The anchor of our lives was cut, and we felt adrift in the absence of that land. For the first time, I came to understand that something valuable can be best understood not by its presence, but by its absence.
It was impossible to know then just how powerful the absence of those things we love would have an impact far into my future. For 23 years, my working life was with Yvon Chouinard. I started when he was designing and manufacturing technical rock and ice climbing equipment in a tin shed near the railroad tracks in Ventura.
And when Yvon decided to start making clothes for climbers and call this business Patagonia, I became one of the first six employees, later becoming CEO and helping build a company where creating the best products and doing good by the world was more than just a tagline.
Doug Tompkins, who would become my husband years later, was an old friend and climbing companion of Yvon's and also an entrepreneur. He cofounded The North Face and Esprit company. All three of these businesses were created by people who had grown up through the '60s, shaped by the civil rights, antiwar, feminist and peace movements.
And those values were picked up in those years and carried throughout the values of these companies. By the end of the 1980s, Doug decided to leave business altogether and commit the last third of his life to what he called “paying his rent for living on the planet.2
At nearly the same time, when I hit 40, I was ready to do something completely new with my life. The day after retiring from the Patagonia company, I flew 6,000 miles to Patagonia the place and joined Doug as he started what was the first conservation project of that third of his life.
There we were, refugees from the corporate world, holed up in a cabin on the coast in southern Chile, surrounded by primaeval rainforest where alerce trees can live for thousands of years. We were in the middle of a great wilderness that forms one of the only two gaps in the Pan-American highway, between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Cape Horn.
A radical change to our daily lives spurred on as we had begun to recognize how beauty and diversity were being destroyed pretty much everywhere. The last wild protected places on earth were still wild mostly because the relentless front lines of development simply hadn't arrived there yet.
Doug and I were in one of the most remote parts on earth, and still around the edges of Pumalín Park, our first conservation effort, industrial aquaculture was growing like a malignancy. Before too long, other threats arrived to the Patagonia region.
Gold mining, dam projects on pristine rivers and other growing conflicts. The vibration of stampeding economic growth worldwide could be heard even in the highest latitudes of the Southern Cone. I know that progress is viewed, generally, in very positive terms, as some sort of hopeful evolution.
But from where we sat, we saw the dark side of industrial growth. And when industrial worldviews are applied to natural systems that support all life, we begin to treat the Earth as a factory that produces all the things that we think we need.
As we're all painfully aware, the consequences of that worldview are destructive to human welfare, our climate systems and to wildlife. Doug called it the price of progress. That's how we saw things, and we wanted to be a part of the resistance, pushing up against all of those trends.
The idea of buying private land and then donating it to create national parks isn't really new. Anyone who has ever enjoyed the views of Teton National Park in Wyoming or camped in Acadia National Park in Maine has benefited from this big idea.
Through our family foundation, we began to acquire wildlife habitat in Chile and Argentina. Being believers in conservation biology, we were going for big, wild and connected. Areas that were pristine, in some cases, and others that would need time to heal, that needed to be rewild.
Eventually, we bought more than two million acres from willing sellers, assembling them into privately managed protected areas, while building park infrastructure as camp grounds and trails for future use by the general public.
All were welcome. Our goal was to donate all of this land in the form of new national parks. You might describe this as a kind of capitalist jujitsu move. We deployed private wealth from our business lives and deployed it to protect nature from being devoured by the hand of the global economy.
It sounded good, but in the early '90s in Chile, where wildlands philanthropy, which is what we called it, was completely unknown, we faced tremendous suspicion, and from many quarters, downright hostility.
Over time, largely by doing what we said we were doing, we began to win people over. Over the last 27 years, we've permanently protected nearly 15 million acres of temperate rainforest, Patagonian step grasslands, coastal areas, freshwater wetlands, and created 13 new national parks.
All comprised of our land donations and federal lands adjoining those territories. After Doug's death following a kayaking accident four years ago, the power of absence hit home again. But we at Tompkins Conservation leaned in to our loss and accelerated our efforts.
Among them, in 2018, creating new marine national parks covering roughly 25 million acres in the southern Atlantic Ocean. No commercial fishing or extraction of any kind. In 2019, we finalized the largest private land gift in history, when our last million acres of conservation land in Chile passed to the government.
A public-private partnership that created five new national parks and expanded three others. This ended up being an area larger than Switzerland. All of our projects are the results of partnerships. First and foremost with the governments of Chile and Argentina.
