Bumblebees are dying across North America and Europe as the climate warms, scientists say ~ The Washington Post

A bumblebee flies in search of nectar over a flowering basil plant. (Ulrich Perrey/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)
A bumblebee flies in search of nectar over a flowering basil plant. (Ulrich Perrey/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

These southern Utah sites were once off-limits to development. Now, Trump will auction the right to drill and graze there. ~ The Washington Post

Bears Ears National Monument in 2017. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Bears Ears National Monument in 2017. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Climate change is shrinking winter snow in the South, and in fall and spring over much of nation, report shows ~ The Washington Post

February 5 at 12:41 PM

During the 1970s, Nashville averaged just under a foot of snowfall each winter. Nowadays, Music City is lucky to see half that in a season.

The same is true in Knoxville, El Paso and Albuquerque; all have seen their typical wintertime snowfalls slashed by half in the past 50 years. And they’re not alone. A broad swath of the United States is seeing changing snowfall patterns, many of which are commensurate with those expected as a result of climate change.

In much of the South, the Plains and the interior Mid-Atlantic, seasonal snow totals are dwindling. That’s according to Climate Central, a nonprofit group specializing in climate change research and communication. A reportreleased Wednesday reveals where snow hopes are beginning to melt away, while a select few locations may actually be seeing more snow thanks to climate change.

Snowfall was seen to be decreasing especially rapidly in the South. These are largely areas that pick up their snow in marginal environments anyway, so any subtle warming can tip the scales and favor temperatures above freezing. That can cut back on snowfall.

This was also prevalent in parts of the Rockies and interior Appalachians, as well as the central and southern Plains in between. Springfield, Mo.; Evansville, Ind.; and Lubbock, Tex., all saw a greater than 40 percent decline in annual snowfall between in the 2010s compared with the 1970s. Even State College, Pa., saw about 20 inches per year less during the 2010s.

When it’s decreasing

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the report wasn’t necessarily where snowfall is decreasing, but rather when.

“In the shoulder seasons, when we look at the nationwide average, in the fall and the spring, we’re starting to see a tendency for the amount of snow to decrease,” Climate Central meteorologist Sean Sublette said.

That’s because the “shoulder seasons” on either side of winter — spring and fall — are warmer than winter. By nature of being transitional seasons, their snowfall events typically occur at warmer temperatures closer to the freezing mark. Any climate warming would nudge spring and fall snow events above freezing first, before affecting any trends in the wintertime.

In the South, 13 out of 14 cities saw a decrease in fall snowfall, while 71 percent experienced a drop in spring snowfall. Each of the five stations in the Southwest recorded a drop in fall and spring snowfall. And in central regions, three-quarters of stations witnessed a decline in fall and spring snowfall.

And in the Northeast, 71 percent saw a decline in the fall, but less than half did in springtime.

In the dead of winter, Sublette says the trends “are much more piecemeal.”

Snowfall increasing in some areas

In a few spots, snowfall is actually increasing — particularly in the wintertime. According to the report, this occurred in some Northeast cities as well as several communities in the Upper Midwest. Why?

For every degree Fahrenheit the air temperature increases, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more water. That means that, as long as temperatures stay below freezing, an increase in temperature could lead to a juicier storm and actually produce more snow. For areas that are already plenty cold, such as the Upper Midwest and Interior Northeast, that could be a trend going forward — until, down the road, rising temperatures push some storms over the freezing line.

With a greater atmospheric moisture content, Sublette said, we would expect to see “more snow when the temperature is sufficiently low.”

The report also mentioned that lake-effect snow off the Great Lakes will probably increase because of climate change. With warming temperatures, ice cover is dropping. That leaves comparatively warmer waters exposed, which are source for lake-effect snow bands.

“With open lakes, you get much more heat and moisture flux off the lake, and again if it stays below freezing, you have more snow in that time frame” Sublette said.

Bigger storms for the Northeast


Kids walk up a snow-covered street in Washington on Feb. 7, 2010. (Ian Livingston/The Washington Post)

In recent years, there has been a demonstrable trend in many East Coast cities, during which some winters will feature booming blockbuster storms while others pass with hardly a flake. The “feast or famine” nature of the snowfall may have a climate explanation behind it.

