Outside magazine, June 1998
Lord of All He Surveys
What do you do with $150 million and an overpowering desire to save the earth? You buy your own Yosemite. And hope the natives go along with the master plan.
By John Ryle
We are making our way by boat along a remote fjord in southern Chile, three of us ù myself, a photographer, and the elusive multimillionaire, the man I have come to visit. Storms have been blowing in from the sea all week, wrapping the nearby mountains in cloud. There's a low swell and a steady downpour. Once in a while the
deluge gives way to a fine mist, and pencils of sunlight come to rest on wooded cliffs or slender waterfalls that cascade hundreds of feet into the fjord. They vanish as the rain returns, heavier and more chill, creeping down the necks of our waterproof jackets and into our rubber boots, fogging lenses, penetrating every flap and seam until we are wet to the bone.
At the helm of the 20-foot launch, craggy and stern in a green sou'wester and a sodden wool hat, is the millionaire in question: Douglas Tompkins, 55-year-old clothing magnate turned eco-crat, Chile's richest gringo, the man who bought a rainforest. Tompkins's property is a thousand-square-mile slice of land that runs from the border with Argentina to the ocean. It
includes ù besides glaciers, whitewater rivers, and an active volcano ù a good part of the world's reserves of alerce, an ancient tree that is the Southern Hemisphere's answer to the sequoia. Tompkins lives and works here in the heart of the wilderness, 40 miles from the nearest road, light-years from his life as the founder of The North Face and Esprit.
This cold, wet, arboreal empire has become his sanctuary ù and, increasingly, his battleground.
Starting in 1991, after he walked away from Esprit and moved to South America to devote his life to conservation, Tompkins has made dozens of separate land deals in Chile's Region X, where the southern wilderness begins. His aim has been to create the world's biggest private nature reserve, which he calls Pumalín Park. Land is cheap in this part of the
country:Tompkins's first 24,700 acres ù purchased, as were many of his holdings, from absentee foreign owners ù cost him just $600,000, with a herd of cows thrown in. ("Less than a condo in San Francisco,"he tells visitors.) He's since spent another $16.5 million. But a piece of the jigsaw is missing, a crucial 84,000-acre parcel of land owned by the
Catholic University of Valparaiso. In 1995 Tompkins was poised to buy this piece of land for $2 million; then the Chilean government, spooked by reports of the size of his holdings, froze the sale, citing national security concerns. It did not relent even when Tompkins announced his intention of donating the park to a Chilean-run charitable foundation. The Chilean
military was bothered that Tompkins's holdings, which run from Argentina to the sea at the narrowest point in this long, thin country, effectively cut Chile in two. Nationalist politicians said a foreigner should not be allowed to own so much land in any case. Both camps found Tompkins, in the words of former Defense Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma, "irritating and out of
The struggle, as Tompkins sees it, is between the shortsighted greed of those who control the Chilean economy, which is dependent on extractive industries ù timber, mining, fishing ù and the long-term interests of the inhabitants of the country. All he is trying to do, he says, is save the trees for future generations of Chileans. "We have to put the
care and maintenance of nature first," he argues, "the preservation of biological and cultural diversity. We can't reshape the functioning of the planetary ecosystem." In the United States, comments like this usually get Tompkins good press. To Brent Blackwelder, president of the Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth, he is "a St.
Francis for South America." But in Chile, Tompkins faces a credibility gap. A lot of Chileans don't believe him, or they think he is going about things in the wrong way. Claudio Alvarado, a government deputy who represents the district that includes Pumalín Park, says Tompkins should have been more conciliatory, should have acquainted himself with the locals
before he bought so much land in the province. "People don't trust him," he says. "Their relationship with him has been conflictive, difficult, because the origins of his project were never clear." Nor does Alvarado have any time for Tompkins's ideas about conservation. Tompkins is an ardent proponent of deep ecology, the environmental doctrine that holds, among other
beliefs, that all living things have value independent of the use human beings make of them. It's a philosophy that runs counter to the Judeo-Christian ethic of man's dominion over the earth and all its resources. Deep ecology also calls for a reduction in human population levels, a proposal that rankles some of Chile's Catholic leaders, who have called Tompkins an
abortionist (Tompkins says he opposes abortion) and have petitioned the Vatican not to let the University of Valparaiso sell to him.
