Saving the Last Frontier: Douglas and Kristine Tompkins fight to save the wilds of Chile and Argentina
September 10, 2006
In a wind-ripped Patagonian canyon, underneath the jagged peaks of the Andes, two Bay Area multimillionaires are fighting their umpteenth battle to save a last frontier. What’s different this time is that Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, finally are making more friends than enemies.
Over the past decade and a half, the Tompkinses have spent about $150 million to buy two dozen properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina, in what collectively amounts to the world’s largest privately run land conservation project. The Tompkinses make no secret of their radical environmental beliefs, and their tree-hugging ways have sparked fierce opposition in both countries, with nationalists on the political right and left accusing the couple of being gringo imperialists with a hidden agenda.
This clash between U.S.-style environmentalism and Latin America’s rising nationalism is turning out to be long and messy.
At stake throughout the region is a historic opportunity much like the North American West in the 19th century — an underpopulated vastness of prairie, glacier-capped mountains and majestic forests that can still be grabbed by anyone with money and ambition.
Yet the controversy over the Tompkinses’ land grabs may reach further yet, influencing whether the continent’s rising leftist movements try to protect or exploit their natural wonders.
In Chile, the Tompkinses have gradually won over public sentiment. After years of painstaking debate, many Chileans grudgingly admit that the Tompkinses are protecting Chile’s natural resources better than the Chileans themselves.
The Tompkinses’ latest major acquisition is the 173,000-acre Valle Chacabuco ranch, which the couple purchased in 2004 for $10 million, intending to convert it into a national park. At about the same time, two giant utility firms, Spanish-owned Endesa and Hydro-Quebec of Canada, announced a $4 billion plan, known as the Aysen project, to build four dams nearby.
At first, the dams seemed inevitable. Chile was experiencing perpetual power crises and needed the 2,400 megawatts expected to be generated, and the impoverished region needed jobs. But the Tompkinses began a campaign against the project. 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.
“Douglas Tompkins is a very eccentric guy, very fundamentalist and extreme,” said Sen. Antonio Horvath, a conservative who represents the region surrounding the dam sites and is a Tompkins foe. “But this time I agree with him. Those dams should not be built.”
At Valle Chacabuco, the Tompkinses have ripped out miles of fence, removing thousands of sheep and cattle and allowing repopulation of the native guanaco (a relative of the llama) and huemul (an endangered species of deer). As at many of their other properties, they are tearing down existing buildings and building hiking trails and a visitor lodge. They plan to combine Valle Chacabuco with other lands and donate them to the government for the creation of a Patagonia National Park.
McDivitt Tompkins, who is managing Valle Chacabuco, calls it a unique ecosystem that must be preserved. “This place has every original species, every ecotype,” she said. “It’s a conservation bridge between the steppe and the Andes. It’s a museum of Patagonia.”
The Aysen project’s four proposed hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers would inundate long stretches that are world-famous for fishing and whitewater kayaking. To connect this energy with the power grid in the rest of the country, transmission lines would be cut northward for 1,200 miles — a route that would not cross Valle Chacabuco but would include a 100-meter-wide corridor to be logged through the virgin rain forests of Pumalin Park, another Tompkins project. Construction is expected to start in 2008, and the first of four dams would be finished in 2012.
“This is a pristine area of Chile, and the dams would kill the possibility for tourism that the area deserves,” McDivitt Tompkins said. “And the (transmission lines) would do what our opponents have always wanted to do — cut up Pumalin and open the way for putting a highway through it. It would be ecological disaster.”
The campaign to stop the dams is also receiving support from other U.S. environmentalists, led by International Rivers Network of Berkeley and Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Endesa tries to downplay opposition, and a spokeswoman declined a Chronicle request to interview company officials. Earlier this year, 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 Tompkins’ role, saying only that he “is a private gentleman with land that would be crossed by a transmission line.”
Christian Nunez, the mayor of Cochrane, which, with 3,000 residents, is the largest town within 100 miles, said many locals have turned against the Aysen project because they fear most of the 3,800 construction jobs that Endesa promises to create “would be given to outsiders who would bring in social problems such as drugs, crime and prostitution.”
Since President Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist, took office in March, she has appeared to back off from the previous government’s tacit support for the dams. She said her government “will be extraordinarily careful in reviewing the environmental impact” of the project, and added that Endesa should instead consider building run-of-river hydro projects — smaller facilities that divert water through tunnels to generate power.
The Tompkinses are converts to the ideology of “deep ecology,” in which human material consumption must be reduced to help restore and protect the planet’s health. They are among the most prominent individual donors to radical ecological and anti-globalization groups. Last year, two Sausalito foundations that they fund and control — Foundation for Deep Ecology and Conservation Land Trust — spent $15.7 million on conservation projects and grants to environmental and anti-free-trade groups.
Douglas Tompkins, 63, made his fortune founding and then selling two successful San Francisco companies, clothier Esprit and outdoor gear company North Face. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, 55, made a smaller amount during a 12-year stint as chief executive officer of Patagonia, Inc., a Ventura outdoor clothing firm that was named by its founder, Yvon Chouinard, after he visited the region with Tompkins on climbing and kayaking trips in the ’60s and ’70s.