“It gets back to the fundamentals of the physics of these systems,” said Dave Robinson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Rutgers, who runs the university’s Global Snow Lab. “You can develop stronger storms over warmer seas. And with more moisture in the air and a greater temperature contrast.”

How they did it


A crew clears the sidewalk at the Maverick subway station in Boston on Feb. 15, 2015. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The team reviewed snowfall data from 244 locations between 1970 and 2019. After whittling down the count based on which met their stringent continuity requirements, 145 data sets remained. They then performed “endpoint analysis,” comparing average snowfall for each location during the 1970s vs. the 2010s. The results reported focused primarily on contrasting those two decade-long blocks in each city.

Thereafter, the scientists sorted their results geographically into nine regions nationwide. The West did not offer enough observation stations to discern a meaningful trend. In the Southwest, it was marginal.

Limitations


A buffalo grazes at a snow-covered farm in Van Meter, Iowa, last month. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Endpoint analysis is at times useful. By virtue of design, however, it “skips over” anything that is happening in between endpoints. Given how much snowfall amounts change year to year and even decade by decade, a more rigorous analysis would be needed to see how those “endpoints” fit into context.

“The point is that snowfall is so variable year to year and even decade to decade,” Robinson said.

He pointed out that, if the report’s analysis had started in the 1960s, snowfall reductions in the East would have appeared even more impressive. “Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the ’60s were the most snowy [decade] on record.”

Overall, though, Robinson found it to be a “very respectable study,” stating that the results fall in line with what should be expected thanks to climate change. He noted that the report’s authors were wise to only review stations with more than 5 inches of snow annually, appreciating the regional breakdown as well.

Across the board, atmospheric scientists wish that more data was available, particularly for a longer time series. “I’m one who is very data driven,” said Robinson.

Takeaways

While the report’s analysis aims to explore several topics in greater detail, the trends indicated by its results are in clear agreement with what the science predicts should be associated with climate change.

“The take home is that what we have seen with the limited data is consistent with a warming climate,” said Sublette.

As the seasons continue to compress, with more mild/less snowy autumns and springs, there’s the chance that winter’s duration in many areas will continue to narrow. But that doesn’t mean a decline in snowfall everywhere, as results showed.

“They’re very complex issues,” Robinson said.

Sand dunes ‘communicate’ when they move, researchers say ~ The Washington Post

Sahara desert, Mauritania.  (iStock)
Sahara desert, Mauritania. (iStock)

A Conversation with Tara Brach: Mindfulness Tools For Big Feelings ~ NPR

Meditation.

This story is adapted from an episode of Life Kit, NPR’s podcast with tools to help you get it together. To listen to this episode, play the audio at the top of the page or find it here.

Have you ever noticed how tough it is to be present? We spend so much time planning and worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

“We’re in a trance of thinking. We’re time traveling,” says Tara Brach, a world-renowned psychologist and mindfulness teacher. “We’re in the future, we’re in the past.”

And all this ruminating gets in the way of enjoying life — we can miss out on the good stuff.

If you reflect on your life, Brach asks, how often can you sense that the fear of failing or not being good enough “was in some way dampening or contracting or pulling you away from real intimacy or spontaneity or enjoying a sunset?”

Life Kit host Allison Aubrey spoke with Brach about her latest book, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN. The book outlines the mindfulness tool, RAIN, an acronym for a four-step process: recognize, allow, investigate and nurture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is mindfulness at its core. Can you describe mindfulness in a sentence or two?

Mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment without judgment.

What is the purpose? What is the benefit of paying attention to the present moment?

We step out of our thoughts about the past and the future, and we actually start occupying a space of presence that is bigger than the particular emotions or thoughts that are going on.

Mindfulness gives us more choice as to how we want to experience things, what we want to say, what we want to do. So instead of reacting, we can actually respond from more intelligence, more kindness. It actually lets us inhabit our best selves.

So “recognize” comes when we realize on some level we’re stuck. We’re having a hard time. All we’re doing with “recognize” is sensing whatever feeling is predominant in that moment. And it might be we simply say ‘upset’ or ‘confused’ or ‘angry’ or ‘hurt’.

