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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Making His Mark

"We only have one shot at this. We need to pay our dues to live on this Earth; we need to pay the rent and I'm doing that with the work we are carrying out here in Patagonia."
"Within the few hours that it took to read the book [Living as if Nature Mattered by Bill Devall], I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense."
"[I finished with] selling people countless things that they didn't need."
Douglas Tompkins, American entrepreneur, environmentalist, philanthropist
North Face Co-Founder Doug Tompkins Dies in Kayak Accident
Doug Tompkins founded The North Face in 1968.    Photo: Courtesy of The North Face

Known as the co-founder of two American clothing companies, North Face and Esprit, he was a much admired figure as a businessman. His companies' marketing campaigns were hugely favoured by fashion magazines and eager buyers within the outdoors fashion-conscious public. But, as he noted, he became environmentally aware, inspired by a book he read on society needing to be more in step with nature, a philosophical point of view that transfixed him.

As the philosophy which he took to so immediately took shape in his mind, his former enterprises as a business tycoon appeared without value, and he set them all aside. He left San Francisco to become an eco-warrior, dead set against pointless development, and a champion of conservation. And where he chose to make his mark was in a region of Chile so remote that it represents the jump-off spot to the remotest point on the planet: Antarctica.

He grew up in New York, his parents fashionable social aristocrats conjoining decor and antiques. As a boy he tended to think differently and to verge away from social conservatism. He attended a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut but his precocious spirit didn't quite mesh with their standards and he was expelled at age 17 for rules infractions. He was a high-school drop-out, and became a free soul as a climber, ski bum and adventurer.

Then with his first wife, he opened a shop selling high-end climbing and camping gear imported from Europe; that shop named the North Face. Better known for fleece jackets and outdoor equipment, the company was sold in 1969 enabling him to move on to filmmaking to produce a film about Patagonia, Mountain of Storms, which became a climbing cult classic after winning an international adventure film award.

Then came another business, with a clothing line that became Esprit de Corps, then shortened to Esprit, an enterprise that led to millionaire status. "It was 20 years of a wild ride", he said in an interview with a writer who wrote extensively about him. Esprit became a multibillion-dollar business with factories located globally. Douglas Tompkins, the company's 'image director' valued the wealth his enterprise brought him to fund and promote environmental causes.

Eventually he flew back to Patagonia for good; he resolved to dedicate himself to "the end of the world", in a geographical sense, for that is what Patagonia's geographic position is considered; the farthest reaches beyond which lies only Antarctica. He bought over 16,000 hectares of forest and fiords that cost him $600,000 and that preserve became his home and his focus as a preservation project. And he kept acquiring more land.
Alerce Milenario
Alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides), or lahu├ín, as called by the native Mapuche people. It is a huge sized tree, frequently surpassing 50 m. tall. It belongs to the conifer family and its look is similar to the North American sequoias. It is evergreen, the leaves being small and scale-shaped. The trunk has an average diameter of 1 to 1.2 m, but in some specimens can reach up to 3 m. It is an extraordinarily long-lived tree, some specimens found in the park have reached the amazing age of 4,500 years.

Parque Pumalin, a project beloved of Douglas Tompkins, represents 283,000 hectares and within it is a nature sanctuary where pumas roam, and gigantic alerces trees grow, considered to be some of the oldest organisms on Earth. Mr. Tompkins and his second wife founded the Conservation Land Trust to buy up hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in both Chile and Argentina, meant to be maintained as wilderness, a gift to the planet.

Pumalin Park, Palena Province | X Region | Chile

Some of the land was handed over to local governments to be transformed into national parks, while some of the land remains in the estate of the Tompkins family. Previously, wealthy foreign interests bought such land to log, to mine, and to install hydroelectric projects. Chileans are suspicious that such huge areas have been set aside and the forest simply left intact. Which does much for the preservation of the environment and natural surroundings, but not much for the local economy.

Pumalin Park, Palena Province | X Region | Chile

Mr. Tompkins gambled on his intuition that in time, over generations the children of Chileans now opposing those parks would come to value their wilderness preservation. He died on Tuesday while kayaking on the General Carrera Lake in Chile with five others. Strong waves capsized their kayaks and tossed them into the frigid, roiling waters. While a military patrol boat rescued three and a helicopter lifted others out, suffering from severe hypothermia from exposure, Mr. Tompkins died.

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