The notion that Douglas Tompkins is a living, breathing dichotomy is not lost on the man himself. The multimillionaire who made his fortune in the apparel business followed a calling to become a dedicated conservationist in the second act of his professional life.
At age 66, the lifetime outdoorsman is an advocate for sustainable economies that balance human needs with those of the environment. And he has created one of the world’s largest private conservation efforts in Chile.
“This idea of growth forever is a contradiction to all that we know of the ecosphere and its processes,” said Tompkins, in response to questions e-mailed to his remote farmhouse in Pumalín Park, the Patagonian land preserve he started in 1991. “We need examples of how to construct an economy where stability is the goal, and [where] we produce prosperity without wealth,” Tompkins said. “Other societies in the past have managed this – none perfectly – but there is no perfection anywhere.”
Before taking up environmental activism, Tompkins was highly successful as the driving force behind top-selling clothing brands. Using $5,000 in borrowed money, he launched the outdoor gear company, The North Face, in 1966 and sold it for 10 times the initial investment just two years later. Tompkins used the proceeds to help his first wife, Susie, start what would become a leading women’s apparel company, Esprit. By the mid-1980s, Esprit would book global sales of $1 billion. The two divorced in 1988, and in 1990 Tompkins sold his stake to his ex-wife.
Tompkins later married Kris McDivitt, then CEO of Patagonia, the maker of upscale outdoor apparel that was founded by clothing magnate Yvon Chouinard, himself an ardent environmentalist and Tompkins’ long-time climbing partner.
Tompkins and his wife turned their attention to Chile, a country where Tompkins had spent time hiking and climbing. The couple purchased huge stretches of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, spending an estimated $300 million since 1994 on land preserves and ecological causes through their private charitable foundations.
Pumalín Park is nearly 800,000 acres of temperate rainforest that cuts a large swath from the Chilean coast west to the Andes. The park is home to hundreds of people, many who now work as guides, organic farmers, or wildlife managers.
In the Argentine province of Santa Cruz, Kris Tompkins used $1.7 million from her Patagonian Land Trust to buy the 155,000-acre Estancia Monte Leon, according to an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, later donating the land to the Argentine government in 2004. The area is home to endangered species of deer, sea lions and Magellanic penguins. The land trust has since focused on preserving a subtropical area of Argentina where it plans to reintroduce indigenous giant anteaters, tapirs and jaguars.
In the process, Tompkins has become a star for the conservation movement in South America, although his private park and outspoken stand against industrial degradation of the environment have stirred controversy in Chile.
But in August 2008, the Chilean government designated Pumalín Park as a nature sanctuary, a move that has smoothed over relations. The privately owned Chilean Pumalín Foundation now oversees the park, which is open to the public.
Tompkins said he likes the hands-on aspects of land conservation, as well as environmental activism and that working in both spheres helps him maintain a balance in his life.
“Land conservation, when done in the private sector, is very real, and you can see it, even walk around on it,” Tompkins said. “Changing policy takes time…[it] is a slippery fish and can squirt out of one’s hands and be lost.”
But he has no intention of relenting and believes that others increasingly share his vision and embrace his mission.
“Today, there are more and more people all over the world who are sensing they are on this runaway train,” Tompkins said. “The anti-globalization movement is proof of this.”
Two centuries of unfettered industrialization, in the name of development and progress, have spawned myriad environmental damages, of which climate change is the “purest expression,” Tompkins maintained. “Until we are thinking …that what is good for the world will therefore be good for us, we will continue to ruin the world.”
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About the Author: William Plasencia is the former managing editor for Latin Trade.
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