With “allow” you actually are pausing, saying ‘it’s OK.’ Let’s just let this be for a few moments. And that’s the pause. That’s the space we’re creating that gives you the power and the freedom.

So the next step is “I” for investigate. What are some questions that you can ask to help yourself investigate?

Ask yourself ‘what really wants my attention?’ Ask what wants your attention right now and look into the body. Feel the throat, the chest, the belly. Another really good question is ‘what am I believing right now?’ Because I find for myself when I’m in a bad mood, usually I’m believing that in some way I fell short. I’m failing in some way.

And if I can identify it consciously, it doesn’t affect me as much. The single most valuable finale with investigating is to ask the part of you that feels most vulnerable: ‘so what do you need?’ Is it love? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Feeling accompanied? Feeling embraced? Feeling safe?

The last letter in RAIN is “N,” which stands for nurture. Explain this one.

This step is all about learning to be kind to yourself and offering yourself what is needed. Often, to fight through the feelings of shame or anxiety, we have to work at this. The way I often do it is I put my hand on my heart and I’ll say, “it’s okay sweetheart.” Or you might just say to yourself, “I love you,” or, “It’s okay, I’m here. I’m not leaving.”

Or, we can imagine that affirmation coming from someone else — a loved one, a spiritual figure, even a pet. The source doesn’t matter as long as it’s nurturing.

After RAIN, we can sense a shift in how we feel. We sense the quality of presence that’s opened up from where we started to now.

For those of us not in the habit of nurturing ourselves, this can be a challenging step in the process. For instance, if I over-react to a situation, I later laugh at my lack of perspective. I realize that it wasn’t a big deal, and I feel so much lighter when I’m able to laugh it off. Is this a form of nurturing?

Nurturing is any way that you create a larger, lighter, kinder space. And humor is fantastic. Often if I can laugh, I know the tangle is no longer dominating me.

And that’s the thing with RAIN, it doesn’t get rid of the waves of experience. It makes you more ocean-like. You have more perspective, more wisdom. Wisdom brings on humor. Wisdom brings on kindness. In other words, you’re not suffering. What you’re feeling is not pleasant, but you’re not suffering.

What’s interesting is that people have a fear that if they’re mindful and present, they’ll lose their motivation, that they won’t be able to be so successful in the ways you’re describing. But what I found is that anxiety actually leads to more mistakes, less empathy, less emotional intelligence and actually less effectiveness.

Where do you see this?

We train people in corporations and medical schools and they actually find mindfulness increases competency. Mindfulness doesn’t remove motivation. It just allows us to be more centered and respond from our natural intelligence. Fear doesn’t make us more intelligent.

Does mindfulness become easier the more you practice it?

Whatever you practice gets stronger. If you practice judging yourself every day, that gets stronger. If you practice recognizing, allowing, investigating, nurturing, that gets stronger and also quicker.

The real gift is that we start trusting our goodness. We start trusting the love and the awareness. Not only that, we start looking at each other and seeing that too. If we can trust the goodness, then we can help to bring it out in ourselves and each other.

The butterfly effect is not what you think it is ~ The Washington Post


A monarch butterfly in Vista, Calif. (Gregory Bull/AP)
February 2 at 12:00 PM

There is an iconic scene in “Jurassic Park” where Jeff Goldblum explains chaos theory.

“It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems,” he says. “The shorthand is ‘the butterfly effect.’ A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”

Goldblum is right that chaos theory deals with unpredictability, but his description of the butterfly effect is a little misleading.

When meteorologist Ed Lorenz, the so-called “father of chaos theory,” first invoked a butterfly’s wings, it wasn’t to say that we can’t predict the weather in New York because we can’t account for all the butterflies in China.

On the contrary, Lorenz was actually saying that even if we could account for every skipper and swallowtail along the Yellow Sea, it wouldn’t do much to improve weather forecasts.

Here is the story behind the confusion, as recounted in a 2014 paper by physicist Timothy Palmer, mathematician Gregory Seregin and mathematical physicist Andreas Doering. At the time, all of them were affiliated with the University of Oxford. Palmer further detailed the mix-up in a 2017 lecture at Oxford.

