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Preserving pumas in Patagonia

LAKEVILLE — In the Patagonia region of Chile, the wind is so fierce “it’ll blow the freckles right off your face.”So says Kris Tompkins, who with her husband Doug Tompkins established Conservacion Patagonia, which has been buying up millions of acres of land in order to establish a series of national parks, dedicated to preserving the reclaiming of this unique part of the world.Tompkins spoke to students at Indian Mountain School Friday, Oct. 14. (Doug Tompkins is an IMS alum, class of 1957.)Kris Tompkins narrated a slide show for the students. She described the work as “a massive conservation effort.”Patagonia “is biologically unique,” she said, and one of the goals is to keep the original species in the region intact.”This means a lot of work. “Writing a check is the easiest thing,” said the former CEO of Patagonia, the clothing line.Much of the land has been used for sheep ranching — with mixed results for the ecology.“We need to let grasslands rest. Once the land is so badly abused and the root systems break down, the earth opens up, the top soil disappears, and dunes start forming. It starts to look like the Sahara.”One of the tasks of the 40-odd volunteers is to take down 600 miles of fencing.“We don’t glamorize it,” she said of the work the volunteers take on.“You get to live up in a high country camp, in a tent. It’s really windy. Once in a while you get to come down, take a bath and check your emails.”Many of the gauchos who once rode the land tending the sheep — and hunting the puma, the main predator species — now work as park guards.“You can’t do it without getting the people involved.”The man who was once the top puma hunter tracks the big cats to see how they are doing now that the sheep are largely gone.“We need to know what they are eating and what their range is,” said Tompkins.The park staff are particularly interested in preserving the huemul deer, a timid and tame animal — not a great combination. The park has about 10 percent of the remaining population in the world, Tompkins said.As the parks near their opening, the adventurous will have the opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.“You’ll be able to go from steppe to glacier in one day’s hike.”Tompkins took questions from the Indian Mountain students. “Are you tired?” was the first.“Yes,” Tompkins replied. “But there’s tired and then there’s bored and frustrated. I do get tired of the controversy around building a national park, however.”Tompkins continued, saying that since she and Doug got started in 1991 they have purchased 2.2 million acres for a total of seven national parks.Asked if she ever thought she would do this when she was younger, she laughed.“I never thought I would finish college!”Another student asked if pumas eat people.Tompkins said puma attacks on humans are very rare, with just two recorded fatalities. “They are terrified of people. I’ve been there 20 years — I’m desperate to see a puma.”Who can volunteer?“You have to be 17,” said Tompkins, who referred the curious to Conservacion Patagonia for details (www.conservacionpatagonia.org). Finally, a student asked Tompkins about her philosophy.“You always have to fall in love a little bit with what you are trying to protect. I know for sure that your generation doesn’t have a choice to protect and heal.“Would I do it again? I’m 61, I would have started at age 8. I’m not kidding.”

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