"Ithink he has been really surprised by the controversy," says Adrianna Hoffmann, a biologist who is director of the Santiago-based Defenders of the Chilean Forest and a friend of Tompkins. "He expected to be thanked, to be made an honorary citizen. But he walked straight into the lion's cage."
To his critics, Tompkins is the ugly American, riding roughshod over local sensibilities, buying up their country for his own purposes. From the taxi driver who takes me into Santiago when Iarrive in Chile to the freelance pilots who fly in and out of the park, there is no one without a theory about what he is really up to. At best, they think that he is betting on
land futures, reckoning that the wilderness will become a lucrative tourist resource; at worst, that he is an agent of a foreign power. Over the last four years he has been accused in the Chilean press of an increasingly implausible litany of offenses ù from throwing impoverished settlers off his land to planning a dumping ground for nuclear waste, from spying
for the United States and Argentina to establishing a new Jewish homeland (Tompkins is not Jewish). Anti-Tompkins grafitti have appeared in Puerto Montt, the closest city to the park, and there have been death threats against him and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, formerly chief executive of the clothing company Patagonia.
"As a gringo, I have an understanding that there are very rich men who like to do eccentric things with their money," says one Santiago-based American journalist. "The average Chilean mentality, however, is such that it's hard for them to grasp people like that. In Chile there's no history of philanthropy, so they feel there's got to be something behind Tompkins's
Tompkins does have his allies ù not only environmentalists, but politicians ù and a Catholic bishop, Bernardino Pinera, has spoken out in support. But some local conservationists are lukewarm. Bernardo Reyes, the technical director of a Santiago-based ecological campaigning group, says, "We've invited him to make presentations to the environmental
community, but he rarely accepts.We are generally in favor because Chileans themselves have no economic or political means to protect native forest lands. But we don't want to see the whole country turn into a private park."Chilean environmentalists are also sensitive to the accusation that they are becoming dependent on Tompkins's foundations for their money. In
April, a nationwide environmental conference was held in Santiago, but Chile's most-discussed environmentalist didn't attend.
TOMPKINS IS NOT AN EASY PERSON TO PIN down. He spends most of the year in Chile, and there is no telephone line to his house, no computer, no E-mail, no satellite phone. A two-way radio is his only link to the outside world. To get to his home, located on an isolated fjord called Re±ihu‰ Sound, you must hire a plane in Puerto Montt, a dank, untidy
harbor town where mountains of sodden red wood chips ù the fastest-growing sector of Chile's forest industry ù await export to Japan. The last American to make an impression here was Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, who brought cattle for sale down from his ranch at Cholila Valley, over the border in Argentina.
South of Puerto Montt the landscape changes; Chile's long coastline starts to break up into high ridges, steep inlets, and rocky islands, landforms born of the uplift of the Andes 200 million years ago. This is nature's own Jurassic Park. The forest that covers it, stretching east to the high peaks of the Andes and south to the icefields of Patagonia, is a primeval
ecosystem that combines the look of a pine wood with the verdant gloom and impenetrable profusion of a tropical rainforest. Inland, toward the Argentine border, rises the 8,104-foot snowcapped cone of Michimahuida, one of Chile's many active volcanoes. Tompkins owns this, too.