In his early years at MIT in the 1950s, Lorenz studied long-range weather forecasting. The statisticians he worked with thought it should be possible to predict the weather weeks or months away by scouring the historical record to see what happened previously when conditions were the same. Find an old weather map that looks like today’s weather map, and you should be able to make forecasts by reviewing the maps that followed, they said.

Lorenz was skeptical of this idea. He argued that the atmosphere is so complex that it never repeats itself, so it would be impossible to find a day in history when conditions were precisely the same. And, as he discovered, even small differences in the initial conditions can lead to vastly different outcomes.

“The answer is it would only improve it by seconds,” Palmer, the atmospheric physicist at the University of Oxford, said in an email. “It may be that you just cannot predict beyond a certain finite time horizon, no matter how accurate your initial conditions are.”

This is why, on average, you can’t make detailed weather predictions more than around two weeks out, Palmer said. Lorenz described this idea in a 1969 paper, which was the basis for a talk he gave titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?”

In an interview, Palmer said that when author James Gleick popularized Lorenz’s work in his acclaimed book, “Chaos: Making a New Science,” he used the term “the butterfly effect” to describe the 1963 paper, which found that weather forecasts are sensitive to small changes in the initial conditions, and not the 1969 paper, which found that learning more about the initial conditions yields diminishing returns.

“The Butterfly Effect isn’t one simple idea; it encompasses a set of mathematical discoveries that have been expressed in different ways at different times,” he said in an email.

It’s easy to see how “the butterfly effect” could have come to take on multiple meanings. Lorenz wrote about the term’s “cloudy history” in his book, “The Essence of Chaos,” noting that his 1963 paper featured a graph that was said to resemble a butterfly, which may have created some confusion.

Clouding matters further, the term “the butterfly effect” calls to mind a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury about a time traveler who steps on a butterfly in the prehistoric past, changing the outcome of a presidential election in 2055.

Bradbury’s description of the butterfly’s death presaged Lorenz’s work on chaos theory more than a decade later. It also gestured at the definition of “the butterfly effect” later employed by countless popularizers of science, from Goldblum to Gleick.

“It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time,” Bradbury wrote. “. . . Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?”

A Weird-But-True Story Takes Flight In ‘The Feather Thief’ ~ NPR

 

This is one weird-but-true story. It’s a story that leads readers from 19th century scientific expeditions into the jungles of Malaysia to the “feather fever” of the turn of the last century, when women’s hats were be-plumed with ostriches and egrets. And it’s a story that focuses on the feather-dependent Victorian art of salmon fly-tying and its present-day practitioners, many of whom lurk online in something called “The Feather Underground.”

By the end of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s absorbing book, The Feather Thief, we readers learn more than we probably ever wanted to know about feathers. But, we may also come to understand why it’s important, ecologically speaking, to care about what happened to the feathers of what Johnson calls, “the missing birds of Tring.”

In his prologue, Johnson tells us that he stumbled on this mystery one day while standing waist-high in the Red River of New Mexico. Suffering from PTSD as a consequence of years of aid work in Iraq, Johnson had taken up the meditative sport of fly-fishing.

On this fateful trip, Johnson’s guide began telling him about his own hobby of Victorian salmon fly-tying. The ornate flies, the guide explained, were more of an art form than a fishing tool; they’re composed of the iridescent jewel-toned feathers plucked from many of the rarest birds in the world, like the Indian crow and the king bird of paradise.

Then, the guide went on to tell Johnson the bizarre story of a master fly-tier named Edwin Rist. In 2009, Rist — who was then a 20-year-old American student at the Royal Academy of Music in London — broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the British Natural History Museum that was established during the Blitz.

Once inside, Rist stuffed hundreds of rare bird skins into a suitcase he’d brought along. Many of those birds bore tags identifying that they’d been collected 150 years earlier by a naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a colleague of Charles Darwin.

It took over a year for British police detectives to trace the theft to Rist and by then he’d made a fortune online, illegally selling the bird skins or bags of assorted feathers to salmon fly-tying devotees.

Of the 299 bird skins Rist had stolen, only 174 were found in his apartment still intact; out of those, only 102 specimens retained their labels. Without their labels identifying exactly where the birds had been captured, the specimens were no longer of scientific value. If the missing birds couldn’t recovered, it would be an even bigger blow to the scientific record.

