Saturday, November 12, 2011

Conservation Conversation: Kris Tompkins's Patagonia, Part 1

Earlier this year, I stayed at the new lodge at Valle Chacabuco, the ambitious Chilean conservation project of environmental philanthropists Doug Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. In the course of my brief stay, I had the opportunity for an extended conversation with Kris (pictured above, center, at the lodge) over the proposed Parque Nacional Patagonia, including several topics related to the park and their other projects.

Because the conversation was so lengthy, I’m breaking it up into two parts; part two will appear in the near future. It covers their projects in both Chile and Argentina, under the auspices of the non-profit NGO Conservación Patagónica (CP).

WBB: I’ve met Doug before, and I’ve met you extremely briefly. Doug is in the press a lot more than you are.

KMT: A lot more.

WBB: I don’t know much about you personally – can you give me a nutshell biography?

KMT: I was born in California…fourth generation ranching family. I went to college, graduated and started working with Yvon Chouinard, who had climbing equipment for a couple years and then in 1973 we started Patagonia company. I started running that business a couple years later and retired in 1993 to move to southern Chile with Doug to start working in conservation.

WBB: Do you spend all your time here in South America? I understand you spend the summer in Pumalín and the winter in Iberá (Argentina).

KMT: Yes. I mean, we’re residents of the United States, we go between Chile, the United States and Argentina, but the great majority of our time is here. Our time is spent six months in Chile and six months in Argentina, being based out of those two places – we move around a lot.

WBB: With regard to Valle Chacabuco (pictured above), when did you acquire the place? Did you do so with the idea of creating a park?

KMT: In 2004. When we started coming through here in 1993, we looked at it as the kind of place you would like to turn into a park. We talked to the owner about it and he wasn’t necessarily interested, so we just went on and did our things and then, several years later, we heard that it might be up for sale, and that’s how it got started.

WBB: These were the Belgians? How long did it take to arrange the purchase? Were there any other bidders?

KMT: Yes, it was Francisco De Smets. To answer the first part of your question, it took about a year and four months from the time he said he was considering selling to the time that we actually took over. A lot of that was spent negotiating the price that we were prepared to pay versus what he felt was acceptable. Once a deal was struck, it got out into the press that and there was a group, non-government related, that was opposed to the deal. They put up a competing bid and that took about four months of very public back-and-forth about who would end up with Valle Chacabuco. Finally, at the very last hour, we were able to make a bid and close in a way that the owner thought was appropriate. It was brutal.

WBB: Who was the competitor? Was he planning to continue it as a wool estancia?

KMT: Ricardo Ariztía. Mr Chicken, though he has many other holdings besides chickens. He and about five other guys, for anything but conservation.

WBB: What’s the area of the estancia?

KMT: We originally bought about 173,000 acres. Since then, we’ve added three of four nearby inholdings to the park. We have one neighbor who’s not interested in selling. He’s surrounded by us and a touch of Reserva Nacional Jeinimeni. He has sheep and cattle.

WBB: How does this differ from Pumalín in setting it up, since this is not going to be a private nature reserve? What's the difference between the two projects? Will Conaf take over?

KMT: Well, of course, the landscape is different. We hope Pumalín will become a national park too. Both will fall under the new Ministry of the Environment, and will be going to whatever new national park system that they are going to create.

WBB: Is there a timeline?

KMT: The timeline was to have Valle Chacabuco donated by 2017. That was always the timeline, but these things are very opportunistic, often politically driven, so it could be sooner. It just depends on who the president is and all the infrastructure is set, and we feel the park is ready to go toward a donation. Then you have to see what the timing is. Our idea is not to hold onto it, but to make it into a national park.

WBB: By the infrastructure, you mean finishing the buildings, campgrounds…?

KMT: Campgrounds, trails, everything you’d find in a world-class national park.

WBB: Where are the campgrounds going to be, mostly along the highway?

KMT: The principal ones, certainly, the biggest of them all will be at the foot of this valley, and another at Casa Piedra as you go up toward the [Argentine] border. We will have a few campsites up in Lago Chico and other places, such as Lago Cochrane. They won’t be big fancy campgrounds, but there’ll be designated places where people can camp.

WBB: Does this property extend south to Lago Cochrane?

KMT: We go all the way to the lake, and then all the way to the border along the lake. The national reserve is contiguous.

WBB: How open to visitors is the park at the moment? Are there enough campgrounds functioning at the moment?

KMT: That’s the thing, that’s why we need to get two campgrounds going immediately because we’ve got visitors and, other than the lodge (pictured above), we have a little campground back here where stragglers and volunteers camp out, but that’s not a public campground per se. People can use it, but it’s not what you want visitors to be using. So people are welcome, but usually for the day, or they’re stuck in the working campground.

WBB: Will the facilities resemble those at Pumalín, in terms of what they offer in the campgrounds and such?

KMT: Yes, you know, a group area for cooking, some individual campsites, with little quinchos, and then a lot of places where people put up their tents and use the public bathrooms and showers.

