Investor Douglas Tompkins is Creating a Future Patagonian National Park

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Douglas Tompkins—the founder of Esprit and The North Face—is using his fortune to build massive national parks in Chile and Argentina. But what he sees as philanthropy, local ranchers see as meddling.

Everyone in Patagonia is talking about: Conservación Patagonica, the latest addition to the world’s largest private conservation project.

Fifteen years ago, in the June 1999 issue of The Atlantic, William Langewiesche wrote about Tompkins’s first major venture into conservation in Chile, describing both Tompkins’s idealistic vision and the infamy that had already shrouded him. The hostility has only grown as his conservation empire has expanded. Rumors now range from the conspiratorial to the phantasmagorical: Tompkins is creating a second Israel in South America; he is siphoning off the world’s last freshwater resources for other American millionaires; he is building bunkers for a pending nuclear war.

No one seems to believe what Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kris, are actually doing: They have purchased enough land in Chile and Argentina to equal an area the size of nearly two Rhode Islands, and they plan to donate these ice-coated peaks, red-rock canyons, and coastal volcanoes to the respective governments in the form of national parks. They have protected more land than any other private individuals in history.

In the United States, Tompkins’s name is rarely recognized until it is linked to one of the two apparel companies he founded: Esprit and The North Face. In Chile, however, mentioning his name can bring rage to the faces of even the most apolitical people. Kris’s name is less recognized and less reviled in the region, even though she is her husband’s partner in his conservation work. Before she became a full-time philanthropist, she made her own fortune as CEO of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia. Since leaving their industry jobs, the Tompkinses have started a host of organizations aimed at protecting the wild: The Foundation for Deep Ecology, Conservación Patagonica, Fundación Pumalín, Fundación Yendegaia, The Conservation Land Trust, and Tompkins Conservation.

In 2004, Conservación Patagonica acquired the Chacabuco Valley and has since been turning it into what the Tompkinses call the Future Patagonia National Park. It is this 178,000-acre plot of land that everyone in the region is now talking about. Once they bought it, the Tompkinses began their efforts to restore the land to the state it was in before humans exploited it. They sold almost all the 30,000 sheep and 3,800 cows that came with the property. They built several large stone buildings with wide, divided-light windows and pitched copper roofs. Their employees and volunteers removed more than 400 miles of fencing and pulled plant after plant of invasive species out of the ground.

Few in neighboring towns were quick to trust their eccentric new neighbor—the organic farmer, the WASPy backpacker, the amateur architect, the billionaire entrepreneur, the high-school dropout, the former ski racer, the grizzled mountaineer, the bold whitewater kayaker, the daring bush pilot, the audacious land-grabber, the radical environmentalist, the would-be savior of the Patagonian wilds.

Tompkins moved to a small farm on one of his first park projects in Chile: Parque Pumalín. Unlike the yellow, rolling hills of low brush in the Chacabuco Valley, Pumalín covers 715,000 acres of dense and wet forest, carved by deep fjords, with mountains that drop steeply to the sea and islands that splatter across the surrounding bay.

While living in Pumalín, he often flew to another small farm he had purchased to the south of it. It is one of his and Kris’s “agricultural restoration projects,” where they repair and redesign degraded farms, building organic ones in their place to offer a model for neighboring farmers to emulate.

They eventually bought 208,000 acres in 1994, adding more a few years later. Much of the land surrounding theirs was federally owned. In 2004, Tompkins suggested to Chile’s then-president, Ricardo Lagos, that the Chilean government donate this federal land, along with Tompkins’s private land, and join the areas. Those 726,000 acres now comprise Corcovado, Chile’s sixth-largest national park.

One of Pumalín’s entrances is now in the town of Amarillo, where a few park rangers like Erwin Gonzalez are readying the park for turnover to the Chilean government. Gonzalez is a young man from Santiago with jeans and rubber boots who gave me a tour of the park in his pick-up truck. We started in town, where the Tompkinses have engaged in what the park materials call “Village Beautification.”

“The people were a little hesitant,” Gonzalez told me. “A gringo shows up and tells us our town is ugly? But now it’s going well.”

As Gonzalez indicated, Tompkins has taken many of the decisions about the design of these renovations into his own hands—the patterns of the houses’ trim, the colors of their fences.

Gonzalez drove us out of town and into the park. He pointed out different campsites and parking lots amid the wet forest, explaining Tompkins’s process: Tompkins would draw a sketch of what he imagined for each aspect of the park—from the bends in the trails and roads to the arrangement of a campsite’s picnic tables and benches. Gonzalez and his colleagues would then build as fast as they could according to these drawings. Tompkins would later return to see his ideas embodied and give his stamp of approval or rejection. Rejection, in this case, might mean that Gonzalez and the other rangers had to scrap the progress they’d made and begun building anew.

Like many of Tompkins’s employees, the executive director of Conservación Patagonica, Nadine Lehner, once described this obsessiveness to me.