Tompkins's dream of Pumalín Park has its roots in his youthful passion for mountains. A high school dropout raised in New York City, he first visited Chile as a ski bum when he was 17. Tompkins moved to California in the early 1960s and worked there as a mountain guide. He borrowed $5,000 to start The North Face, one of the first companies to capitalize on
the outdoor sports boom, then sold it a few years later for $50,000 and started Esprit de Corps with his first wife, Susie Russell. By the mideighties, Esprit's sales worldwide had topped $1 billion. It was a company that epitomized the Californian hip business ethos, the culture of the Whole Earth Catalog. Employee perks included ski weekends and rafting trips in
Africa, while Tompkins himself took long breaks with his climbing partner and fellow fashion entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. But Esprit sales peaked in the late eighties, and the Tompkinses' marriage fell apart. In 1990, Tompkins sold his share of the company to a partnership that included his wife. He walked away, eventually, with more than $150
When he left Esprit, Tompkins was already on the roster of the liberal Californian plutocracy. But as his business enterprises grew he found himself questioning the process of economic globalization on which his success was built. The critical point came in a flight by small plane over British Columbia. As he surveyed the hundreds of miles of clear-cut forest,
Tompkins recalled in a 1993 essay, he was possessed by "green rage" against the destruction caused by industrial behemoths. "This is not possible," he wrote. "This has got to stop. This is a crime against nature, against life." He found himself drawn to the thought of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, theorist of deep ecology, who maintains that environmental
destruction can be halted only by mankind giving full recognition to the rights of other living beings and abandoning the aspiration to be master of the universe. In 1989 Tompkins established the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco ù a heavily endowed enterprise now run by his daughter ù and then spent a year criss-crossing the world. He toured
British Columbia, Alaska, and Norway, on foot and by small plane, before turning his attention southward, to Chile. Eventually he landed his Cessna at Re±ihu‰ to look at a run-down ranch that had been put up for sale. It was here that he found his new mission.
THE VIEW FROM THE BOAT AS WE CROSS the fjord is astounding: trees alight with frost, and beyond the trees, through the drifting clouds, glimpses of snowfields. It's easy to see why this place would captivate someone like Tompkins, the former mountaineer, who at Esprit preferred the title "image director" to "president and CEO." But as I look at a map of
Pumalín, I'm reminded of the gap in the park, the stretch of land that Tompkins does not own, separating the northern from the southern half. Although Tompkins has told me that an agreement with the government obliges him to call a temporary halt to his land purchases, he does not hide the fact that he's still hoping to get his hands on that important piece of
As he steers the boat, his wiry body erect in the cold wind, I ask Tompkins about the early days of the project. What were the first signs of local opposition? The answer lies round the next headland. Here is a sea lion rookery, breeding place of the creatures Spanish-speakers call lobos del mar, "sea wolves." As the boat hoves into view, groups of the great
pug-faced creatures flop from the rocks into the water. But one sea lion does not move; a bloated corpse floating in the water, it has been shot, sometime in the last few days. Tompkins curses and stops the boat. We circle the dead animal, and he asks the photographer who is with us to take a picture. "We need pictures as evidence," he says.
"It's the salmon farmers," he continues, gesturing at the floating platforms that lurk across the fjord. "They shoot them to stop them from stealing salmon from the cages. It's illegal, of course. Sea lions are a protected species. When I realized that was happening, I offered a million-peso reward" ù about $2,500 ù "to anyone with information about
it. They hated that."
Tompkins sued the salmon farmers over illegal trash dumping and won, but they are still a constant source of annoyance to him. He owns the land, but they operate on the water, so he has no control over what they do. Like most environmentalists, Tompkins abhors fish-farming. Caged salmon, he will tell you, are continually dosed with insecticide against lice; the
poisons enter the food chain, affecting shellfish and other filter-feeders. But for him, one suspects, it's not just the environmental pollution. It's the visual irritation. Rubbish from the floating platforms washes up on the foreshore. The dead sea lions are the last straw.
It was his quarrel with the salmon farmers that precipitated Tompkins's problems in Chile. In Region X, large-scale, state-subsidized fish-farming is a money-spinner: Every inlet and fjord is host to the floating cages of the salmon farmers. Opposition to the farming is easily construed as opposition to development itself. The row Tompkins sparked caught like a
forest fire in Chile's combustible political environment. The manager of the farm across the fjord turned out to have been a bodyguard of General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator, and to have connections with Chile's military establishment. Soon after Tompkins started his campaign to end the massacre of sea lions, a number of right-wing newspapers in Santiago
started agitating for his land purchases to be curtailed. And he found that his application to the government for sanctuary status for the park had been put on hold.
There is puzzlement in Tompkins's voice when he recounts these events. It's as though he can't quite understand why the world is not on his side. For him the park is without question a good thing, like nature itself. When he describes it his bearded face, usually so somber, lights up with enthusiasm.