Douglas Tompkins’ South American battles began in 1992, when for $60 million he purchased a Yosemite-size swath of coastal rain forest 200 miles north of Valle Chacabuco. He named that 762,000-acre property Pumalin Park, and opened it to the public. Chilean conservatives — including officials in the center-right administration of then-President Patricio Aylwin — accused him of ulterior motives ranging from the breakup of Chile and the creation of a CIA spy station to the founding of a Zionist enclave (although neither Tompkins nor his wife is Jewish).
Finally, last August, the government ended its long battle over Pumalin by giving it official protected status and promising to convert it into a national park — thus assuming the expenses that are now paid by Tompkins — at an unspecified future date.
In Argentina, the Chilean turn of events was reversed — first came harmony, then discord.
In 2001, the couple purchased a 153,000-acre Patagonian sheep farm on a desolate stretch of Atlantic coast, home to one of the largest Magellan penguin rookeries in the world. They ripped out fences, carried out restoration work and donated the property to the government. President Nestor Kirchner, a Patagonian native, named it Monte Leon National Park.
This year, however, the left wing of Kirchner’s progressive political coalition has ripped into Tompkins. On Aug. 17, a group of legislators, church leaders and grass-roots activists introduced a bill into Congress that would expropriate the Tompkinses’ properties in the Esteros del Ibera region, a mirror-flat expanse of plains and swamps in the nation’s subtropical northeast that is rich in wildlife such as alligators and capybaras. The Tompkinses own 320,000 acres of land that they are restoring in preparation for it to become a national park, as well as 280,000 acres that they manage as organic cattle ranches.
The bill’s author, Araceli Mendez, a member of Congress and Kirchner ally from the surrounding Corrientes province, accused Tompkins of trying to monopolize the area’s water resources and suggested he was working in behalf of the U.S. military, which is building a base in neighboring Paraguay.
“Let’s give the North Americans a kick in the ass,” said Hebe de Bonafini, head of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human-rights group. The Venezuelan and Bolivian ambassadors to Argentina also appeared alongside Mendez, lending the authority of their respective presidents, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, who are revered by the continent’s rising left.
From his home in a remote valley at Pumalin, where he and his wife spend much of the year, Tompkins impatiently dismisses the criticism and lectures visiting politicians, businesspeople and environmentalists with near-religious intensity.
“We humans are doing nothing more than manufacturing our own coffin in space,” Tompkins said in a recent interview. “The ecosystem can only tolerate so much. We’re consuming like there’s no tomorrow.” He criticized President Bush, saying, “his environmental and foreign policies really couldn’t be more unsustainable for the planet and the human race.”
The controversy around the Tompkinses mirrors a deeper shift in the region’s economy. Since the 1970s, Patagonia’s huge sheep industry has collapsed because of falling wool prices and desertification. Hundreds of sheep ranches have gone out of business; others have been sold to wealthy foreigners. Nearly one-sixth of Argentine Patagonia now belongs to 350 foreign owners, including Ted Turner, financier George Soros and Italian clothiers Carlo and Luciano Benetton.
Most of these properties are run as private ranches and are not open to the public, but Tompkins-style philanthropic conservation is catching on. Recent examples include:
— Peter Buckley, a former Esprit executive who is co-founder of two Berkeley nonprofit groups, the Center for Ecoliteracy and the David Brower Center, purchased 215,000 acres of rain forest and glaciated mountains near Pumalin and donated it to the Chilean government to create Corcovado National Park. Buckley also contributed funds to the purchase of Valle Chacabuco.
— Chilean billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who narrowly lost January’s presidential election to Michelle Bachelet, purchased 270,000 forested acres on Chiloe Island, west of Pumalin, and is converting it to a public park and ecotourism site.
— Goldman Sachs, the investment firm, teamed with the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York to create a 670,000-acre park in southern Chile’s Tierra del Fuego.
— The World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy purchased 148,000 acres of mostly virgin rain forest near the central Chile coastal city of Valdivia to create a nature reserve.
“In the States, we can only protect small areas, but here, for $10 million you can buy a million-acre ranch,” said Chouinard, chairman of Patagonia Inc., who purchased 8,000 acres next to Valle Chacabuco and has donated funds to the park project. “There are tons of opportunities for creating parks, and now is the time,” Chouinard said. “Everything’s for sale. Sheep ranching is finished.”
Southern Argentina and Chile have long been a refuge for American free-thinkers, businessmen and bandits. Outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on the run from sheriffs in the United States, bought a ranch in 1901 near the town of Cholila, across the Argentine border from Pumalin, and stayed there until they were tracked down by American detectives in 1905.
Tompkins fits the rebel mold. He was raised in Millbrook, N.Y., a summer resort for Manhattan’s upper middle class. He developed artistic tastes from his father, a dealer of early American art and antiques, and his mother, an interior designer.