“That’s the thing about Tompkins,” she said. “He’s an abstract thinker, but he also brings it down to ‘Where should the toilet paper go?’ with a sense that that really matters.”

The local distrust is largely fueled by the sensitivity of the place where the new park sits. In its ranching days, the Valley was home to the third largest sheep ranch in Chile. It was Belgian-owned, but it employed numerous Chilean workers; the town of Cochrane originally formed to house families who had moved there. After Tompkins bought the land, the exodus of sheep and cows from the Valley caused bitter resentment. Conservación Patagonica has employed plenty of locals, but the work of weeding invasive plants and removing fences doesn’t tap into the same sense of regional identity as shearing sheep and running cattle.

Anti environmentalists

Resentment toward the new Tompkins park has given  way to resistance: Ranchers from neighboring towns protest by the façade of the stone restaurant in the Valley. They drove their trucks onto the grassy front yard, barbecued several lambs over an open fire, and shouted into megaphones about gringos in general and the Tompkinses in particular. They wore wool sweaters, leather boots, and ubiquitous gaucho-style berets called boinas. Tompkins never showed his face, but the ranchers stood their ground on his all day. Stickers on trucks depicted a silhouetted gaucho in a woolen poncho riding on horseback below snow-topped mountains and vivid blue skies, evoking the romantic landscape the protestors call home, full of granite spires and teal lakes, renowned for its winds and frequently referred to as the end of the world. Several posters read, Patagonia Sin Tompkins, or Patagonia Without Tompkins.  “Patagonia Without Tompkins” stickers on trucks in Cochrane

While most attendees were there to halt the gringo land grab and bring sheep back to the Valley, the leaders of La Voz had a few other goals in mind for the group. The objectives ignored by the crowd contained thinly veiled support of the controversial HidroAysén—a massive five-dam project that the Chilean government had suspended in 2012 after massive nationwide protests. One objective read, “Support all private investment that means development for our people”; another touted “permanent benefits for the region if HidroAysén, or other hydroelectric or mining projects, go through in those places.”

When La Voz first began in 2013, it was more up front about its agenda: It originally had “hydroelectricity and development” as a subtitle on one of its stickers. The sticker, which featured a poncho-clad, silhouetted gaucho, evolved to read, “La Voz de la Patagonia: Intervening for Our Aysén Heritage.” In its effort to win support, HidroAysén has created local radio programs, grants and scholarships for students and small businesses, and door-to-door campaigns. The company funded a celebratory “day of the sheep.”

Since Tompkins is locally loathed, HidroAysén supported La Voz when it began presenting itself as a popular uprising against his conservation work. After that, La Voz gained momentum more quickly. After only a month or two in existence, the group collected 1,000 signatures of support. (Around 3,000 people live in Cochrane.)

Many Voz supporters I met were, in fact, against the dams; they believed that the group’s focus was Tompkins, and denied HidroAysén’s influence on the organization. Some of those people were against Tompkins for the same reasons they were against HidroAysén: Both were outsiders. “To me, they’re the same,” said Marcos Millahonu, a young man from Cochrane who attended the Voz protest in the Valley. “They are both private parties with private interests. One doesn’t want the dams because it’d interfere with his property, and the other wants to build dams to make money.”

The public relations director of HidroAysén, María Irene Soto, is a middle-aged woman with wrists adorned in bracelets and eyes lined in kohl. I have met her on two occasions. Both times, she began by reciting the details of the dams. She talked about the small size of the floods, the mere handful of families who would be displaced, and best of all, the fact that the dam would last 500 years. Then, she steered our conversation toward Tompkins, saying that the only reason there was such massive local, national, and international resistance to the dams was because one rich gringo had singlehandedly financed the campaign against the project.

“The people don’t like Tompkins,” she said. “And the people can’t defend themselves because he’s very powerful.” Hearing her speak, one would hardly have guessed that she represented a largely Italian and Spanish-owned energy company whose multi-billion dollar dam project would have halted two wild rivers and sent the energy they generated more than 1,000 miles to the north, leaving none of it in the region. (The Chilean government ultimately rejected the proposal.)

On María’s Twitter account, she has a picture of the president of La Voz, Carlos Olivares, sitting by a woodstove and looking at the group’s book of signatures. I met Olivares in Cochrane’s plaza a few days after the bingo fundraiser. He is a balding, sturdy man with a straightforward quality that kept his gait quick and his conversation to the point. He insisted that he was vocalizing the needs of the people, especially the gauchos—representing those who could not represent themselves. He described the Valley as the most fertile land in the region, emphasizing that it wasn’t fair for so many other gauchos to have to scrape by on ranches high in the mountains where grass hardly grew when the Valley was left “unused.” Carlos doesn’t want the land to be gazed at; he wants it to be grazed.

Carlos raised his eyebrows, and added with suspicion, “He’s a deep preservationist.”

People often threw around variants of the term “deep ecology” during tirades against Tompkins, though I was rarely sure what people understood it to mean. I asked Olivares to elaborate.

