Thinking Big

After Founding Esprit and North Face, Doug Tompkins Dresses Up an 800,000-Acre Park

When Esprit founder Doug Tompkins went on a rainforest exploration trip to Chile seven years ago, he didn’t realize he’d soon be buying huge swaths of land down there, or that his growing passion for preservation would stir controversy all over the South American nation.

Copyright 1995 Galen Rowell

Esprit founder Doug Tompkins has put more than $10 million into “Pumalin Park,” the largest private nature reserve in the world.

Tompkins was invited to study Chile’s endangered alerce tree by Rick Klein, the director of Ancient Forests International. Their explorations in southern Chile took them to the Palena province, where the vast wilderness geography of dense rainforests, mountains with towering granite walls, clear blue-green lakes and lagoons and fjordal coastline was an easy sell. Tompkins bought an abandoned, forested ranch at a place called Renihue, and then didn’t stop until, after four years, he had managed to acquire almost 800,000 acres.

The former clothing mogul has spent more than $10 million on “Pumalin Park,” the largest privately-owned nature preserve in the world. Tompkins has been working to get the land declared a nature sanctuary by the government, and he wants to then donate it to a Chilean foundation, which would manage it. It’s an altruistic plan, but it has stirred great controversy in Chile.

In a May press conference this year, Tompkins and his attorney, accompanied by leaders of Chile’s largest environmental groups, presented information to counter a “harassment campaign” they say is being waged by the government. Among the numerous false accusations, they say, are rumors that Tompkins is pressuring locals to sell their land, building a nuclear base, planning a Jewish colony, developing a secret gold mine and financing political opposition.

Tompkins says that his phone is tapped, and that his life has been threatened by a group of Chilean Nazis. “My wife and I are nervous about this,” Tompkins says. “All over the world there are loonies running around, but this is the first time they’re directed at me.”

Chile’s Minister of Interior, Belasario Velasco, who many say is orchestrating government opposition to the project, denies the charge. “Nobody in the government is harassing or persecuting Mr. Tompkins,” he says. But Velasco and other government officials have publicly warned that the park, which extends from the Argentinian border to the Pacific coast, is a potential threat to national security because it cuts the country in half. Chile set up a governmental commission in July 1995 to study the Pumalin Park proposal, but has not decided on granting it nature sanctuary status.

Adriana Delpiano, Chile’s Minister of National Property, says Chile doesn’t want to be told what to do with its land. “Chile already has 2.5 million acres of national parks, and we don’t need any more,” she says. “Tompkins owns 50 percent of Palena province, land that could be used for development.” Delpiano says the government is considering a law to limit the amount of land foreigners can buy.

Tompkins says Delpiano’s statement is typical governmental exaggeration. “I own only 19 percent of the province,” he says, “and much of it is undevelopable high mountains and forests.” Tompkins believes the government’s opposition may be due to the way he thinks. “I have heard over and over again from many sources that my interest in deep ecology and environmental ethics represents a type of ideological threat. Deep ecology is misunderstood in Chile and grossly distorted.” Despite political opposition to his 800,000-acre nature park, Doug Tompkins’ team is making steady progress.

Alejandro Navarro, a Chilean parliamentarian and member of a group of Chilean politicians dubbed the “Green Bench,” says that the government of President Eduardo Frei is “erratic and contradictory.” Elected officials criticize the Pumalin project, he says, but go out of their way to support large-scale foreign logging projects, such as the U.S.-based Trillium company’s plans for Tierra del Fuego.

Adriana Hoffmann, national coordinator of Defenders of the Chilean Forests, Chile’s largest forest protection group, says, “Doug Tompkins is doing the country and the planet a favor. It is urgent that we preserve biodiversity, old-growth forests and the natural beauty of Chile.” The project also has support from U.S. environmental groups. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, enthuses, “Thank God someone is exercising stewardship to preserve a little bit of what is left of the world’s frontier forest.”

Chile’s free-market economy is 90 percent based on the export of natural resources. According to a 1995 Central Bank of Chile report, unless current destructive patterns are reversed all of Chile’s private native forests will be stripped in 20 years. Hoffmann says these forests are primarily wasted on wood chip exports, while studies point to potential higher long-term revenue from sustainably managing the forests for value-added products such as furniture, or preserving it for ecotourism.

While the forests of Chile are threatened, Pumalin Park preserves an estimated 35 percent of the remaining alerce trees in Chile. The alerce, called the “redwood of the Andes” because of its giant size, is one of the oldest species on the planet, ranging up to 4,000 years old. The alerce trees are protected as a Chilean national monument, but are still endangered because of illegal logging.

Despite political opposition to the Pumalin Park, Tompkins’ team is making steady progress. Pumalin will be a combination of protected forest and wilderness areas, sitting alongside productive agricultural land. Eight demonstration sustainable agriculture farms are being set up adjacent to the park in its eight principal watersheds. Local farmers will double as the park rangers.

Tompkins says that Pumalin is on an eight-year completion schedule. He is spending more time in Chile than he had originally imagined, nearly nine months a year, and has made enormous progress. Abandoned farms have been restored, camping facilities and visitor centers built, and three of the demonstration farms up and running. He plans to have five fully operating by 1999.

Tompkins is slowly winning the hearts and minds of Chileans. “It is an uphill battle to convince the people and Chilean government that caring for soil, water, forests and marine ecology is essential for sustainable development,” he says.