After dropping out of Pomfret, a Connecticut boarding school, he moved to California to try to make the U.S. ski team. He failed but soon became an expert kayaker and climber, pioneering new routes in the Sierra Nevada and in Patagonia with friends such as Chouinard and Royal Robbins.
But Tompkins’ real talent lay in business and design. He founded North Face in 1966 in a loft in San Francisco’s North Beach, turned the business into a success and sold it. Next, with his then-wife, Susie, he co-founded Esprit and became the chief image strategist behind its unique style, which dominated the American fashion world for much of the 1980s.
Tompkins gradually converted to radical environmentalism, and left the business world. In Pumalin, he seems to be doing penance for his former capitalist ways. “Fashion is one of the most intellectually vacuous industries,” he said. “We had to manufacture desires to get people to buy our products. We were selling people countless things that they didn’t need.”
Now, as he tries to save Patagonia’s wilderness, Tompkins is helped by several of his old climbing buddies who have joined him on the last frontier.
“I’m a guy looking for the next greatest place, and I’ve come to the end of the line,” said Peter Avenali, who owns a ranch near Valle Chacabuco and is co-director of a like-minded conservation group, the Patagonian Foundation of San Francisco.
“In the Tetons, the Canadian Rockies, New Zealand, I’ve seen fences going up, I’ve seen permits coming in,” Avenali said. “In Alaska there are so many people, and the tourism in Denali is industrial strength. But down here it’s original adventuring. … We’ve jumped back to the time of discovery in the western United States in the 19th century. We wrecked that wilderness. This one’s worth saving.”
An Expensive Experiment
Practicing what you preach is a difficult enterprise, as Douglas Tompkins has found.
Pumalin Park, his 762,000-acre preserve of coastal rain forest and glaciated mountains in southern Chile, has become the world’s leading laboratory for radical environmentalist ideas that call for wilderness to be saved, abused land to be restored and humans to live sustainably by growing organic food.
But it’s still unclear whether this project is a viable model for conservation projects elsewhere or is merely a quixotic experiment by its multimillionaire benefactor.
Clearly, Pumalin is the kind of five-star refuge that only a rich aesthete like Tompkins could create. Hiking trails are elaborately designed, with hanging bridges, long stairways and wooden walkways snaking through the forests. Campgrounds are artfully landscaped, and park buildings look like they belong in Architectural Digest magazine.
Most of Pumalin’s 145 employees, even gardeners and manual laborers, live in houses he personally designed and furnished. Everything emanates his unique style, which could be described as a conceptual mix of Western lodge, Zen monastery and Martha Stewart. No changes are allowed, inside or outside the buildings, without his permission.
“He’s such a control freak that he has to pick the frickin’ toilet paper holders for all these places,” joked his close friend, Yvon Chouinard, chairman of outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia Inc.
Tompkins admits the charge without embarrassment or even a smile. “I know all of the antiques stores in Buenos Aires,” he said. “I’ve been in every one of them, picking things out.”
Several ranches on the edges of the park have been converted to organic farms. The grounds now include 42 acres of gardens and 900 acres of sheep pasture. Sales of organic honey, berry marmalade and wool netted $312,000 last year.
Pumalin Park — which is operated jointly with the farms but has a separate budget — has annual expenses of $800,000 and only $100,000 in revenue. Although the Chilean government has promised to take over Pumalin and turn it into a national park sometime in the future, Tompkins acknowledges that Chile’s minuscule budget for environmental protection won’t allow for such an expensive project. Pumalin “has to become more self-supporting before the government even thinks about that,” he said.
In comparison, the annual budget for Chile’s most-visited national park, Torres del Paine, is only $487,000, according to government figures.
Pumalin’s visitors have decreased from 10,000 in 2003 to 6,000 last year, a decline Tompkins blames on a recent fare increase on the commercially operated ferry that serves the park from the main road’s end to the north. Rates rose to $133 per vehicle, or $25 per person.
Tompkins is still spending on the restoration of Pumalin’s ragged margins, where settlers in the mid-1900s burned forest to create pasture.
“This area was a burned-out, trashed-up, terrible mess,” he said bitterly.
One such project is at El Amarillo, a village at the south end of Pumalin. Townspeople are employed on clean-up crews, pulling stumps, neatening their front lawns and preparing for a Tompkins-designed ecotourism center.
The aesthetics and environmental credo are lost on many locals, however. On a recent day in El Amarillo, the members of one work crew unanimously admitted that they just want the money. “It’s the first time in a long while that jobs have come here,” said Juana Fuentes. “Don Doug should give more jobs. That’s what we want.”
But for outside environmentalists, Pumalin has worldwide significance because it combines large-scale wilderness protection, land restoration and organic farming.
“There are projects elsewhere focusing on wildlands conservation, or on restoration, or on organic production, but Doug and Kris (Tompkins’ wife), more than anybody, are working on all three legs of that stool,” said Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, a think tank in Salina, Kan., that champions organic and sustainable agriculture. Jackson has visited Pumalin four times, most recently in March.
“It is very complex, and it’s very admirable,” Jackson said. “I hope it works.”
— Robert Collier firstname.lastname@example.org.