Douglas Tompkins: Passion for Nature (1943-2015)

E-mail Print
Called by the indigenous Tehuelche “El Chelenko,” Lago General Carrera in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia, the second-largest lake in South America, is a glittering, gorgeous jewel with awesome hues of blue. Like the rest of Patagonia, it is also prone to wide swings in the weather. The winds can swirl about at tremendous speed, turning the lake into a veritable sea with leaping waves. And so it was on Tuesday, when Douglas Tompkins together with five others, including his longtime friend and partner in outdoors adventures, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Inc., set out to kayak the lake but were tragically overcome by Patagonian nature. 
According to press reports, Tompkins, 72, was in a 2-person kayak with Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and head of environmental programs for Patagonia, Inc., when their kayak capsized. Ridgeway was rescued, but the group struggled to hold on to Tompkins, who endured the icy waters of the lake for almost two hours until a helicipoter arrived, helping to bring him ashore and then take Tompkins to a hospital in the city of Coyhaique, where he arrived without vital signs suffering from severe hypothermia and died in the intensive care unit. 
Tompkins was an accomplished skiier, climber and paddler, throughout his adult life traveling around the world in pursuit of his passions in the outdoors. His stubborn perfectionism led him to excel not just in sports, but in business, founding the mega clothing giants, The North Face and Esprit. In an interview with Buenos Aires newspaper La Nacion in 2013, he described himself as an "intense man, focused, with determination and a strong sense of irony." 
Yet, it was Tompkins' passion for nature that will mark his legacy above all else. The last 25 years of his life he became an environmental leader and philanthropist. From the early 1990's on, he devoted the fortune he accumulated in business toward creating future national parks in some of Patagonia's last wild places. He purchased altogether an astounding 2.2 million acres in Chile and Argentina for conservation during this period, with his initial land purchases forming the world’s largest private nature reserve, Pumalin Park in southern Chile. Three national parks in both Chile and Argentina (Monte Leon, Yendegaia and Corcovado) have so far been established due to his generosity, and the rest of his lands are planned for inclusion in nine more future national parks.  He also was a force behind several environmental campaigns in Chile and worldwide, counting among his greatest victories the defeat of the large-scale HidroAysen dam project in Chilean Patagonia. 
We have lost a great defender of nature. Patagon Journal sends its deepest condolences to Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, Conservacion Patagonica, Fundacion Pumalin and the rest of his family and staff. 
Below the complete interview Patagon Journal did with Tompkins for our inaugural issue, published in December 2011. 
Doug Tompkins is literally part of Patagonian mythology. For some, he is an environmental hero, arriving just in time to save some of the most valuable natural areas in the region from short-sighted development schemes. For others in Chile and Argentina, he is a mystery man difficult to discern among the vast cloud of rumors and suspicions about his intentions.  But closer to the mark: Tompkins, 68, formerly a highly successful businessman in the United States as the founder of the North Face and Esprit companies, brought with him to Patagonia a passionate conservation ethic and a love of the outdoors that dates back to his youth.
I first met Tompkins in 1991, on my first day working as an assistant to the late David Brower, an environmental leader in the United States. That day, Tompkins made a visit to Brower’s office and I was floored by the beauty of the nature in the slideshow he presented while giving an overview of his Pumalin Park project in northern Patagonia. It had been the first time I had actually taken notice of this part of the world. Since then, Tompkins expanded his holdings to include a massive 298,800 hectares of volcanoes, mountains, rainforest, and rivers and in 2005 Pumalin was officially recognized by Chile as a “nature sanctuary,” which gives it some protection from industrial activity. In 2002, Tompkins also donated 84,000 hectares in Palena to help create Corcovado National Park, joining together his former holdings with surrounding state land. He is currently attempting to convince the Chilean government to consider a similar move on Riesco Island in Magallanes using as a key piece of a proposed park there his 26,000 hectare, Cabo Leon property. Among his many other Patagonia initiatives, jointly with Conservacion Patagonica, a foundation set up by his wife Kris McDivitt, Tompkins helped found the 66,000-hectare Monte Leon National Park on the Argentine Patagonian coast and the 184,000-hectare future Patagonia National Park in Aysen.
Over the years, as a journalist I have interviewed him on several occasions and most recently was able to spend some time with him at his offices in Puerto Varas. Time helps take an accurate measure of a man: Tompkins has been refreshingly consistent in his commitment to wildlands protection.  History depends upon who tells the story, but I wager that future generations will look back with enormous gratitude for Tompkins’ work trying to save some of the planet’s last large, pristine nature areas.  Excerpts from Patagon Journal’s exclusive interview with Doug Tompkins:
Langman: In Chile, you are oft criticized, in particular by ex-Chilean President Eduardo Frei, for harming economic development by preserving too much land as parks.  
Tompkins: I think maybe that’s changing now. We don’t have enough parks and biodiversity is in crisis. I think its really a question of which side of the coin you’re looking at. And I see Chile as overdeveloped. I call such critics over-developers, because we have gone way past the carrying capacity of the earth to sustain all these people. By all measures, using government statistics, nobody has shown anywhere that we are as a globe underdeveloped.