Though it’s non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller: We have, for instance, those exotic missing bird skins, that, like the Maltese falcon of yore, seem to have vanished into thin air; we have eccentric suspects — those rabid salmon fly-tiers, some of whom don’t ask too many questions about the source of those endangered bird feathers for sale on the Internet.

And, we have an obsessive amateur detective in Johnson who finds his double in Rist, the feather-obsessed criminal. All of this makes for compelling reading; but Johnson’s quest to find the missing bird skins is motivated by more than just curiosity.

It turns out that what started off for him as an escape from the strains of refugee aid work became a mission to alert readers to the vulnerability of natural history collections like the Tring that may hold answers to the problems of extinction and climate change. These days, scientists can study those bird specimens to learn about rising mercury levels and other changes in the ocean and atmosphere. As Johnson says of the now incomplete Tring collection:

I realized the preservation of these birds represented an optimistic vision of humanity: a multigenerational chain of curators had shielded [those specimens] from insects, sunlight, German bombers, fire, and theft, … [Those curators] understood that the birds held answers to questions that hadn’t yet even been asked.

I won’t tell you how Johnson’s gallant search for the missing birds ends. But it’s depressing to learn, as we do early on in this book, that Edwin Rist, the feather thief, never served any time in prison. In the eyes of the law, perhaps all those old feathers didn’t amount to much.

The Gift ~ SIERRA

THE MINISTER of public lands was about to arrive, a television crew in tow, so everything had to be just right. It was 8:15 on a summer morning in February, and the office of Tompkins Conservation outside the Chilean hamlet of El Amarillo was hive-busy. The philanthropy’s controller was hunched over a laptop filled with spreadsheets. A supervisor was giving orders to groups of men in blue coveralls. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the organization’s president, sat at a conference table toggling between a pair of laptops and her cellphone.

Aerial photo shows Patagonian mountains in Chile. The image shows rolling hills, mostly treeless, and the rocky foreground has an orange hue.

For 20 years, Tompkins worked at the outdoor-clothing company Patagonia, where she became the CEO and transformed the outfit from the backyard start-up of adventurer Yvon Chouinard into a global fashion icon. Tompkins, 69, has stayed brand loyal—she was wearing a Patagonia heather-colored fleece and red puffy jacket with bits of down poking out of a hole near the right pocket. Bowls of organic almonds and blueberries were scattered about the office, leftovers from a meeting that had taken place the day before with staff from the National Geographic Society. Outside the window stretched a postcard view of Pumalín Park: unbroken temperate rainforest climbing toward the glacier-shielded summit of the Michinmahuida volcano.

One year earlier, Tompkins and then—Chilean president Michelle Bachelet had announced an agreement under which Tompkins Conservation would donate to the Chilean government the vast swaths of land acquired by the philanthropy over the course of 25 years—and the government would, for its part, put 9 million acres of southern Chile under new protection, in the process creating five national parks and expanding three others. Now, Tompkins and her staff were racing to wrap up the final details of the deal in advance of the agreed-upon handover on April 30, 2019. The meeting with the lands minister had been scheduled to introduce him to Pumalín Park, which he had never visited but which would soon be his to manage.

 

“Landscape without wildlife is just scenery. What we’re doing is creating national parks as a strategy toward slowing down the extinction of species.”

In just two months, the table that Kris Tompkins and I were sitting at would be the property of the Chilean people. So would the carved panels of foxes and pumas adorning the room and the framed landscape photographs and the wood-burning stove Tompkins was now stoking. The donation to the government of Chile would also include, among other things, 15 habitable buildings, 11 outbuildings such as barns, four trucks, five dozen chainsaws, 200 shovels, one museum, a fully equipped restaurant, 740 works of fine art, and 16 telephones. Then there were the roughly 725,000 acres to establish Pumalín National Park and another 206,000 acres to create Patagonia National Park in the remote south of the country.