The plan for Pumalín involves a system of trails and campsites reminiscent of the national park system in the United States ù Tompkins's first inspiration. But his will be better. These days, he argues, the original ideals of the Park Service are being undermined. "There's a new fashion in national park administration in the U.S.," he says,
"concessions, privatization, profit centers. Government economists are rejoicing, because they see that parks are starting to carry their own weight. They think: Why not auction off the scenery? So you have more and more infrastructure ù restaurants, grocery stores, video rentals. Like at Yosemite. Eventually this turns your park into Disneyland."
The problem with the parks department in Chile, he explains, is different. It has barely any financial resources at all. The entire annual budget for the country's 40-odd national parks is not much more than Tompkins spends in a year developing Pumalín (about $750,000). He argues ù and Chilean environmentalists such as Adrianna Hoffmann confirm this
view ù that the Chilean park system actually protects very little of the country's remaining forest. It is timber, after all, that has helped Chile become the fastest-growing economic power in South America, a NAFTApartner in the making. While Tompkins was putting together his park, a Canadian forestry company called Trillium bought a similar-sized stretch of
forest in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego for clear-cutting. In a surprising victory for Chile's conservationists, however, Trillium's felling operation was put on hold last April in response to intense pressure from environmental groups, including Greenpeace.
Although he is against commercialization of the park, Tompkins knows he has to offer something to the inhabitants of the area, an alternative to work on the logging crews and the salmon farms. The 150 people living on the coastal fringes of the park are colonos, mostly second- or third-generation settlers who work variously as fishermen and woodcutters, cultivating
the patchy soils of the region, felling its trees ù often illegally ù and fishing its depleted waters. One of the accusations leveled against Tompkins was that he was driving such people off his land. He denies this emphatically. On the contrary, he says, he believes it is possible to make local agriculture and husbandry more viable, so he is establishing
demonstration farms on the edge of the park, with beehives, puma-proof fencing, and more efficient use of animal waste. He is also employing several hundred local people to build trails and campsites in the nascent park and renovate abandoned farms on its fringes.
Tompkins sees this as a benefit to the community; his critics see it as a utopian project, an unsustainable fantasy imposed on the hapless colonos who live on his land. It is true that there is a paternalist streak in Tompkins. At Esprit employees weren't allowed to chew gum, smoke, or drink coffee on the job. One saleswoman was reportedly fired on the spot for
saying "damn" in front of a customer. And Tompkins could be ruthless in pursuit of control over his workforce. In the 1970s Esprit opened a garment factory in San Francisco's Chinatown, employing a hundred-odd workers. When the workers tried to organize a union, he closed the factory down. A report from the National Labor Relations Board noted Tompkins's "thread of
paternalism," his insistence that the shop was a distinctive experiment, a social model, and the fact that he closed it down as a response to "perceived ingratitude." Esprit challenged the judgment, but it was upheld; the company paid more than $1 million in back wages.
For Tompkins all this was long ago, in another life. An hour by sea along the fjord from the house at Re±ihu‰ ù beyond the sea lion rookery, past the boats of fishermen taking refuge from the stormy weather ù is the headquarters of the southern sector of the park, the first part to be opened. Here Tompkins has installed a caf‰, a
campsite, and a row of elegant shingled cabins for visitors to stay in, each designed by him down to the last detail. Up the road is one of the first trails to be opened, a steep, muddy track that leads to a grove of alerce trees, Fitzroya cupressoides (named after Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, which passed by here in the course of Charles Darwin's famous voyage). The
trees, some more than 2,000 years old, are the dinosaurs in this ancient park. Their timber, light in weight but resistant to rot, is as precious as ivory. They are the talismanic trees of the southern forest, as the puma is the talismanic animal.
"This place is one of the jewels of the park," says Tompkins, pointing to the woods below, the haunt of parakeets and hummingbirds and the huge Araucanian wood pigeon. "In the summer it's all red down there. It's a flowering forest.
"It always seemed so obvious," he says later. "The importance of wild places."
ON THE SITE OF THE ABANDONED RANCH, in the shadow of Michimahuida volcano, now stands the Tompkins compound, a neat cluster of wooden buildings near the banks of a river that flows into the fjord. When we return from the park in the evening, smoke is rising from the chimney of the house, merging with the mist. Children from the school that the Tompkinses have
established near the house are on their way to the shore to catch the boat home, their yellow oilskins billowing as they struggle against the gusting wind. Kris Tompkins is in the seed house in her kitchen garden. Rain is hissing on the woodstove as she checks on the germination of spinach and arugula for the spring planting. The garden is laid out with radiating
wooden walkways and raised beds of earth to prevent plants from becoming waterlogged. The garden surrounds the house; the house is built around the kitchen. This is an establishment where the production of food takes center stage. The good life, with tractable locals and limitless funds.