WBB: Cold showers?

KMT: Yes.

WBB: Before we get onto that, I want to bring up the issue you mentioned of presidential power, whoever happens to be in power at the time. How has the current president responded to initiatives like this?

KMT: As Chilean presidents go, I think Sebastián [Piñera] has got a real chance to be remembered as a president who is very concerned about conservation. He has his own conservation project.

WBB: I have been to Tantauco, at least on the edges of it.

KMT: He’s also declared some areas as new protected areas. Is it a lot, well, he’s only been in office a year, but he certainly understands the necessity to have active protected areas, and that’s pretty rare.

WBB: Can he bring along the rest of his constituents, or his party, on the issue? If not, can he bring along enough of them?

KMT: I have no idea, but I doubt it. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t either. Chile has changed a lot since we started 20 years ago. We had a guest here the other night, a friend of ours, from the business community of Chile, and he has a significant place here on the other side of Lago Cochrane, and he really sees that as a private conservation initiative. Andrónico Luksic has a place down in Villa O’Higgins that they consider to be a conservation project. Little by little, things shift, just as they did in the United States.

WBB: Even now there remains a lot of opposition to expanding protection of public lands in the United States. Just in terms of infrastructure, I was surprised when I got in here yesterday to see the size of the restaurant. Are you anticipating tour buses coming through?

KMT: Yes. In another 25 years, you have to imagine Yellowstone when it was first designated a protected area, not a national park yet, there was almost no way to get up there until they put the train in. You have to imagine this park and other parks like it 25 or 50 years from now when there will be a lot of people coming, up from El Calafate and over, when Ruta 40 is paved.

WBB: That’s progressing faster than the Carretera Austral.

KMT: I mean, it’s happening fast over there and here.

WBB: Would you expect an expansion of something like the lodge here?

KMT: That’s not in the master plan, I can tell you that for sure. But after a certain point, we won’t be the ones to decide that.

WBB: You are encouraging people who have an interest in conservation, who have the means, to become donors.

KMT: We have an active fund-raising program for this project. Little Conservación Patagonia cannot possibly create this 650,000-acre park without partners. Impossible. It’s too big. CP started in the year 2000, the first project we did was the Monte León National Park. Have you been there?

WBB: I have been to Monte León (pictured above) several times. Looking at it from a distance, it seems it was simpler to accomplish that project on the Argentine side, or at least quicker, than it was to do this in Chile, at Pumalín. Would that fair to say?

KMT: They’re so different. Pumalín (pictured above) is almost 800,000 acres, and Monte León was a one-purchase, 155,000-acre sheep estancia that was going broke. It’s so difficult to compare the two. Monte León was fast because right after we made the donation, [the late former Argentine president] Néstor Kirchner came into power and he’s from Río Gallegos, and in order to make it a real national park you have to cede jurisdiction from [Santa Cruz] province to the federal government, and the provinces hate the federal government. But Kirchner came into power just months before the Río Gallegos legislature had to vote on that and he called up and effectively said, “I don’t want to look like a schmoe, everybody get in line and vote for this thing.”

WBB: So it was good timing.

KMT: So much in life is good timing. Monte León would have languished as a national park, but without real jurisdiction if Kirchner hadn’t happened to come into power then. He’d been governor forever of Santa Cruz and was able to strong-arm them – ceding jurisdiction requires a 100 percent legislative vote. Imagine trying to get that – that’s why it was so fast. We did it in 18 months. Little CP can manage that kind of project, which we did and we did it fast, but the scale and complexity of this project is different, and so this is the only project we have where we have partners and we absolutely couldn’t do it without them.

WBB: This is the first one where you’re using partners? How many partners are there? All foreign partners, or Chilean partners as well?

KMT: It’s the only one. There are many partners. Ever since we brought the property, I couldn’t have waltzed in here and spent enough money to have bought the initial property, US$10 million. We could do a lot of that, but we couldn’t do all of it.

The partners are mostly foreign, some European, one Chinese man who’s a business partner and the rest from the States.

WBB: Do you still run into objections because the participation is so overwhelmingly foreign?

KMT: We don’t get any objections to it, because this project is 100 percent run by Chileans. This project pays Chilean taxes, people have never cared nor would they analyze where all the funding has come from, they know that CP is a US-based public charity. Where the funding comes from, we don’t hide it, it’s no secret, but what people care about is who’s working here, who helps make the decisions about what’s going to happen, just as they wondered about with Pumalín and Corcovado, will we make national parks out of it? Well, now we have a track record for doing so, so I don’t think people worry about that. Certainly the government’s not worried about it.

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Eric the Green said...

Terrific insight. I hope to make it down to lend a hand in the effort. It is exciting to see that you all have built that trust and reputation that should grease the wheels for further projects. I will also eagerly await part 2.


TimB said...

Looking forward to Part 11....

Wayne Bernhardson said...

I'm pleased you both found it useful. Part II will be up in a week or so, perhaps earlier.

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