The Billionaire-turned-conservationist

Douglas Tompkins made a fortune selling high-end jackets and adventure gear as the founder of North Face. After foundingThe North Face as a small ski and backpacking gear shop in San Francisco in the 1960s, Mr Tompkins helped his then wife start Esprit, a clothing brand. Both companies would grow into multinational clothing giants.

But in the late 1980s, he left the business world for South America in order to pursue environmentalism, co-founding the Foundation for Deep Ecology in 1990. He moved to the wilds of Chile and Argentina, espousing an anti-consumerist philosophy, buying huge swaths of land and making enemies along the way.

He often said that he felt lucky to have escaped the shackles of the corporate class and, in his own words, do something with “meaning”. That, it seems, he unquestionably did, spending millions of dollars buying up swathes of pristine land in Argentina and Chile – areas in which he claimed to feel like a “de facto citizen” – and turning them into conservation areas. He and wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins had purchased some 2.2 million acres of land, including Pumalin Park in Chile, one of the world’s largest private nature reserves, made up of forests, lakes and fjords stretching from the Andes mountains to the Pacific

He spent his final years railing against the very corporate world that made him a billionaire. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that there’s no future in capitalism,” he said in a 2012 interview. “It’s probably no more than 500 years old, and it’s demonstrating over and over again that it is destroying the world.”

But their large-scale South American activities have not been immune from controversy or opposition. Right-wing Chilean politicians accused the US couple of land grabbing, while local media have sometimes peddled conspiracy theories alleging all sorts of “dark” motives lying behind their activities, according to a 2009 profile.

As a fierce activist, Mr Tompkins also faced-off with corporate interests and their political backers, from loggers to salmon exporters and energy companies hoping to dam Patagonia’s rivers.

Despite the heat, he took a bold stand – asserting that he was acting in the best interests of his adopted homelands.”It is really your behaviour that determines whether you’re a patriot,” he once said. “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.”

In 2015, Douglas Tompkins died in a kayaking accident. In March 2017, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of Doug Tompkins, donated 408,000 hectares of land to Chile for national parks to be created.

His widow said Mr Tompkins’ vision had inspired her to make the pledge.”I know that if Doug were here today, he would speak of national parks being one of the greatest expressions of democracy that a country can realise, preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry,” she said.

The donated 408,000 hectares (one million acres) will form part of a network of 17 national parks in Patagonia covering an area the size of Switzerland.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said that it was a “key step to treasuring this giant source of biodiversity and safe keep it in the public interest”.

The agreement between the Chilean state and the Tompkins family marks a high point for conservation in Patagonia and shows how far relations between the two have improved since Douglas Tompkins first arrived here in the early 1990s.

The Tompkins created their Pumalin Park in the narrowest part of what is already an extraordinarily narrow country. Chileans worried that the Tompkins would eventually own land from the coast to the Argentine border, effectively splitting their country in two.

But as the ecology movement took root in Chile, relations improved. The Tompkins have won over their sceptics with their commitment to “rewilding” Patagonia – returning it to nature and mitigating the impact of man.

The Chilean state agreed to add a further 949,000 hectares of land. The 17 parks will stretch from the Chilean city of Puerto Montt down to Cape Horn, some 2,000km (1,250 miles) to the south





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