The world lost one of its leading and most effective conservationists this week, with the passing of Doug Tompkins, as a result of a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera in southern Patagonia in Chile. Although he was perhaps not well known in the UK outside of conservation circles, he made a huge impact with his life in two very different fields. Firstly, as a founder of the North Face outdoor clothing and equipment company and as a co-founder of the Esprit clothing chain, he was a successful businessman. However, it was only when he left the business world behind, and devoted the last 25 years of his life to his true passion – the protection of wilderness areas – that he began to build a legacy that will persist for decades and even centuries to come.
I first came across Doug’s work in the 1990s through the Foundation for Deep Ecology that he established in San Francisco in California, and then through his support for land purchases for conservation in Chile. During a visit to Tierra del Fuego in January 1997 I discovered that a 38,000 hectare (94,000 acre) area of land, or estancia, called Yendegaia, located between two existing national parks, was up for sale. As far south of the equator as the Caledonian Forest is to the north, the southern beech forest there, characterised by three species of Nothofagus trees, was suffering a similar fate to ours in Scotland – clearance for agriculture and subsequent overgrazing preventing the natural regeneration of the trees. I saw there was an opportunity to purchase the Yendegaia estancia and establish a project to restore the degraded forest there, using similar methods to what we were using for the recovery of the Caledonian Forest, and thereby creating a much larger contiguous area of protected land that included the existing parks to the east and west. Returning to Scotland, I wrote a funding proposal about this and sent it to the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Although it didn’t get supported then, during my next trip to Chile in April 1998, I discovered that Doug Tompkins, his wife Kris and the American conservationist John Davis, with whom I had been corresponding for a number of years, were travelling in the far south of mainland Chile. Contacting them, we agreed to make a joint visit to Yendegaia, which could only be reached by boat access from the Beagle Channel, which separates the main island of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, from the smaller islands that stretch south towards Cape Horn.
We spent a few days together on Yendegaia then, travelling around on horseback to see some of its vast expanse, which includes 5 glaciers and extensive areas of intact Nothofagus forest, as well as the degraded, more readily accessible parts, and we agreed it was worth making a concerted effort to purchase the land for conservation and restoration. Subsequently, Doug pulled together a group of donors who contributed the funds to buy the estancia and transferred the ownership to a locally-based Chilean non-governmental organisation, Fundación Yendegaia, which began the work of ecological restoration there.
In December 2013, Doug reached an agreement with the then president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, under which Fundación Yendegaia donated the land to the Chilean nation, to become a new National Park, with the government also contributing an adjoining area of 111,693 hectares (276,000 acres), making the new Yendegaia National Park one of the largest in Chile at 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres). It also forms the central part of a contiguous groups of parks that protect most of the southwest part of Tierra del Fuego, the wildest and most remote part of this island at the southern tip of South America.
The story of this remarkable achievement is told in full here, and I’m honoured to have played a role in initiating the project all those years ago. To celebrate the creation of the new park, Doug commissioned the production of a large coffee table book, showcasing hundreds of photographs of the area, and including a foreword by Sebastian Piñera. While I was corresponding with him about the production of the book in 2014, I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Chile for early 2015, so Doug invited me to visit him at Pumalín Park, the 289,000 hectare (715,000 acre) private reserve that he owned and lived on, in Palena Province, further north in Chile’s fiord country.
I’d not been to Pumalín before, but had long wanted to go there, as it protects a beautiful area of dramatic mountains, volcanoes, temperate rainforests, fiords and bays, and includes some of the best remaining stands of the alerce tree (Fitzroya cupressoides). Sometimes called the ‘Redwood of the Andes’, it is a massive and long-lived tree, reaching 70 metres in height, and one has been aged as being over 3,600 years old. Unfortunately, the species has been heavily logged in most of its range, and it is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Species at risk in the world.
Doug purchased Pumalín in stages, beginning with 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) in 1991 to protect its primeval rainforest and the alerce trees there from logging. In the following seven years, additional purchases brought it to its size today, and it is one of the largest privately-owned protected areas in the world. Fully open to the public, it contains trails, campsites and an information centre, and Doug has supported neighbouring farmers to adopt organic agriculture to provide healthy food for the park’s many visitors each year.
I spent several days in the park, visiting various areas, including the Chaitén Volcano, which erupted dramatically in May 2008, after being dormant for 9,500 years. The pyroclastic mud flows and ash deposits destroyed thousands of hectares of forest, and the Park was closed as a result for 2 years. A new trail has been made up to the caldera, and on the lower slopes there is impressive natural regeneration of the rainforest taking place. The volcano itself is still steaming, and was a dramatic sight when I climbed it in February 2015.
Although he was very busy during my visit, Doug spent much of one day with me, talking about his plans for establishing more parks, both in Chile and Argentina, where he and his wife have also made some significant land purchases. The highlight of my day was an opportunity to accompany Doug in his two seater plane, which he pilots himself, flying over the central area of Pumalín. This resulted in some spectacular views of the landscape that he has been able to protect for posterity.
In total Doug and his wife Kris have purchased over 809,000 hectares (2 million acres) of land for conservation in Chile and Argentina in the past 25 years. They’ve established 5 parks, and have given substantial areas of land back to the nations of Chile and Argentina, when the respective governments have agreed to declare them national parks. Doug’s plan was also to donate Pumalín back to Chile in the years ahead, and he was actively discussing the creation of several new national parks in the country with the new President, Michelle Bachelet, earlier this year.
Although the time I actually spent with Doug was quite limited and spread over a period of 18 years or so, nevertheless he was a tremendous source of inspiration for me, as well as for many, many others in the conservation movement. Pre-eminent amongst wild lands philanthropists, he made a huge impact through his commitment to protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, and to combatting the forces of the modern world that are destroying them. In addition to his land purchases, he played a key role in the successful campaign to stop the construction of massive hydro-electric dams in the far south of Chile and the accompanying 2,200 km. pylon lines that would have transmitted the electricity to Santiago, the country’s capital, bisecting Pumalín in the process. He also published numerous books, both featuring some of the areas he protected, and also campaigning against clearcut logging and overdevelopment.
His untimely passing is a major loss to the international conservation community, and brings to a premature end his contribution to a vision and work which he saw stretching for many years ahead. Equally at home meeting with politicians and national presidents, wealthy businessmen or dedicated conservationists, he is a tough act to follow or emulate in terms of his accomplishments. His work will live on though, through the ongoing efforts of his wife and family, and all those in the organisations he established to implement his vision. It will also be carried forward by many others elsewhere around the world, and I consider myself very privileged to have known Doug and to have contributed, at least to a small extent, in the great work he has done.