The buildings at Re±ihu‰, built of native stone and wood, with no brick or concrete to disfigure them, have the air of a nineteenth-century frontier homestead. But it is homesteading at its most chic. The Tompkinses' house is a hymn to timber: reclaimed alerce beams with the lichen still on them, polished floors of blond podocarpus, and high on the
wall a pair of Mapuche carvings, sculpted by the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile. The paint is a symphony of earth colors, as are the folded woolen ponchos and tight-woven Andean hats arranged on benches in the hall. The clothes the Tompkinses wear, khakis, cable-knit sweaters, and locally made woolen scarves, echo these colors ù California style
translated into the idiom of the Southern Hemisphere. Faced with such rigorous taste, I wish I had scanned my wardrobe a bit more carefully before I came, leaving behind that old but durable turquoise Patagonia rainjacket, dernier cri in mountaineering gear circa 1985.
As she moves about the garden, I ask Kris if she thinks the people they employ are in sympathy with their conservationist philosophy. "Many of them are," she says, "but it's a new thing for them. And their first concern is what goes on the table. They want education for their children, so they're forced to move out of the rural areas like this into Puerto Montt. And
they don't return. There are no schools in rural areas beyond the sixth grade. This is the sort of thing people here worry about."
The Tompkinses' sojourn in this place, it seems to me, resembles an Enlightenment project, something that a progressive landlord might have instituted in a remote part of eighteenth-century England or nineteenth-century Russia. It's like visiting Tolstoy at his estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the 1860s: agricultural innovation, rational resource management, and social
improvement are the order of the day. Undeveloped, sparsely populated land has made it possible for Tompkins to do, for the most part, just what he wants here. There are not many countries with the same combination of political stability, unexploited natural resources, and an open economy. "The country was just coming out of a dictatorship at the time I came here," he
says. "It didn't seem likely there'd be any land appropriation, The government was encouraging foreign investment ù though not the kind I had in mind."
While Tompkins has been trying to transform Chilean ideas about the environment, he has also transformed himself. He has turned his back on many of the indulgences of the rich. It shows in the house he has built. The stern aesthetic at work in the Tompkins home dictates that there are almost no artworks on display ù just wood carvings and two or three framed
black-and-white photographs. The bookcases in the living room, however, are filled with art books. Tompkins used to be a prominent art collector, and many of these books ù on Bacon, Balthus, L‰ger and Hopper ù reproduce paintings he once owned. Now he has sold them all or given them to the Foundation for Deep Ecology to sell.
Among the books is a catalogue raisonn‰ of Tompkins's collection of nineteenth-century Amish quilts, with an essay by the critic Robert Hughes. The quilts were made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by the members of the famously technophobic sect ù radical Protestants who to this day reject all modern devices, including electricity and zippers.
Tompkins started the collection when he was running Esprit. Only later, he says, did he realize that the Amish rejection of the modern and their elevation of everyday objects to a high aesthetic level presaged his own growing sense of the dangers of globalization and the importance of the genius of place. The quilts are the only pieces Tompkins has kept from his
original art collection.
The other books in the Tompkins house reflect this love of austerity. There is a long shelf dealing with the critique of industrial society and the works of the prophets of deep ecology. There are surprisingly few books on natural history. It is as though Tompkins thinks it is more important to understand the enemy than the forests he's protecting. Here, in
Tompkins's study, above an unadorned wooden table, are works by Oswald Spengler, the German theorist of cultural decline; by Lewis Mumford, chronicler of urbanization; by Clifford Stoll, a critic of computer culture; by Tompkins's friend and adviser Jerry Mander, Californian author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television; and Edward Goldsmith, founding
editor of The Ecologist and brother of the late Sir James. There is also everything available in English by the recondite Arne Naess.
