Profile: Douglas Tompkins

Newstatesman.com profiles Douglas Tompkins, millionaire property magnate turned ecologist

Ever heard of Douglas Tompkins? The name may not ring any bells over here in Britain but cut across to the Americas and it’s a quite different story.

A former fashion magnate who co-founded North Face and Esprit, Tompkins was prompted to sell-up after an “epiphany” in the 1980s. He has since devoted his $150m fortune to buying up vast tracts of land in Chile, then Argentina, creating what is now one of the world’s largest privately owned conservation sites.

Born in 1943, he was raised in Millbrook, N.Y., a summer resort for Manhattan's upper middle class. Tompkins dropped out of high school and found his way to California to try to make the US ski team in time for the 1964 Olympics. He then met first wife and first business partner, Susie Russell.

He failed to make it onto the ski team but soon found another niche. He decided to pursue his talent for business and design and in 1966 in San Francisco founded clothes company North Face. Two years later he sold the business for $50,000.

Along with his wife, Tompkins then set up a dress making company that would become Esprit. In the late 80s, when Esprit was flying high in American fashion Tompkins read George Sessions's and Bill Devall's primer, Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered, and decided to make a change.

As he states on his Deep Ecology website: "Within the few hours that it took to read the book, I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense. The book offered a new vision of how things got the way they were. It combined the activism of David Brower, my environmental hero (founder of Friends of the Earth), with the insight of Robinson Jeffers, my poet hero."

His passion for commercial industry was waning. "Fashion is one of the most intellectually vacuous industries," he has said since. "We had to manufacture desires to get people to buy our products. We were selling people countless things that they didn't need."

In 1988 he and several friends bought 1,000 acres of forest in Chile's Lake District. And in 1989 founded the Ira-Hiti Foundation, the name often given to the Deep Ecology Foundation. Then in 1990 he sold his share of Esprit for a reported $150million.

Tompkins had bought a ranch 600 miles south of the Chilean capital Santiago, originally intending it to be used as a retreat. Then he slowly, and quietly, began purchasing more land – he and second wife Kristine McDivitt, have spent about $150 million buying two dozen properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina.

He has not been without his opponents. Once it became known that an American was buying up huge tracts of land the Chileans started to take notice and speculate about this foreigner’s motives.

The claims have been predictably wild - some have suggested that he wants to create a nuclear dumping ground, others speculated that he wanted to seize control of water supplies in a world with a growing thirst - there have even been accusations that Tompkins, “a buttoned-down, grey-haired WASP”, had acquired the land as the site for a new Jewish state.

Antonio Horvath, a conservative senator for southern Chile said: "If I were to go to the United States and buy a big area of Florida as an environmental preserve and tell people they can't go here or there, I think the U.S. would kick me right out of there".

In 1996 when Tompkins made efforts to join the north and south sections of Pumalín Park by buying a further 74,000 acres, his efforts were blocked Chile’s then Christian Democratic government.

The Roman Catholic University of Valparaiso, that owned the land, eventually sold it to a Spanish-controlled power company.

Tompkin’s latest battle has been concerning energy production. In 2004 two utility firms, Spanish-owned Endesa and Canadian-owned Hydro-Quebec announced a $4bn plan to build four dams.
Chile was experiencing perpetual power crises and needed the 2,400 megawatts expected to be generated. The impoverished region also needed the proposed 38,000 jobs.

Along with his wife, Tompkins began a campaign against the project – it was close to their newly acquired land in Valle Chacabuco.

Hesitantly and almost apologetically, many local business leaders and politicians agreed with them, calling the dams “gargantuan, destructive and a threat to the local lifestyle”.

In 2006, Rafael Mateo, the CEO of Endesa's Chilean operations, told the Santiago business magazine Capital that the dams would avert a national "energy crisis." He blamed opposition on "radical groups with unadapted ideologies." He declined to discuss the Tompkins's role, briefly describing him as "a private gentleman with land that would be crossed by a transmission line".

A new socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who took office in March 2006, seems to have backed away from the previous government’s support of the dams saying her administration would review carefully the potential environmental impact of the proposals.

Meanwhile the Tompkins have become big employers in the region but there remains a clash of cultures over the rich Americans who are buying up vast tracts of Chilean territory.

Miguel Stutzin of the National Committee for the Defence of Fauna and Flora (Chile’s oldest and most organized environmental group): "This kind of philanthropy doesn't exist in Latin America -- giving without getting something in return. And that has created enormous suspicions”.

Tompkins is aware of this: "We want to do something good, but you've got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance"

It has always been the intention of Tompkins to preserve the land he has bought and then return it to government of Chile and in 1995 the park was granted sanctuary status by the Chilean government.

For outside environmentalists, his work has worldwide significance because it combines large-scale wilderness protection, land restoration and organic farming. As to whether the Chilean government will eventually take over Pumalin and make it a national park, as Tompkins hopes, only time will tell.