Doug Tompkins, Chile's ecowarrior

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Doug Tompkins, Chile's ecowarrior
By Alex Frankel
Outside Online correspondent

From the amount of press he has garnered, his reputation in the outdoor field, and the amount of land he now owns in Chile (785,000 acres, with an eventual goal of 900,000), one would expect Doug Tompkins to be a looming, sharp-witted, fast-talking speaker with a booming voice. But he is compassionate, and speaks in soft, careful tones.

An audience of some 500 has amassed in an auditorium perched on a dock over the San Francisco Bay to listen to Tompkins' tales of the Pumalin Preserve, land that has become his passion over the last five years. The first slide shows lush, green forest, a typical image brandished by those campaigning for rainforest protection. The slide is bifurcated by a sharp diagonal line, and its other half shows clear-cuts on timber industry land.

He may not be a fast-talking narrator, but as a combined curator and naturalist he puts images together well. Setting the evening's somber tone, Tompkins proceeds through a full carousel of equally devastating shots of clear-cuts.

He is preaching to the informed, a crowd that has arrived in cars pasted with environmental messages on bumper stickers. "Stumps Don't Lie," says one. Tompkins, ever clear of the image he is presenting, embraces this as truth.

Tompkins' attempt to stake land for wilderness preservation contrasts starkly with government and private interests that are hell-bent on developing and extracting resources from the country's rich land. Chile's economic prosperity is linked directly to years of prior development and a change in course, as Tompkins's move would be, either signals the future path or an anomalous side road.

In the space of an hour, Tompkins moves through a fairly detailed description of his complex project in Chile. Still in its acquisition stages, the plan has involved purchasing large tracts of land in southern Chile and pursuing sanctuary status for them from the Chilean government. Stands of alerce trees (similar to California's giant sequoias and some as old as 3,000 years) and other trees, endangered wildlife, 37 lakes, and countless waterfalls lie on the property where some 220 inches of rain fall yearly. The topography compares with Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

In describing the park, Tompkins's message is part politics, part autobiography.

"I came from a world of materialism ... of promoting useless products," he confesses to this receptive audience, which cheers at his admission. Tompkins and his now ex-wife Susie started the immensely successful clothing company Esprit in the late 1960s. When Tompkins bailed out in 1990, he reaped a profit estimated at $125 million. As he tells it, he found himself interested and involved more and more in environmental preservation, and less in the fashion industry.

Chile: Great potential, great conflict
Doug Tompkins, exploring
the Pumalin Preserve

Tompkins has emerged as an eco-philanthropist along the lines of Ted Turner, funneling his fortune toward the nonprofit and often strapped field of environmental preservation. He has spun off nonprofit projects such as the International Forum on Globalization, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the EcoForestry Institute, and El Bosque Pumalin Foundation.

As Tompkins slowly purchased adjoining land parcels located south of Puerto Montt, Chile, spending some $12 million and becoming one of the nation's largest private landowners, the Chilean government eventually took notice and sought to halt the purchase of a crucial 74,000-acre segment known as Huinay, short for Loncohuinay, and owned by the Catholic University of Valparaiso. The acquisition stage has been slowed, with the Pumalin Preserve stuck in a holding pattern for now.

In 1995, Tompkins' El Bosque Pumalin Foundation asked the government for a guarantee of sanctuary status, and that the government not intervene in the Huinay land sale. In return, the foundation would give the protected land to a charitable Chilean foundation it had set up, called the Fundacion Educacion, Ciencia y Ecologia. Sanctuary status would reduce the commercial value of the land to nothing, a situation that by many accounts the government would not want to allow.

Opposition also comes from Chilean nationalists, who accuse Tompkins of trying to cut the country in half. The land, to be sure, does sit at Chile's slenderest width and stretches from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean.

No matter how you look at it, says one Chilean bus passenger, "el Norte Americano es muy eccentrico."

The Chilean national park system consists of some 80 protected parks, reserves and national monuments that cover 34.6 million acres, though the nationwide budget is just $3 million per year. Pumalin--the name means "where pumas live"--is the size of Yosemite National Park.

When and if sanctuary status is granted to the park, Tompkins has said he will spend $1 million to install information centers, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities. Even without that infrastructure, the park is open to the public and receives thousands of visitors a year, according to the El Bosque Pumalin Foundation.

Tompkins's base of operations in Chile is a restored mansion on the hillside above the yawning harbor in Puerto Montt. In the map room, walls are covered with maps of varying dimensions, crosshatched and divided into owned and unowned land.

Vivid black and white photographs of forests hang on the walls, blond wood lies underfoot, and quotations from Aldo Leopold and other eco-oriented writers are pinned on memo boards. A carefully researched and documented technical report on the project takes into account a dizzying array of factors, ranging from Chilean tourist demographics to native forest destruction.

Tompkins is known for putting up first ascents and boating big whitewater, yet he says he has grown to disapprove of the attitude that goes along with the modern conquest of nature. It is "part and parcel of the same world view that has given us industrialism, and is a perpetuation of the problem," he says.

"Nature is viewed as if it is an open-air gymnasium stage upon which people are going to play outdoor recreation, and it is not fundamentally deep involvement with nature," he says. "It is using nature as a backdrop for outdoor activities which are fundamentally Promethean in nature."

Tompkins started The North Face Company as a Berkeley-based equipment purveyor in the 1960s and later sold it to start Esprit. His present wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins, stepped down in 1993 as chief executive of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing purveyor whose growing sales paralleled the blossoming of the outdoors industry. The 53-year-old Tompkins stands as a legend in the outdoors community.

He knows the industry well, but says the "impact to natural systems and planetary environmental health is not being served by the so-called outdoor recreation industry."

Alex Frankel is a freelance writer living in San Francisco

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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