A brown southern caracara, with a hooked beak, looks to the side.
A BROWN SOUTHERN CARACARA

Combined with earlier gifts—Corcovado and Yendegaia National Parks in Chile; Monte León, Perito Moreno, and Iberá National Parks on the Argentine side of the Andes—the Tompkins Conservation donations in South America mark the largest act of wildlands philanthropy in history. Altogether, Tompkins Conservation and its partners have given away an area larger than the state of Delaware. Never before has a private organization donated fully functioning parks of such scale to national governments.

Tompkins was high off the accomplishment. “I’m still truly beaming inside that we were able to pull it off,” she told me. She also admitted to being exhausted from overseeing the myriad technicalities of the handover, including a complex, eight-part agreement governing everything from land use to wildlife conservation. “Oh my goodness, as I say, I don’t know that I would have the strength to do it again. It took everything off our hides.”

The overtime endeavor had been her response to the unexpected death of her husband, Doug Tompkins, in December 2015. Doug, founder of the outdoor-gear company the North Face and a cofounder of the clothing brand Esprit, had been on a kayaking trip on a Patagonian lake with Chouinard and other pals when his boat capsized and he succumbed to hypothermia. Kris said that losing Doug was like “an amputation.” After his death, her instinct was to fulfill their shared vision of donating the properties they had amassed during their marriage. “A week or 10 days after Doug died, I decided to pick it up and just go for it,” she said.

Side view of a brown-gray puma; it's looking straight at the camera.
A PUMA

Before meeting Kris, I had talked to many people in the Tompkins orbit—friends, colleagues, employees, former employees—and nearly everybody told me that the land transfer likely wouldn’t have happened had Doug not died. He had been the more visionary of the couple, a kind of Paul Revere warning about the pathologies of capitalism and buying up as much land as possible to help stave off the sixth mass extinction. He was also, by all accounts, an irascible perfectionist who didn’t suffer fools gladly; neither diplomacy nor patience came easily to him. Kris is a different sort: warm, empathic, a natural collaborator. During our short time together, she was unfailingly kind to her employees, asking about their kids by name in excellent Spanish. “The secret to Doug’s success is Kris,” one longtime Tompkins employee told me.

I floated the counterfactual to Kris: Would the deal have been accomplished without Doug’s untimely death?

“That’s a ridiculous question,” she responded. She must have seen me flinch, because she softened her tone. “I ask it myself; that’s why I can call it ridiculous. . . . Do I think that the death of Doug and the loss of Doug within Chile was an emotional factor? Yeah, I don’t see how we can call it anything but that. I don’t think Doug could have imagined we would ever get all the aspects of that proposal through.”

She continued, “Let’s put it this way: Maybe it wouldn’t have happened quite so fast, but it never would have happened at all—I mean, not one percent of it—without Doug.”
DOUGLAS RAINSFORD TOMPKINS had his anti-capitalist epiphany at just the right time—after he was already fabulously rich.

He grew up comfortable in New York’s Hudson Valley, where his father owned an antique shop and his mother was an interior decorator. After getting kicked out of a Connecticut prep school, he bummed around the West, mountain climbing and ski racing. In 1964, he and his first wife, Susie, opened the North Face in San Francisco. The pair soon sold the company for a quick $50,000. Most of the profits went toward Susie’s apparel business, which would eventually become Esprit; the rest of the money funded Tompkins’s months-long adventure road trip through South America with Chouinard and a band of guys who dubbed themselves the “fun hogs.” The trip culminated in a difficult ascent, the third ever, of the southern Andes’ Mt. Fitz Roy (the massif, named after the captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, is the peak on the Patagonia clothing label). The experience cemented Tompkins’s bond to the melodramatic landscapes of Patagonia—a place neither province nor nation but a kind of imagined geography straddling Argentina and Chile.

A guanaco (an alpaca-like animal) bends down to nuzzle her baby, who is lying on the ground with its nose up to the mom.
A GUANACO

By the 1980s, Doug and Susie Tompkins had built Esprit into a global fashion powerhouse on par with Guess and Gap. Tompkins—a small man with big features who could pack a room with his personality—was known as an exacting but generous CEO. “No Detail Is Small,” read a sign behind his desk. Employees could receive company reimbursement for going to the symphony or a museum.

