The Future Patagonia National Park

A veritable Versailles of design-with-nature unlike anything, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.

Valle Chacabuco, Chile –Twenty years later, Doug and Kris Tompkins are still at it.

They are buying land, restoring farms and ranches, experimenting with organic agriculture, building extraordinary infrastructure and creating future national parks; over two million acres in Chile and Argentina and counting. It is a veritable Versailles of design-with-nature unlike anything, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.

Kris and Doug Tompkins are working for a new economy Photo: Tompkins Conservation website
Kris and Doug Tompkins.

The future of the planet depends in part on making the country a beautiful and rewarding place to live, Doug argues. The vast and growing numbers of people in cities supplied by an industrial system of energy, food, transportation and building is consuming one quarter to one third of Earth’s total photosynthetic capacity, destroying biodiversity, degrading critical life support systems and making many people both unhappy and unhealthy.

Which is certainly true; we know our current path is headed over the brink. Whether solutions are found in city or country is less clear; Presumably, they will arise from both.

But Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, describes nature’s way of inventing fresh ideas by “connecting not protecting.” Many of the ideas necessary to reverse the overwhelming pattern of degradation come from people in dense urban populations, the place from which Doug himself derives. The number of patents in a city grows geometrically as the population increases. Homo sapiens is most often a social animal. Good land use clearly needs to arise from the myriad and careful interactions of people who live on and by the land, but it would certainly help if we could enhance mutually reinforcing encouragement from the city.

Life in the country for many billions has been and remains today short, brutish and ever so limiting, especially for women who often have little choice but to marry young and bear children early. We need what Doug and Kris call “conservation as a consequence of production,” profitable ranches and farms and forests that are self-sustaining and job-creating/maintaining, while improving environmental conditions.

What I see so hopeful in the Tompkins’ extraordinary devotion to land is their “development” process as much as their product. They are designers, architects, scholars, owners, entrepreneurs, and employers all at once. They pay special attention to natural and human history, the particular cultural, social, environmental and economic characteristics of each of their distinctive ownerships.

Building materials come from each place, reclaimed wood in some small farmhouses that follow local tradition, stone from a local quarry in a drier environment like Valle Chacabuco, almost 200,000 acres in southern Chilean Patagonia where trees are scarce. Energy comes from small hydro in one place where there is abundant water falling off high mountains, the latest solar technology for another where there is abundant sunlight. When designer and user of the land are one and the same, and development is gradual, local and incremental, where mistakes are made and corrected, the development process is evolutionary in nature — co-evolutionary actually between people and place. The process is bottom up, rather than one-size-fits-all top down. It is built to last, with a special eye for integrity and beauty.

When Doug and Kris acquired Chacabuco in 2006 it was a working ranch with over 25,000 sheep and cattle. While they sold most of them to begin the grassland restoration process, all the gauchos and their families were offered jobs — different jobs — for as long as they all wanted to stay. The full time trapper who hunted puma — mountain lions — stayed on to become tracker for biological studies of the lion’s movements. Long term jobs, restoration economy jobs that employees can feel good about are now available for local people to prepare for as many as 150,000 expected visitors per year to what will soon hopefully become Patagonia National Park.