Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization I head, celebrated the accomplishments of Kris and Doug Tompkins at its annual gala on June 24. Both left extraordinary business careers (Kris was CEO of Patagonia, while Doug founded The North Face and Esprit) to take on visionary conservation initiatives. The work they have achieved over the last decade in South America, personally preserving 2.2 million acres, not only inspires but raises the bar for all of us striving to protect the earth's great, remaining wilderness areas.
On a personal note, Patagonia's equipment and its founder, legendary mountaineer Yvon Chouinard, inspired me to become a rock climber as a young man. The "clean climbing" gear he invented transformed the sport, saved my life on numerous occasions and instilled in me an ethic that we can enjoy the outdoors but must protect nature from damage.
Scenic Hudson is dedicated to safeguarding the magnificent natural resources in New York's Hudson River Valley. Amazingly, despite its proximity to New York City, the region has much in common with the remote landscapes of Patagonia that Kris and Doug are conserving. Both feature world-class scenery, provide habitat for an unusual variety of life and are places where farming is an important part of the culture. Sadly, both also face myriad threats.
For Kris and Doug, as for Scenic Hudson, protecting awe-inspiring landscapes is just one step toward ensuring a healthy future for our region and planet. We're both equally dedicated to restoring habitat, promoting sustainable agriculture and enhancing ecotourism by connecting people to the natural treasures we've protected. In the case of Doug and Kris, through two foundations they've established The Conservation Land Trust and Conservacion Patagonica they've created two spectacular national parks featuring exciting amenities; three more parks are on their horizon.
Maintaining and enhancing biodiversity staving off what they call the "extinction crisis" is the crux of Kris and Doug's work. In the context of our gala, they sounded the charge: "Every human being should care about the diversity of life, the myriad species that are our fellow members of the land community, and be willing to take action, at whatever level necessary, to see that there is enough protected habitat for all species to flourish."
Indeed, recognizing we alone are responsible for ensuring the survival of the creatures who share the Earth with us should be reason enough for safeguarding their irreplaceable and dwindling habitats. But maintaining biodiversity also is good for human health and economic prosperity. Biodiversity plays an essential role in soil formation and retention, sustaining and purifying water supplies, preventing the spread of invasive species, pollinating plants and warding off life-threatening illnesses such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
And now there's promising evidence that protecting wilderness areas can help alleviate poverty. A study published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that conserving land in Thailand and Costa Rica over the last 25 years actually improved the financial well-being of inhabitants in surrounding communities. This flies in the face of accepted wisdom that acres dedicated to parks and wildlife preservation retard economic advancement by limiting land available for farming, mining and industry. While the study's authors can't pinpoint why poverty decreased around protected areas, they offer several convincing reasons. One is a rise in eco-tourism that hastened the creation of new infrastructure, such as roads. These byways not only delivered more visitors, but served as a catalyst for other types of development and much-needed jobs.
The key to protecting biodiversity whether by conserving a rainforest in Thailand, a volcano in Patagonia or a ridgetop along the Hudson River is educating people about the ecological, recreational and economic benefits derived from the magnificent natural resource in their backyard and helping them recognize their vested interest in saving it. In the U.S., where many simply regard open space as untapped potential for commercial or residential development, this can be an uphill climb. But with climate change taking on added urgency each day, it's a climb we must attempt at all costs. As anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, "The future is not determined and it lies in our own hands."
See more stunning satellite photos of Patagonia:
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.