Esprit de Tompkins

Has Douglas Tompkins, founder of Esprit, fallen victim to hubris? The former textile magnate, now a South American environmental crusader, is already owner of the world’s largest private nature reserve. He shelled out no less than $55 million in the last decade to build a Yosemite-sized preserve, Parque Pumalén, protecting a swath of 3,000-year-old forests in Chile.

Douglas Tompkins, founder of Esprit, is helping create Argentina's first coastal national park.</© Mark Blaine / Forest Magazine

Now, for an encore, the 60-year-old Tompkins is moving east across the Andes, to Argentina, where he’s already donated a national park and on the way to creating another. Unlike in Chile, where angry loggers and xenophobic politicians accused Tompkins" radical brand of conservation of being a front for the CIA or Zionist conspirators, bankrupt Argentina seems far more willing to play the part of holy land to one gringo millionaire’s eccentric designs.

Through Patagonia Land Trust (PLT), a nonprofit group headed by his wife Kristine McDivitt, former CEO of Patagonia, the couple last November donated a 155,000-acre Patagonian sheep farm to the country’s national parks system. When formally inaugurated, Monte Leñn will become Argentina’s first coastal national park, safeguarding a 25-mile stretch of wild seashore. The park will be home to one of the largest Magellan penguin rookeries in the world, along with sea lions, pumas and some 50 bird species.

Monte Leñn is one of four properties in the region (totaling more than 300,000 acres) that PLT plans to bring under protection and return to the public domain. "I only wish he could be in more places at once," says parks president Luis Rey.

Some 1,900 miles north, in the red-soiled province of Corrientes, Tompkins" Conservation Land Trust (CLT) is half-way through an ambitious plan to acquire 1.2 million acres of species-rich swampland known as the Esteros del Iberã.

The thrust of Tompkins" activity is conservation, built around a 30-year management plan that foresees the eventual creation of another national park and the reintroduction of such species as the giant anteater, river otter and jaguar. Tompkins is also restoring a century-old estate that will lodge avid tourist birdwatchers. "Doug is so low-profile that most people haven’t realized the dimension of this project," says Alberto Ansolo, administrator of CLT’s Iberã project.

Iberã’s marshland is at the mercy of Argentina’s rapidly expanding farming frontier and in the way of a dam already being blamed for major flooding. If plans to increase the water quota at the nearby Yacyretã dam are carried through, scientists fear the Iberã basin could be converted into a real-life Atlantis. "Tompkins" resources and commitment crystallize the concern of diverse sectors trying to prevent a major environmental tragedy," says Glenn Switkes, director of the International Rivers Network’s Latin America campaigns. For Tompkins, Argentina represents a great second act.