And this requires leadership who understands the value of protecting the jewels of their countries, not just for today, but long into the future. Partnerships with like-minded conservation philanthropists as well played a role in everything we've done.
Fifteen years ago, we asked ourselves, "Beyond protecting landscape, what do we really have to do to create fully functioning ecosystems?" And we began to ask ourselves, wherever we were working, who's missing, what species had disappeared or whose numbers were low and fragile.
We also had to ask, "How do we eliminate the very reason that these species went extinct in the first place?" What seems so obvious now was a complete thunderbolt for us. And it changed the nature of everything we do, completely.
Unless all the members of the community are present and flourishing, it's impossible for us to leave behind fully functioning ecosystems. Since then, we've successfully reintroduced several native species to the Iberá Wetlands: giant anteaters, pampas deer, peccaries and finally, one of the most difficult, the green-winged macaws, who've gone missing for over 100 years in that ecosystem.
And today, they're back, flying free, dispensing seeds, playing out their lives as they should be. The capstone of these efforts in Iberá is to return the apex carnivores to their rightful place.
Jaguars on the land, giant otters in the water. Several years of trial and error produced young cubs who will be released for the first time in over half a century into Iberá wetlands, and now, the 1.
7-million-acre Iberá Park will provide enough space for recovering jaguar populations with low risk of conflict with neighboring ranchers. Our rewilding projects in Chile are gaining ground on low numbers of several key species in the Patagonia region.
The huemul deer that is truly nearly extinct, the lesser rheas and building the puma and fox populations back up. You know, the power of the absent can't help us if it just leads to nostalgia or despair.
To the contrary, it's only useful if it motivates us toward working to bring back what's gone missing. Of course, the first step in rewilding is to be able to imagine that it's possible in the first place.
That wildlife abundance recorded in journals aren't just stories from some old dusty books. Can you imagine that? Do you believe the world could be more beautiful, more equitable? I do. Because I've seen it.
Here's an example. When we purchased one of the largest ranches in Chile and Patagonia, in 2004, it looked like this. For a century, this land had been overgrazed by livestock, like most grasslands around the world.
Soil erosion was rampant, hundreds of miles of fencing kept wildlife and its flow corralled. And that was with the little wildlife that was left. The local mountain lions and foxes had been persecuted for decades, leaving their numbers very low.
Today, those lands are the 763,000-acre Patagonian National Park, and it looks like this. And Arcelio, the former gaucho, whose job was to first find and kill mountain lions in the years past, today is the head tracker for the park's wildlife team, and his story captures the imagination of people around the world.
What is possible. I share these thoughts and images with you not for self-congratulations, but to make a simple point and propose an urgent challenge. If the question is survival, survival of life's diversity and human dignity and healthy human communities, then the answer must include rewilding the Earth.
As much and as quickly as possible. Everyone has a role to play in this, but especially those of us with privilege, with political power, wealth, where, let's face it, for better, for worse, that's where the chess game of our future is played out.
And this gets to the core of the question. Are we prepared to do what it takes to change the end of this story? The changes the world has made in the past few months to stop the spread of COVID-19 are so promising to me, because it shows we can join forces under desperate circumstances.
What we're going through now could be a precursor to the broader potential damage as a result of the climate crisis. But without warning, globally, we're learning to work together in ways we could never have imagined.
Having watched young people from around the world rising up and going out into the streets to remind us of our culpability and chastising us for our inaction are the ones who really inspire me. I know, you've heard all of this before.
But if there was ever a moment to awaken to the reality that everything is connected to everything else, it's right now. Every human life is affected by the actions of every other human life around the globe.
And the fate of humanity is tied to the health of the planet. We have a common destiny. We can flourish or we can suffer … But we're going to be doing it together. So here's the truth. We're so far past the point when individual action is an elective.
In my opinion, it's a moral imperative that every single one of us steps up to reimagine our place in the circle of life. Not in the center, but as part of the whole. We need to remember that what we do reflects who we choose to be.
Let's create a civilization that honors the intrinsic value of all life. No matter who you are, no matter what you have to work with, get out of bed every single morning, and do something that has nothing to do with yourself, but rather having everything to do with those things you love.
With those things you know to be true. Be someone who imagines human progress to be something that moves us toward wholeness. Toward health. Toward human dignity. And always, and forever, wild beauty.