Every time I see someone bundled up in a North Face fleece jacket or vest (which, here in San Francisco’s year-round chilly climate, is daily), I think of the company’s founder, who so adored the natural landscapes of southern Chile and Argentina, he donated his fortune made in business to preserve them.
Together, Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, who also founded Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, purchased and then donated over two million acres of magnificent glaciers, fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, lakes and rainforest, mostly in Chile, to keep them “forever wild.”
The biggest land donation in world history
Through their philanthropy, the couple, whose actions are considered the biggest land donation in world history, created or expanded 15 national parks, protecting over 14 million acres of land and designating two marine parks.
Animals and people were part of the equation as well: 10 native wildlife species were re-introduced, and over 75 communities living on the land were able to continue their traditional ways of life undisturbed. Based on the size and scope of these donations, it’s no wonder Chile was named the World’s Leading Nature Destination for 2020 and 2019 in the World Travel Awards.
Chile is a shining example of authentic ecotourism
The new parks created by the Chilean government included Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park in Chile’s Lake District, a wonderland of waterfalls, temperate rainforest, two volcanoes and hot springs, and Patagonia National Park further south, a landscape of high mountains, steppes and several dozen lakes and lagoons (where a lookout point above Lake Cochrane is named after Douglas Tompkins).
Chile now has the Route of Parks, a 1,700-mile trail that connects 17 national parks, from Puerto Montt in the Lake District, to Cape Horn at South America’s southernmost tip. Joining Torres del Paine, the most famous, beloved for its signature jagged granite peaks, lakes in startling shades of turquoise and jade-green and glaciers – a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve – Chile’s new Tompkins-created parks include, in addition to Pumalin (716,000 acres) and Patagonia (650,000 acres), Yendegaia (370,000 acres), located on Tierra del Fuego, the large island in southernmost Patagonia) and Corcovado (726,000 acres).
Why did they do it? There’s a “social justice issue about national parks. No matter who you are, you have access to the masterpieces of your society,” says Kristine, Tompkins’ second wife, who after retiring from Patagonia, Inc. married Tompkins in 1993. Their motivation: the “importance of maintaining beauty as a value,” she adds. In fact, re-wilding the world was the subject of her 2020 TED talk.
The chief executive of Patagonia Inc. for 20 years, she shaped the outdoor retailer into one of the most environmentally conscious companies around, choosing to donate 10% of all profits to conservation projects in 1980. The retailer founded 1% for the Planet, an organization of companies and nonprofits that promise to donate 1% of all sales, or 10% of all profits, to protect the environment.
How did they do it?
Piece by piece, Douglas and Kristine began buying land in Chile in the early 1990s, actions viewed with extreme suspicion by many citizens, as well as logging hydroelectric power companies and ranchers eager to exploit their country’s resources. Crazy rumors flew about the foreigners’ plans – some thought it was for US business interests, others to replace cows with North American bison. Wealthy from selling his stake in two clothing retailers in San Francisco – The North Face, which began as a small shop in the 1960s, and Esprit, a sportswear company he and his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, later co-founded – Tompkins turned his considerable energies to conserving the landscapes that thrilled him full-time. The land trust the couple created, Tompkins Conservation, accomplished their projects through a network of nonprofits, such as Fundacion Rewilding Chile and Rewilding Argentina.
Ancient trees benefit
Many of the world’s tallest and most ancient trees in Chile owe their preservation to the couple. Called alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides), up to 180 feet tall, some 3,000 years old, the hardwoods were once logged until they were nearly extinct, prized for their waterproof quality. In the Chiloe islands, west of the Lake District, unusual 18th-century wood churches built by German priests, a UNESCO treasure, are covered by alerce shingles, as well as houses. Today, one in four of Chile’s alerce trees is in Pumalin Park, since it’s against the law to harvest live alerce.
Patagonia National Park
Patagonia National Park was created after Kristine bought a decrepit sheep ranch in 2004 in the Valle Chacabuco with $1.7 million of her equity from Patagonia Inc. Miles of fences were taken down and invasive plants were torn out by hand so that native animal species and grasslands would return. Today, guanacos (wild reddish-brown camelids that are cousins to alpacas and llamas), huemuls (Andean deer), pumas and flamingoes abound. In fact, 10% of Chile’s huemuls, an endangered species, live in this park. So do unusual plants, such as porcelain orchids, white flowers patterned with thin green lines. The hardy orchid survives despite being blanketed by snow for up to eight months, just one of 27 orchid species native to Chile.
The “Buy only what you need” movement
Increasingly frustrated by the business world’s disdain for ecological issues and people’s overconsumption in his last years in retailing, Tompkins spearheaded a “Buy Only What You Need” campaign at Esprit, a phrase that appeared on clothing tags. In the national parks he and his wife cobbled together, he micro-managed every detail from their gardens and organic farms to the architecture of visitor centers.
A consummate outdoorsman (and high school dropout who went to Europe and the Andes to ski and hike instead of going to college), Tompkins grew up in Millbrook, N.Y. After traveling to Patagonia to ski, rock-climb and surf in 1968 with three friends, he made an adventure film about their journey, Mountain of Storms, the next year. Ironically, he died after a kayaking accident in his beloved Patagonia.
Can natural beauty inspire climate action?
“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty,” said Kristine. “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul” was one of Douglas’ favorite quotes. It’s an adage of Edward Abbey, who wrote Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness after working as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Park. “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread” and “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders,” wrote Abbey, whose book rails against “industrial tourism” and recommends things to preserve the environment, such as building no new paved roads inside national parks and placing parking lots at their edges.
Of the landscapes that haunted their souls and just wouldn’t quit, Bruce Chatwin wrote, “The word Patagonia… lodged itself in the Western imagination as a metaphor for the Ultimate, the point beyond which one could not go” in his travelogue, In Patagonia. It was named after a monster in a 16th-century Spanish novel by Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer (and first European to reach it) who discovered it in 1520. Fittingly, there’s a province in southern Patagonia named Magallanes, in his honor. (The other province is cheerily named Ultima Esperanza, “last hope.”)
I first heard about Tompkins while at Tierra Chiloe, a hotel in the Chiloe islands of Chile, off the coast of the Lake District. Snuggled in the lounge of the small hotel, named to the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World for its green features, I found a book in its library. The book on Yendegaia National Park was published by Tompkins Conservation, along with other books about the parks they created. On the very island where I was staying, Isla Grande, I read that Chile’s former president, Sebastian Pinera, a wealthy businessman, was inspired to create his own national park on land he purchased in 2005, inspired by Tompkins, whom he knew. Filled with wetlands, the world’s smallest deer (the adorable pudu, about a foot high) and visited by blue whales, Tantauco Park is managed by his foundation.
Clearly, the couple’s example has had ripple effects. “Whoever you are, wherever your interest lies, whatever you’ve fallen in love with, get out of the bed every morning and do something. Act, step into the fray – fight for a human society in balance with the natural world,” Kristine urges.