“It means he doesn’t accept anything,” he said. “I mean anything. Just flora and fauna. He erases buildings, fences, people around him. He doesn’t want people nearby.”

People in Cochrane didn’t like Tompkins. “He doesn’t work with animals they say.”  “He works with fauna”

I mentioned the fierce criticism I’d heard in Cochrane, and Tompkins immediately replied that Cochrane had been settled only 60 or 70 years before and that there weren’t any great sages coming out of there. He called Cochrane’s mayor a “right-wing xenophobe who’s not too smart.”

“When I talk to him, he talks to me like I know nothing about ranching,” Tompkins said, complaining that he “gets shit” from local guys who think he isn’t a rancher, despite the fact that he and Kris manage agriculture restoration projects, separate from their parks, that involve thousands of sheep and tens of thousands of cows.

“You ask him about overgrazing, and he denies it,” Tompkins said, beginning another diatribe. “He’s an overgrazing denier.”

Tompkins mentioned the ranch that belongs to Robustiano Gonzalez, one of his only remaining neighbors in the Valley. He and Kris bought up many of the small ranches in the area after their initial purchase, but Robustiano has continually refused to sell. Tompkins told me to look at his ranch at the end of the summer—it would be eroded and bare, everything blown away.

“This Valley was overgrazed. That’s the story of Patagonia. Twenty-five to 30 percent of Patagonia is desertified. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar or a Yale student to see that.”

He said that the way gauchos like Robustiano stand up for their traditions is “all well and good,” but only if their way of life matches the ecological reality of the place where they live.

“The rest is the fantasy and dreams of the community. It’s irrelevant to Mother Nature.”
“I just have to remember that in 100 years—10, 20—people won’t be able to imagine this not being a park.”

Kris has been more bothered than her husband by the “Patagonia Without Tompkins” movement in town. She told me that when they first moved to Pumalín, there were military planes strafing their house and death threats for her husband. Neighbors accused them of building a site for nuclear waste.

She said she regrets the lack of contact that fueled the distrust and misunderstanding. “The work with the community started slow,” she said. “We felt like we didn’t want to bring people until there was something to see—the buildings, the trails. So we didn’t have as many events. What was someone going to see? Sticks and stones here?

“But what can you do?” she continued. “There are some people that want this to be a sheep ranch. It doesn’t matter. I just have to remember that in 100 years—10, 20—people won’t be able to imagine this not being a park.”

Kris’s team has been trying to demystify their project by bringing local high school kids to the park to hike and camp, and training others from Cochrane who want to be guides once the park opens. Young people tend to be more open to the idea of the park than their parents—giving those at Conservación Patagonica hope that the next generation in Cochrane will accept and benefit from their project.

In the meantime, park employees have learned how to respond to the local resentment. When I met with Nadine Lehner, the executive director of Conservacion Patagonica, I mentioned that people in town, like Teresa the café owner, often complained that the buildings Tompkins so obsessed over didn’t fit into the region’s identity.

“A world-class tourism destination takes a world-class brand,” replied Lehner, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate with dark hair and a chic summer style I wasn’t used to seeing in Aysén: colored jeans and tucked-in tank tops. “It’s not what some guy in Cochrane would suggest. I don’t think Yellowstone’s success was based on what locals thought about it 10 years in.”

“A lot of conservation work in the U.S. is boring,” Lehner continued. “We had someone here from the Princeton Land Trust, and he was like, ‘We just saved 100 acres!’ We were like, ‘Great! Now you have a place to walk your dogs!’”

“When Doug wants to get something done, he will use different reasons to get that done,” Lehner explained. “But Doug has the same contempt for all humanity. He has the same contempt for New York City.”

But the proportions of Tompkins’s actions are much vaster than those of the writers whose words moved him. Tompkins hasn’t occupied a small sector of the woods and set out to live deliberately; he has purchased more acres in Chile and Argentina than exist in the state of Delaware. In doing so, he has dismissed the complaints of his neighbors, assuming that, like the group of curmudgeonly ranchers near the Tetons, they will eventually adopt his vision and be grateful.

Part of why Tompkins ignores these complaints is that he sees them as short-sighted, while his own vision goes far beyond the time he will spend on Earth. In their book Land Ethics, the Tompkinses write that they don’t consider themselves landowners—even though they have purchased more land than nearly anyone else in the world. On a geological timescale, they write, the short moment in which they hold titles to the land is “nothing more than a wink of an eye.”

In such a view, the tribulations the Tompkinses have faced in the Valley—the conspiracy theories, the Voz resistance, the rancher resentment, the accusations about the gringo land buy-up—are ephemeral, while the preservation of wild landscapes and endangered species endures millennia. The back page of Wildlands Philanthropy, a book published by The Foundation for Deep Ecology, is a wide expanse of white with a short quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Laws change; people die; the land remains.

Part of an article about Douglas Tompkins written by Freelance Writer Diana Saverin .

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