Developing countries such as Chile often say that they deserve the right to exploit all of their natural resources in order to grow faster.
Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view, there are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective. A few years ago, we were called the doom and gloomers, but its all being borne out every day. There are limits to growth. Environmental movements are unstoppable movements. They’re unstoppable because of the conditions that are out there.
Global warming is waking people up.
It’s a fact of life. I say that in 2007 we reached critical mass in global warming. Have you heard in the last two years anybody denying global warming? They don’t exist, or they are laughed out of the room. I think we are coming into an ecology century and the environmental movement is just unstoppable. I don´t think for a second anyone would say environmental laws are going to get slacker. Look at the last 50 years, and every year they got tougher and tougher.
What got you involved in environmentalism?
I joined the Sierra Club when I was 16, but I was very light green. At that point, I hadn’t a clue about the deeper issues. It took me a long time to get to this point.  You have to read a lot. Activism helps. One day, I was at work in San Francisco at Esprit, and I just realized I was more interested in campaigns to stop dams in Canada and things like that.
Your many climbing trips must have also had an effect on you.
Yeah, you go back to places that you had been to ten years before, and there are clearcuts everywhere, bulldozers pushing a road into wilderness areas. You just keep seeing this interminable growth, this sort of implacable march of so-called progress, and you start saying, wait a minute.
Its not often that people as wealthy as you are take the turn you took.
I’m not the only person with a certain amount of wealth that turns to philanthropy. That’s one of the great things about America, its full of lots of truly generous people. I think a lot of Americans do a lot of bad stuff, and the country as a whole does a lot of bad stuff that I’m not at all proud of, but on the philanthropic side, I really take my hat off to Americans and that tradition.
But you could have easily just stayed with making money at Esprit.
I learned from my parents that you have to get pleasure out of what you’re doing, or don’t do it. And I also learned that you do a lot better and have a lot more satisfaction, and a lot more fun for that matter, by striving after excellence in the craft that you’re involved in. You can be in the wrong craft. That is why I got out of making stuff that nobody needs, because I came to realize that all that needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis.
You’ve gone through some difficult times in Patagonia in your efforts to protect nature here.
Well, I feel totally at home in this part of the world. This is where I am going to croak.  I feel a strong bond with Chile and Argentina. I have even begun to think that I am caring for Argentina and Chile perhaps more than Argentines and Chileans. I feel like I’m sort of a de facto citizen, because I am looking after their national patrimony, which is the land, very carefully. You come to realize the passport is meaningless. It is really your behavior that determines whether you´re a patriot. If you’re trashing your own country, ruining the soils, contaminating the waters and the air, cutting down trees, overfishing the lakes, rivers and oceans, you’re not much of a patriot. I see a lot of these nationalists pumping their chests about being such a patriot and meanwhile they’re trashing their own country, the patrimony, I don’t find that so patriotic I have to say.
What are your views on ecotourism?
Ecotourism can bring all sorts of problems, it has to be defined, and it must examine carefully what its impacts are. To suggest that ecotourism is the cure-all and it’s going to sort out economic issues as they pertain to biodiversity conservation; I think that would be a very shallow analysis. Now, if you compare ecotourism with mass industrial tourism, I’ll choose ecotourism. But right now, with the overdevelopment issue and its impacts on biodiversity, it wouldn’t be hard to say that it would be good if everybody stayed home and found pleasure with their loved ones. If everybody raised their hand and voted that we are all to stay home to reduce pressure on the ecosphere, I would be the first to raise my hand.
You have opened Pumalin Park to tourism.
Yes, we are one of the few places in all of Chile that has public access on private property. In Argentina everywhere the gate is locked. I think it’s not healthy for private individuals or foundations or companies to own a lot of land. I’d like to see land spread out in its ownership, and the way to spread it out best is through public ownership because then everybody owns it. The national park is owned by every citizen. That appeals to me. I find that’s on the social justice side, and it is also very good for conservation. In our particular case, I think that we see ourselves as sort of provisional stewards. It’s a joke to think you own it forever. You’re just transient in this world; we’re all just brief tenants.
What brought you to Patagonia?
I came here the first time in 1961. So I knew this part of the world really well. I knew I wanted to live outside a big urban area like San Francisco. Once I got free of business, I also wanted to get a farm. I looked around and this is a nice part of the world. And I have a lot of friends here from all my years of climbing here. I’m also a forestry activist, and in the late 1980s, Yvon Chouinard, Alan Weeden and myself helped buy the Cani forest near Pucón.  That kind of got my feet wet [with land conservation], and then somebody told us about a farm in Riñihue, and that was attached to another piece of land Rick Klein told us about at Cahuelmo, and we went down to take a look at it, and one thing led to another.
What kind of things do you farm?
What I’m really interested in is highly diverse farms versus the monoculture, industrial agriculture type. Even though some of our farms are big, we break them down into smaller farms. Orchards in one section. Organic management. Building top soil. If I just had more time, if I had another lifetime, then I would put it 100 percent into farming. Because I just think that if the world is going to get itself out of this whole eco-social crisis, that if agriculture can´t be turned around there is no hope. It has the biggest impact on the landscapes, water and climate. We need a whole new model of agriculture and food production.