“Conservation is our passion: we feel privileged to make it the second part of our life’s work. Even at discouraging moments—when we read reports on accelerating biodiversity loss, learn of a new road planned through the Serengeti, or watch how Japan keeps killing whales under the false claim of research—we cannot imagine stopping this work we are doing to help reverse the extinction crisis. From our point of view, there’s no better thing to do—plus, we find ourselves working with the best people on the planet.”
Doug and Kris Tompkins
The Passing of a Legend
Most people would not be familiar with Doug Tompkins, yet many would have some awareness of the now household name brands of North Face and Esprit, both of which he founded. Doug Tompkins passed away in early December of last year in a tragic kayaking accident in southern Chile when strong waves caused his kayak to capsize, causing the onset of fatal hypothermia.
Tompkins started out as an avid outdoorsman, being a competent ski racer and rock climber in the early 1960’s and going on to found the California Mountaineering Guide Service. Having a passion for being outdoors, Tompkins began The North Face Inc. in 1964 with his former wife Susie Tompkins in San Francisco as a small mail order and retail company, selling rock climbing and camping equipment. In 1966 the first store was opened, at which the band The Grateful Dead played. Two years later Tompkins sold out his stake for $50,000, using the profit to join his wife in co-founding Esprit, a fashion house. (1) Together they turned Esprit into one of the most popular brands of the 70’s and 80’s; it became a transnational company operating in 60 countries and generating revenues of over $100 million a year.
From Industry to Ecology
Witnessing the growth, externalities, and ecological impacts of the fashion industry, Tompkins removed himself from the business world, selling his stake in Espirt in the late 1980’s to focus on land conservation. After selling his interest in Esprit, Tompkins moved to south Chile, where he had previously spent much time climbing, kayaking, and skiing, to focus on land conservation and environmental activism. He founded the ‘Foundation for Deep Ecology’ in 1990, which supports environmental activism, and the ‘The Conservation Land Trust’ in 1992, which works to protect wildlands, primarily in Chile and Argentina. (2) In 1993, Doug Tompkins remarried Kristine McDivitt Wear, a former chief executive of the Patagonia retail chain. Kristine Tompkins retired from the chain and moved to Patagonia with Doug to work full time on conservation. Between the two, Doug and Kris Tompkins spent the last 25 years working on creating protected national parks in vulnerable areas of Chile and Argentina to provide a vital refuge for endangered wildlife at a time when the human demands on the non-human world increase daily. Between them, they protected more land from ‘development’ than any other private individuals in history – over 2 million acres in total, and there were plans for more.(3)
A Man on a Mission
The Tompkins’ conservation efforts focused on preserving wild landscapes and biodiversity. According to a friend of Tompkins, Paul Kingsnorth, who posts the Dark MountainBlog, “Doug saw the protection of non-human life, in the face of the human onslaught, as the crucial work of our time. This remarkable display of both philanthropy and ecological ambition was a long-term project not simply to preserve wild nature and give it some chance of recovery, but also to persaude others to contribute to an overarching plan to connect protected areas throughout the continent, and in so doing to provide a wild corridor through which non-human life could move and survive.” (4)
In 1996 Tompkins Conservation Land Trust CLT continued to purchase land from absentee landowners to create Pumalín Park, a process that lasted nearly a decade and resulted in a protected area of more than 711,000 acres. The park was developed to encourage Chileans and citizens of the world to experience these unique and spectacular landscapes, and so CLT developed a network of cabins, campgrounds, trails, information centers, and other public facilities. The Conservation Land Trust later donated the protected lands to Fundacion Pumalín, a Chilean foundation, for their administration and ongoing preservation as a public park under private initiative. In 2004 Patagonia National Park project began: Conservacion Patagonica purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a 175,000-acre sheep ranch in Chile’s Aysen Province, with the plan of creating and donating a new national park to the Chilean park system.(5)
In 2005, Tompkins, with the help of another American philanthropist (Peter Buckley), acquired 208,000 acres along the southern Chilean coast to help secure Corcovado National Park, Chile’s sixth largest, which he then gifted to the people of Chile. Previously the land had been held by a European corporation whose principal owner, an Italian businessman, had targeted it for a massive development and logging operation. For more details on the Thompkins Conservation Trust Click Here.
To access a full interview with Doug and Kris Tompkins with Paul Kingsnorth Click Here.
(1) Sarah Kaplan (December 9, 2015). “North Face co-founder turned ‘eco baron’ Douglas Tompkins is killed in Chile kayaking accident”. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
(2) Diana Saverin, Sept 15th 2014, The Atlantic, The Entrepreneur who Wants to Save Paradise. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/09/the-entrepreneur-who-wants-to-save-paradise/380116/