkins Conservation in 1993; she got her start at Patagonia where she served as CEO for 20 years, helping turn the then scrappy startup into an icon for both outdoor style and environmental advocacy.
Patagonia’s journey started small. In 1985, the brand donated one percent of its net sales to grassroots environmental groups, a move Kris calls one of the most important sustainability steps Patagonia took during her term as CEO.
“Helping people protect their own backyards was a start to Patagonia making a difference on a larger scale,” she explains.
The success of that program, and the passionate environmentalism of Yvon and Melinda Chouinard, inspired Kris.
“I began to understand what was going on in a much broader landscape called the planet, and that was through working for the Chouinards all those years,” she says.
Companions in conservation
Around the time she retired from Patagonia in 1993, Kris had begun making trips with her husband Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face, to southern Chile. They fell in love with the area’s raw, untouched landscapes. She and Doug moved there, and immediately set to work buying land to protect it from ranching and logging. To date, Tompkins Conservation has helped conserve over 57,000 square kilometers – an area about the size of Croatia.
Kris credits her nonprofit’s success to hard work and collaboration.
“It’s vital to work with local communities and governments to make sure that they are on board as stakeholders,” she explains.
In Chile, locals were initially suspicious of the expats’ motives. So, the Tompkinses hired local biologists and ranchers as land managers, and started working to improve infrastructure in nearby villages. Eventually, locals warmed to the idea, and Tompkins Conservation struck a deal with the Chilean government to match its land donations at a ratio of 9 to 1.
Think big, act now
In 2015, Doug passed away while kayaking with friends. Kris continued working with their projects. Today, she says the achievements of Tompkins Conservation was made possible by Doug’s vision.
“He was a person of big ideas which require a certain leap of faith to implement. He always said, ‘Commit, and then figure it out.’”
It’s that daring and willingness to adopt creative solutions—like buying land outright—that has allowed the organization to accomplish so much, even with the climate clock ticking, Kris says:
“If you care at all about the future, act. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you have to wake up in the morning and do something for the causes you believe in.”
Photo: Tompkins Conservation