It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Doug Tompkins yesterday.
Doug was founder of Esprit and then North Face clothing brands, a mountain climber of note who happened to be a brilliant businessman. But it’s what he did with is money that is his legacy.
For the past 25 or more years Doug, along with his wife Kris, have been buying strategically important, environmentally vulnerable tracts of land in South America, primarily Patagonia, to protect them.
I remember living in Santiago de Chile in the early 1990s when the country’s press, people and parliament, were up in arms about Tompkins’ Parque Pumalín project. They had purchased a stretch of precipitous forested mountains around the town of Chaltén.
The plan was to protect the ancient Andean Larch (Alerce) forests. These trees are amongst the oldest, and slowest growing, in the world. They routinely grow for over a thousand years and sometimes manage three or more. Unfortunately for the Alerce, they produce wood so valuable that people go to almost any lengths to chop them down.
Pumalín took a huge area of Alerce forest and kept it safe. Not only did Doug Tompkins promise to protect it, he also said that the land would be prepared for donation to the Chilean state as a National Park. Nobody believed him.
Pumalín is located at the narrowest point of Chile and runs from the Argentine border to the fjords of Chile’s Pacific archipelago. Argentina’s great strategic aim has always been to get a Pacific port – it’s the source of constant tension between the two countries.
A foreign entity coming in and buying a cross section of the country sent Chile’s media into a flat spin. Pumalín was very widely believed to be some sort of Argentine sponsored Trojan horse. Very, very few believed the official Tompkins story – that it would be given to the Chilean people.
Tompkins pointed out that the land was completely inaccessible – sheer mountain side that couldn’t possibly be crossed by man or beast. Eventually, that accusation faded only to be replaced with the rumour that they were about to start uranium mining.
Another, more outlandish, was that Tompkins would be setting up a Zionist foothold. Nobody quite explained why a lapsed Anglican would be doing this, nor why Jewish settlers would be flocking to this spectacularly wet corner of South America. Some said that they were building a UFO car park.
I remember clearly that the most controversial opinion to express in Chile at the time was that maybe, just maybe, he was telling the truth. But he was. They were.
Not only was Pumalín donated to the Chilean state as national park but the Tompkins work set off a new fashion for grand environmental philanthropy in Chile. Rich individuals, corporations, even the Chilean military got in on the act and started to protect and donate lands to the state.
For Tompkins too, Pumalín was just the start. Their passion for the environment, for Patagonia in particular, meant that their fortune, energy and time, was to be dedicated to the process of purchasing vast areas of ecologically significant lands across the region to make sure that they weren’t destroyed.
There are millions of hectares of Chile, and Argentina, which are protected for good, because of this man’s vision. It’s not to pretend that Doug Tompkins wasn’t a controversial figure, but there’s no doubt that he was a visionary nor that he has left a legacy of global significance.
I met Doug a couple of times this year, once down in southern Chile when I was at his newest grand project: the future Parque Patagonia. He was there with people from the Argentine parks authority discussing ways in which they could create cross-border infrastructure. I was coming back from a hike through the Parque. Doug’s energy was palpable. He wanted to know what I thought of the park, how I’d found the trails, what I’d seen that day – he loved to hear people loving the landscape.
Doug Tompkins had been exploring and enjoying Patagonia for the best part of 50 years and I think he just wanted to share. Patagonia does that to a person. It’s exactly what happened to me when I first went there in the 1990s.
Tompkins died while kayaking on Lago General Carrera – adventuring in the heart of remote Patagonia on the most beautiful lake imaginable. I hope that is some comfort to Kris, his friends and family. For my part, I’d like to just say thank you for doing so much to protect my beloved Patagonia.