Then the Reagan-era tastemaker had a midlife crisis. He and Susie divorced, and, at the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for an estimated $150 million. He moved to Chile and bought a ramshackle sheepherder’s cottage on an isolated fjord in the Valdivian rainforest. The high school dropout deepened his self-education in the environmental canon and became enamored with the ideas of Arne Næss, the Norwegian mountain climber and philosopher who had developed a system of environmental ethics called deep ecology. “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis, the mother of all crises,” Tompkins would later say.

Determined to atone for his capitalist past, Tompkins began to buy up properties for conservation purposes, his way of “paying my rent for living on the planet,” as he often said, borrowing a line from David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director. Peter Buckley, a friend of Tompkins’s since the 1960s who was the CEO of Esprit-Europe, remembers visiting him in the early ’90s and flying around southern Chile in Tompkins’s six-seat Cessna 206. Tompkins was like “some sort of demented real estate guy,” Buckley recalled. “He was, you know, ‘Look at that. Isn’t that beautiful?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, it’s stunning.’ And he would go, ‘That’s for sale. We could buy this. We could buy that.'”

A Magellanic woodpecker, with a bright-red head and black body, hangs on to a tree with its claws.
A MAGELLANIC WOODPECKER

It was a buyer’s market. During the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, international land speculators had gotten title to huge chunks of land that they were using for absentee logging and cattle ranching. With Pinochet out of power and the political currents shifting, they were eager to sell. “He was very much in his deep ecology phase,” Buckley remembered. “He said, ‘These lands are for nature. I’m just buying these lands for nature. They’re not for people.'”

In 1993, Tompkins married Kris McDivitt, a petite brunette who had grown up on a ranch in Santa Paula, California, and had recently left her CEO post at Patagonia. Kris joined Doug in Chile just as the land acquisitions were arousing suspicions among Chileans. Here were a pair of rich gringos who had cut the nation in half (Chile is a shoelace of a country, and at one point the Tompkinses’ holdings stretched from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean). Yet they had no interest in cutting down the trees. To Chileans accustomed to international investors extracting the country’s resources, it didn’t make sense.

The suspicions metastasized into conspiracy theories. Wild rumors began circulating in the Chilean media. Some people said that the Tompkinses were going to remove cattle from the land and introduce American bison. Others said that the land was going to be used as a nuclear waste dump, or a secret US nuclear base, or a Zionist colony.

Looking back, Kris acknowledges that she and Doug could have “done some things differently.” But she maintains that a degree of controversy was unavoidable. “Anytime something new happens and you can’t understand it, you therefore don’t trust it. Therefore you have suspicion, and therefore you have rejection,” she said.

Dago Guzmán agrees that the Tompkinses’ project was bound to be contentious. Guzmán met the couple in the late 1990s, when he wrote about their work for his master’s thesis at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He had started out skeptical. “There were all these stories about this mysterious project that was going to take possession of the lands and waters of Chile,” he told me. But upon arriving in Pumalín, he found himself fascinated by the project, and he ended up working with Tompkins Conservation for the next 16 years. When I met him, he was acting as the superintendent of Patagonia Park. “Probably if the Tompkinses had entered Chile with a great clothing brand to make money, nobody would have said anything and they could have bought the same land,” Guzmán told me. “But to have a project with private investment for public benefit? That’s a rare thing, and people didn’t understand it.”

“Beauty matters. We are beginning to see that beauty is becoming secondary to utilitarian ideas. And we say no.”

 

In the early 2000s, Tompkins Conservation started to focus on creating public access to its lands—building visitor amenities like trails, campgrounds, and educational signage. The work centered on what today is officially called Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park. The scenery there feels almost scripted: Snow-fed rivers split glacier-sculpted valleys where waterfalls spill from the rocky heights. The signature tree is the alerce, a conifer in the cypress family that is the second-most-long-lived species on Earth. Alerce groves were relentlessly logged during the 19th and 20th centuries, until the Chilean government outlawed the practice. Today, an estimated 25 percent of the alerce on Earth are in the park. During a hike through the dripping-wet forest, I visited an alerce with a redwood-like girth that had been a sapling when Rome was no more than a collection of cottages.

