The man who gave national parks to Chile and Argentina dies

Doug Tompkins, a self-described wildlands philanthropist, died this week of hypothermia after a kayaking accident in the Patagonian Andes that he loved and had devoted his life to protecting.

The 72 year old American had fallen in love with Patagonia during a climbing trip to Mount Fitzroy in the 1960s. Back in the United States he made his fortune by founding and selling The North Face outdoor gear company and then co-founding and building Esprit clothing company. After selling his interest in it he devoted his life to philanthropy and had a particular passion for making national parks in Chile and Argentina.

Tompkins followed an innovative and unorthodox strategy. He and his partner in life and conservation Kris McDivitt Tompkins bought old cattle and sheep estancias on the open market and then restored their ecosystems including some missing species.  They then gave the restored landscapes to Chile and Argentina to create national parks in the public interest.

Doug Tompkins supervising the construction of visitor facilities in the future Patagonia National Park, Chile, in February 2015. Photo copyright Harvey Locke

In 2014 the Tompkins with the support of other philanthropists worked with the government of Chile to create the 150,000 hectare (372,0000 acres) Yendegaia National Park in Tierra del Fuego. They donated 40,000 hectares of private land and the Chilean government matched it with 110,00 hectares of public land. This spectacular new park protects coastlines, steppes, Magellanic forests, lakes and part of the Darwin Range of mountains. Sebastian Pinera, the former President of Chile called it “a highly significant event during my term in office”.  In all Tompkins Conservation has helped to create five national  parks and expand one other in Argentina and Chile and has ambitions to create more.

Doug Tompkins also created the privately owned Pumalin Park on the old growth forest clad fjords of coastal Chile which he opened to the public through the creation of first class national park-like facilities.  At 298,000 hectares (715,000 acres) in size, Pumalin is one of the largest and most heavily forested private protected areas in the world. The total area the Tompkins have protected in various ways is 917,000 hectares (2.2 million acres).

An activist as well as a philanthropist, Tompkins devoted his prodigious energy to successfully fighting the construction of hydro -electric dams on the wild rivers of southern Chile. He also published and served as art director for large format books that celebrated the wild areas he worked to protect or that took on causes that were important to him such as industrial agriculture, over-population and over-consumption. These impressive tomes are notable for their striking imagery and high production values. The dramatic photographs of ravaged hillsides and abused forests found in the landmark book Clearcut: the Tragedy of Industrial Forestry shocked the consciousness of North Americans when it appeared in 1993.

DSC_8190 visitor facils in fut PatNP cHLocke 2015
Visitor facilities artfully tucked into the landscape of the future Patagonia National Park. Photo copyright Harvey Locke

Doug Tompkin’s love of design and strict attention to detail are evident in the exceptionally aesthetically pleasing visitor facilities including lodge, restaurant and visitor center that he oversaw in what he and Kris called the Future Patagonia National Park. This magnificent area consists of low elevation grasslands, Magellanic forests, high mountains and a restored river valley that runs from the Argentine border to  Chile’s Rio Baker. It is of enormous biological significance to the entire region.

The Future Patagonia Park is not far from Lake General Carrera. Doug was kayaking on the huge cold lake when the accident that led to his death occurred.

DSC_4802 Lake General Carrera
Lake General Carrera in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Photo copyright Harvey Locke

Nature has lost one of her great champions but Doug Tompkins’ legacy will live on in the places and species he helped to protect.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
From his base in Banff National Park, Harvey Locke works in the Yellowstone to Yukon region and around the world to protect parks and wilderness areas and to conserve the larger landscapes they are located in. With camera in hand, Harvey visits adventurous places with remarkable people to engage in the science and practice of nature conservation. His goal is to see at least half the world protected in an interconnected way.