In January 2009, my son Sam and I were waiting around in Puerto Varas, a picturesque old German port town in central Chile. We were there to revisit Parque Pumalín, the nearly million-acre preserve single handedly assembled by Doug Tompkins, former owner of outdoor equipment and clothing purveyors, the North Face, and then later, Esprit. Doug, however, was delayed on his return from the Antarctic sea, where he had been harassing Japanese whalers with Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Ohioan by birth, via upstate New York and then California, Doug Tompkins is a world-class mountain climber, outdoorsman, designer, pilot, photographer, author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist who describes his devotion to the planet and its creatures as a “religious position.” Tompkins built North Face, and then sold it in 1972. Then, with his first wife, Susie Tompkins, he built clothing retailer Esprit with worldwide stores and annual sales in excess of $1 billion. In 1992, shortly after his divorce from Susie, he sold his interest in Esprit for a reported $175 million, moved to Chile and set about changing the world.
I first met Doug in the Kitlope River in 1991. Encouraged perhaps by Ecotrust’s mapping of the large pristine rain forest watersheds in North America and the identification of the Kitlope as the largest of its kind left in the world, Doug had flown his own float plane to British Columbia to get a firsthand look. Over dinner he wished me luck preserving the Kitlope, our work with the Haisla First Nation, logging concessionaires, and the Provincial government. Doug said he was going to Chile where land was cheap, title was legally secure, and he could use his own money and force of will to do what was necessary to preserve large swaths of the Chilean temperate rain forests, the second-largest area of this relatively rare and endangered forest type after North America’s coastal forests.
Doug set about identifying and buying large tracts of ecologically important rain forests in southern Chile. He assembled a magnificent area of similar size to the Kitlope, some 50 miles north and south, from estuaries, river valleys, to high mountain lakes, waterfalls, and permanent glaciers. On the valley floors, where rivers meet the long fjords of Chile’s rugged coast, he bought old farms — holdings in the larger surrounding landscape.
In 1994, Doug married an old friend and fellow conservationist, Kris McDivitt, herself the former CEO of Patagonia. What Doug and Kris have done in Chile, and now in Argentina, is unprecedented anywhere in the world and perhaps at any time in history. They’ve acquired more than two million acres of private land, created two new national parks, restored degraded farm, grass, forest lands, and rivers, and built hundreds of homes, farm buildings, fences, bridges, gardens, tree nurseries, apiaries and honey factories, trails, schoolhouses, cafes, cabins, gift shops, ferry landings, campsites, and more.
“Some of our work is in activism, some is in land conservation, some in agriculture—all in order to try to make a whole view of how one could reshape the economy.” — Doug Tompkins
What is most interesting to me is the way in which Doug and Kris are restoring degraded farms for the benefit of the land, revenues, and the well-being of his tenants and employees. Where there were once a few skinny cows, there are now rows of blueberries, gooseberries, cherry and apple trees, lively painted beehives, draft horses, a few sheep, cattle and chickens, as well as visiting students and agro-tourists from around the world thrilled to be doing voluntary work that gives their lives new meaning. Where there were scarred, burned-over forests with dead trees lying across overgrazed pasture, there are now nurseries of native trees, grown from seed gathered from local sources, nurtured in a seed bed, transplanted to shaded nursery beds then replanted in the forest. A monoculture has become a polyculture.
In Jane Jacobs’s terms, this is classic “differentiation growing out of generality” — the evolutionary process that most successfully shapes natural economic development that can indeed grow, adapt, reshape, and restore both land and the full expression of its human and nonhuman inhabitants.
Doug and Kris Tompkins are demonstrating the value of diversity, the benefits of multiple sources of revenue and a variety of job opportunities.
As Doug puts it: “Some of our work is in pure biodiversity conservation, some of it is in reintroduction of extirpated species, some of it is in reforestation, some of it is in activism, some it is in land conservation, some of it is in agriculture — all in order to try to make a whole view of how one could reshape the economy.”
At a minimum, Doug and Kris have created design with nature, a natural model of what conservation-based development can look like. It’s a fairyland of possibility, a vivid picture of the end — if not the means — that should inspire re-creation in as many places and as many forms as there are communities and the lands that support them.