The Tompkinses also began endeavoring to win the goodwill of their neighbors. The couple bought up ranches and farms on the edge of the conservation lands and converted them to organic practices to produce sheep, orchard fruits, and honey. The idea, explained Tompkins Conservation staffer Rodrigo Villablanca, was to create a “buffer zone” around the park so that “people who want to continue working the land can keep working.” In El Amarillo, located at the park’s southern entrance, the Tompkinses launched a sweeping “beautification” campaign. To some locals, it seemed strange that an American millionaire wanted to select the trim colors on their homes; the then mayor of the adjacent town of Chaitén warned that the Tompkinses were going to seize people’s houses. But many residents were open to the proposition of home improvements financed by someone else. “I would go and have maté and more maté,” Villablanca told me, referring to the tea ubiquitous in Patagonia, “and try to determine what the building needed and how to help without intervening in the life of the family.” More than two dozen homes in El Amarillo were refurbished.

Aerial photo shows Chilean Patagonia's Chacabuco Valley, with rolling, treeless hills and a lake.DOUG AND KRIS TOMPKINS MOST FULLY REALIZED THEIR VISION OF WILDLANDS CONSERVATION IN CHILEAN PATAGONIA’S CHACABUCO VALLEY.

Doug was immersed in every detail, always with an eye toward creating an idealized rustic aesthetic. All the park signage was hand-carved from wood (a nice touch that park employees say is a pain when they have to change the price of anything). Even the garbage cans were works of art, each of them nestled under tidy shingles. “He’d give you a drawing, and he’d want you to build it to the height, to the dimensions, always coming up with higher standards,” Villablanca recalled.

Erwin González, the superintendent of Pumalín, remembers a time when, as they were constructing a campground, Doug asked for a tree to be removed because it was blocking the view of the volcano. González procrastinated. He liked that tree—it was beautiful and home to many birds. When Doug returned to the site a few months later, he complained that the tree was still standing. He said, “How many trees has this park saved? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?” González cut down the tree.

One former employee told me that Doug was “terrifying to work for.” The staff would hear the Cessna coming in for a landing, and everyone would scramble to make sure everything was perfect. Yet many employees found Doug’s intensity inspiring, and they felt a clannish loyalty toward him and Kris. The Chilean staffers of Tompkins Conservation whom I met had been with the organization for 10 years, 13 years, 16 years, 19 years, 20 years, 24 years. “For Doug, nothing was impossible,” Guzmán said. “He hated to hear that something was impossible. He’d say, ‘OK, but at least let’s try and see the result.’ And look—look what we’ve accomplished in just a short time.”

 

Map of Patagonia

MAP BY STEVE STANKIEWICZTHE AYSÉN REGION of Chilean Patagonia is a place of boilerplate beauty. Sharp peaks, nearly always headlocked by clouds, drop down to arid plateaus streaked blue with copper veins, which in turn fall into valleys where the rivers run aquamarine. Lenga, a southern beech, covers the hillsides, the tree’s shape reminiscent of a Lebanon cedar’s zigzag posture. It’s a witchy forest, every branch and limb and trunk garlanded with long strands of gray lichen. A native wild strawberry sprawls in the understory, the fruit as small as marbles and as sweet as jam.

Patagonia was the last place that humans arrived in the Americas, and it remains among the most remote locations on Earth. Europeans didn’t show up in any meaningful numbers until the late 19th century, whereupon they wiped out the Indigenous people, the Tehuelche, who had lived there for millennia. Well into the 20th century, Chilean Patagonia was a kind of terrestrial island, so disconnected from the rest of the country that the authorities in Santiago worried about an Argentine takeover. To encourage settlement, in the mid-20th century the Chilean government gave away land to any pioneer who “cleaned” the forests to make way for sheep and cattle. More than 7 million acres of lenga trees were burned down. (Because the forest there is evolutionarily unaccustomed to fire, the woods didn’t recover, and traveling through the region, I saw many hillsides of bleached trunks, like arboreal graveyards.) By the 1970s, there were some 20 million sheep grazing lands that were not adapted to such animals. But the settlers—mostly farmers from the Chilean heartland, along with some Germans—still numbered in the mere tens of thousands. As late as 1980, there was just one phone in Cochrane, the mountain town that is the closest human settlement to Patagonia National Park. In Patagonia, isolation endures: No jet roars or contrails interrupt the sky.

 

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