And into the wild I go, to lose my mind and find my soul
The world’s great wildernesses are disappearing fast and with terrifying speed and consequences. This huge loss needs visionary ambition; bold and brave solutions pioneered by those who have the good fortunate, political clout, influence, vision and downright stubborness to protect our remaining wild places for future generations to enjoy.
Rewilding is not for the faint-hearted.
And that’s because it’s a massive challenge; its the unweaving of centuries long, potentially millennium’s-worth, of human influence and one that we can only really understand if we can fully grasp the meaning of rewilding large areas of land with a full understanding of the concept.
The basic definition of rewilding is to restore an area of land to its natural uncultivated state. When we go a little deeper we can begin to see that this very basic definition has a much greater meaning.
Rewilding Europe talks about the main principles of rewilding, highlighting the main points:
- The removal of dykes and dams to free up rivers, by stopping active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration, and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of man’s actions.
- Rewilding works to restore lost species guilds by giving them space to thrive, by population enhancement, and by reintroducing key native species.
- Rewilding is about reconnecting a modern society – both rural and urban – with wilder nature. We invite people to experience and live in these new, rewilded landscapes.
- The aim is to support nature-driven processes, which in turn will bring about wilder nature. This takes time and space. Rewilding is about moving up a scale of wildness, where every step moving up this scale is seen as progress.
So who are the pioneers of rewilding; the ambitious visionaries who can persuade the mainstream this conservation principle has more merits than all the others put together?
One of the most influential rewilding campaigners of our time is Kris Tompkins former CEO of Patagonia Inc and partner of Douglas Tompkins who tragically died in a kayaking incident in 2015. Following their successful business careers, the couple worked together to create huge areas of wilderness in Chile and Argentina. Kris continues this work today and their collective legacy not only meant they, for a time, became the largest private landowners on the planet, but that throughout this work they have been able to create a wilderness and beauty in the Patagonian uplands that is unparalleled across the globe.
As a passionate advocate for rewilding, Kris Tompkins has written for The Washington Post describing the modern day problem with and pitfalls of the term sustainability, an issue now so pervasive in conservation that we have dedicated an entire post to the subject of its meaning; check it out here.
the word has become cliché, now typically deployed in its adverbial form to modify various nature-exploiting activities like “logging” and “fishing” or the catch-all “development.”
Tompkins writes about the real question that belies our relationship with the wild, and the one that should be the focus of our debates, which instead revolve aimlessly around sustainability:
So let’s quit talking about “sustainable” this or that and face the overarching question about the future: Can we create a durable civilization in which humans become good neighbors in the community of life? Where our society is embedded in a matrix of wild nature that allows all creatures — from microorganisms to blue whales — freedom to pursue happiness and raise their progeny in a secure habitat?
And her argument that the real path toward diversity of life is routed in large scale rewilding work is extremely convincing; especially when her Non-Governmental Organisation, Conservación Patagónica has provided to the world a rewilding test case through the establishment of the Patagonia National Park.
Before this huge protected area was created; Tompkins and her late husband created their fortunes through clothing. Prior to their namesake company, Patagonia, Doug Tompkins also co-founded North Face and Espirit, creating billion dollar companies in the process and enabling them to convert their passion for the natural world into practical application for it’s protection and stewardship; after all land costs money! This approach embodies a philosophy that sees human beings as members of the natural world instead of masters.
Together they originally bought a 222,000 acre property and, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, they set about undoing the human influence and reintroducing natural forces and species. The Tompkins vision understood that every aspect of the natural world is intertwined and for an ecosystem to flourish all its players need to occupy their ecological niches in order for the whole system to work together — one that should be altogether free from human influence.
The strategy has been to buy land, remove sheep, fences and other aspects of farming and to allow nature to take its course, reintroducing extinct species where applicable, and understanding that every animal and plant, from ecosystem builders to apex predators, play their role. And this approach has seen huge successes. In Patagonia National Park, since sheep were removed, the population of Guanaco has soared from several hundred to several thousand. Now that they are no longer competing with sheep; they simply have enough food to eat and thrive.
And it’s not just n Chile where the rewilding projects have paid dividends. By expanding into Argentina over time Kris and Doug Tompkins were able to add over 11 million acres of land to their rewilding projects. Land that has been added to the national park systems of these countries, benefiting the wildlife and ecosystems in both.
The huge scale and scope of this ambition means make the Patagonia National Park (and other parks in Chile and Argentina initiated through this work) one of the largest rewilding and conservation endeavours in the world. But is it the greatest?
There are certainly some other huge areas of wilderness around the world. The United States has a long and chequered history of wildlife protection. Indeed the first European Settlements in North America did not bode well for the resident bison population that had co-existed alongside Native Americans for centuries before. In fact prior to the 1800s there were up to sixty million of these massive beats roaming the great plains of North America reducing to just 800. Although we will never again see the landscapes of North America thunder with the gallop of a million bison or more, numbers have recovered from their prior extinction threat levels.
North America is indeed going some way to recognising its past and holding itself to account in more recent developments. In our guide to the Top Ten Wildest Places in America we explore some of the wilder places and the protected status that they have finally received.
But is this rewilding? There has been a widely successful effort to reintroduce Wolves into the Yellowstone National Park and only now are researchers and scientists beginning to completely understand the intricate benefits that these apex predators provide to the web of life.
And in places like North America and Europe where human development competes with the natural world, rewilding work takes on a slightly more nuanced status. The goal, rather than turning millions of acres over to nature is to allow natural forces the room to work on existing landscapes; to restore natural processes to allow existing wildlife to thrive.
It’s a lesson the Patagonia National Park has held close since its inception. Whilst initially viewed with suspicion by the Government and Local People, the Kris and Doug Tompkins worked hard to overcome these natural prejudices. They involved local communities in their work, understanding that for these wild places to live on into perpetuity; the beauty and grandeur must be appreciated and understood by all and especially those living locally who will go onto become their stewards.
Kris Tompkins wrote for the Washington post:
As the permanent patrimony of the Chilean people, these parklands will secure an array of values for the future. They hold exceptional beauty and recreation potential, provide a rich wildlife habitat, and are an economic asset for the region that will attract visitors from around the world and generate local vitality — all as a consequence of nature conservation and rewilding.
She argues that wildlife has the right to exists for its own sakes, without consideration for how useful it is to humans, highlighting ‘some of the giant alerce trees in the newly designated Pumalín National Park are more than 3,200 years old.’ Whilst ‘the majestic Andean condors that soar over the new Patagonia National Park have an evolutionary lineage stretching back millions of years.’
It’s this passion for conservation, for rewilding the planet and undoing the damage we’ve done that make the work done by Kris and Doug Tompkins across South America some of the most insightful and inspirational examples of rewilding to date.
It may not be the largest example of rewilding in the world, that’s debatable, but after having initiated this work over 25 years ago, before rewilding as a concept had even been borne; the Tompkin’s have managed to free these landscapes from the shackles of human influences, returning them to their majestic beauty and ensuring they will remain unspoilt for generations to come.
This story can be replicated everywhere people are willing to use their time, energy and wealth to advance conservation, at every scale. Every hectare matters, as local and regional conservation projects eventually knit up into an interconnected web of wildness, wrapping the Earth in beautiful ribbons of blue and green. This is the foundation of true sustainability — freedom and habitat for all.
A vision that provides hope for the future and one that has underpinned all their rewilding work, involving local communities and providing space for visitors to appreciate the inherent natural beauty of restored wild landscapes. Its a vision that has set the standard for rewilding work and deservedly entitles Patagonia National Park and its sister parks to this leadership role and the mantle of World’s Greatest Rewilding Project.