Tompkins has had a hand in funding the publication of many of these books. When he talks about their authors he sounds uncharacteristically humble. His only regret living down here, he says, is that he has fewer occasions to talk with such people. He speaks fondly of his drinking sessions in London with Francis Bacon. There is a quotation from Mumford pinned on the
wall: "This is one of those times," it reads, "when only the dreamers will turn out to be practical men."
These days, Tompkins's particular concern is the synergy among new technologies. When computers, satellite communication, television, and global trade work together, he argues, they form a new and dangerous cluster, speeding up the destructive processes in the industrial world. He himself doesn't use computers at all, preferring pencil and paper. "I used to be keen
on computers," he says. "I was so keen on them I was on the cover of PC World. But we have to confront the fact that they are accelerating the worst aspects of industrial civilization, the steamrollering of nature and culture. These things require massive enterprises, military-sized budgets for research and development. Just to get one lousy laptop. And everyone is
dazzled by them ù by these baubles.
"I'm sure if you asked Bill Gates whether or not he believed that the extinction of species was a good thing he'd say no. But as the captain of the industry most responsible for the current acceleration of technological change and the expansion of human enterprise, it's him up there at the controls. And he's driving over the cliff. But he doesn't see this."
There is a limit, though, to the renunciation that Tompkins is willing to make in the name of deep ecology. There may be no phone or fax or computer at Re±ihu‰, but there are three planes, two of them lined up in the shingled hangar on the airstrip near the house. Without them Tompkins wouldn't be able to see the land he owns. And in his office in
Puerto Montt there are both a phone and a fax. "You can call it the strategic embrace of technology," he says, "as opposed to the substantive embrace." You could also call it keeping technology at arm's length, a privilege available mainly to the rich.
A more fundamental criticism, from the point of view of radical environmentalism, is that Tompkins lives on the fruits of capital, on interest from investments in the global economy. Even as he decries the dark synergy of communications technology, his money is busy moving and multiplying somewhere in the lucrosphere. Tompkins's park project, his Foundation for Deep
Ecology (whose investment portfolio has included Microsoft, McDonald's and Disney stocks), his life in Re±ihu‰, all depend on this, on the power of the free market. Is this also a strategic embrace of modernity, or is it a fatal ambivalence?
"When we were in the fashion business, we were part of the problem," he says. Now, he argues, he is at least less a part of it. "There's a phenomenon I call eco-lite," he says. "This is when you are worried about the environment and you try to write another message on top of the advertising budget. We did it at Esprit to an extent. The Body Shop in England does it.
Bennetton does it. But I say that if Luciano Bennetton sold his company tomorrow and put all his assets into a foundation that was dedicated 100 percent to what is supposed to be his viewpoint, he'd make more of an impact, one hell of an impact. The same thing with the Patagonia company. I keep telling Yvon Chouinard that if they want to put a real dent in things they
should just sell up and take all the proceeds and work 100 percent on what they believe in. Instead they have to spend 90 percent of their effort just to keep the wheels going.
"When I was at Esprit," he concludes, "I spent 20 hours a day on the business and only a few hours thinking about bigger issues. Now I have 24 hours a day to concentrate on what really matters."
SOME MONTHS AFTER MY VISIT TO CHILE, Tompkins's plans suffer a sharp setback. The stretch of land that separates the two parts of the park, the missing piece of the jigsaw, which he was barred by the government from purchasing, is sold secretly, with government approval, to Chile's biggest energy company, Endesa, whose president is one of Tompkins's leading critics.
Rather than Pumalín dividing Chile in half, as the military feared, it is the park that is now split in two. It's as though this was meant as a lesson to Tompkins, to show him who, finally, has the say in his adoptive country. Tompkins tells journalists he is dolido ù sad ù about the sale. Time will tell, he says, what will happen to the native
forest on his new neighbor's property. But for someone like Tompkins, convinced of the catastrophic acceleration of environmental destruction, there is not much time left. And whatever you think of Tompkins and his theories, it's hard not to agree, at least in part, with his main contention: that his experiment in Chile is the most important thing he has ever done.
John Ryle is the anthropology and ecology editor of the Times Literary Supplement in London and author of Warriors of the White Nile (Time-Life), an ethnography of the Agar Dinka tribe of southern Sudan.