Doug Tompkins: Adventurer, billionaire, conservationist

The world is reeling from the untimely accidental death of Doug Tompkins – here, Graeme Green shares one of his final interviews

5 mins
Douglas Tompkins (or Doug, as he preferred) lived a life of extremes, and not just in his 72 years of legendary outdoor escapades.

Best known as the founder of one of the world’s most famous and profitable outdoor clothing and gear companies, The North Face, he made another fortune co-founding clothing company Esprit. But he turned his back on big industry in later life, instead committing himself to 'deep ecology', environmental campaigning, and protecting endangered wilderness areas.

His charitable foundations, which he ran with his second wife Kris, protected two million acres of land (and the often rare, endangered wildlife living there) in Argentina and Chile, and established four national parks, with others in the pipeline.

Tompkins died from severe hypothermia on 8 December 2015, after a kayaking accident threw him into the near-freezing waters of Lago General Carrera in the Aysen region of Chile. I spent an hour with him just a few weeks before his accident at his offices in Puerto Varas, Chile, where he was speaking at the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) annual world summit. It turned out to be one of his last in-depth interviews.

A hero and trailblazer of the environmental movement to many, he was also a controversial figure. His latest project, Patagonia Park, which we’d met to discuss, is a major new protected area, which he hoped would become an official National Park in 2016. But angry locals in the Aysen region accused Tompkins of destroying the local gaucho culture by buying up ranches and closing them down. Previously, he’d also gone up against big business and governments with campaigns against the building of dams in Patagonia (Patagonia Sin Represas), logging and fishing.

I talked to him about the challenges of conservation work, the benefits of travel, his love for Patagonia and his fears for the future of our planet.

What is it that you love about Patagonia? 
I’ve been coming to Chile for 54 years. This is my place. It can be cold, rainy, windy, but so is Skye in Scotland. They have their charms. Patagonia has spectacular landscapes. The place is alive. Most people think of Patagonia as Argentina, which has about 95 per cent of Patagonia in terms of land surface; Chile has five per cent but Chile might have 95 per cent of the most beautiful parts. Chile, with its small sliver, is the filet mignon.

What stands out about the area of the new Patagonia Park?
You have a lot of open space. When you’re on roads, it doesn’t feel wild. But it doesn’t take you long to get into the wild parts. It’s particularly good hiking because it’s open country. You’ll see big flocks of guanaco, too.

Why save this specific piece of land?
In Chile, they don’t have a lot of the Patagonian Steppe represented in the parks system. With Patagonia Park, it’s one of the few ecosystems in Chile and Argentina where all the biodiversity is there and alive. All the creatures are there and present. Hanging on the edge, but still there. What we try to do is rescue them back from extinction. In battlefield triage, where you can only save some places, you focus on the places that are important.

Are you confident that Patagonia Park will become a National Park?
We’re talking to the government. National Parks are the gold standard of conservation. They represent the best legal status to protect those areas. There are a lot of labyrinths to go through. It’s not easy, but the government has given us the green light to go through the steps.

Could it be agreed for 2016?
Maybe. Towards the end of 2016. We’re going to donate the park when we have it all finished, but we might ask the government to declare it a National Park and give us a concession for 7-8 years to finish the infrastructure, which we’re paying for. It’s going to be one of the most pre-eminent parks in the Americas and will stand up to anything in the United States. We also have a proposal in for five new national parks, all inside Chile, as well as projects in Argentina.

And we’re working towards a plan to make the Carretera Austral, the Southern Highway, a 2,000km scenic highway from Puerto Montt all the way down to Puerto Williams on Tierra del Fuego, with access to 17 national parks. There’d be no road like that in the world that has access to 17 national parks. That’s pretty amazing. We have positive ideas, but it takes a long time. Ministries are slow. The dinosaurs have to die out and be replaced by someone with a better vision.

If you were starting out again today, would you still start a big clothing/gear company like The North Face?
Forget it. Not even close.

Are The North Face and Esprit regrets?
I’m not regretful. Who can be regretful of your past? You did what you did, thinking you were going in the right direction, and you can think about the mistakes you made later.

Do you see them as mistakes?
It certainly was a mistake in hindsight. I was just part of the problem, producing a load of stuff nobody needed and creating desire for more stuff, helping pump along the consumer society, which is undoing nature and contributing to environmental crisis we have.

What caused the change of heart for you?
It took a while before I started seeing it really clear, and I said ‘I’ve got to get out of this business and start working on the solution, rather than being part of the problem.’ The travel industry will have to face that dilemma, too. Travel is a form of consumption. It just has a lighter footprint than some other kinds.

The good thing about ‘nature tourism’ is that when people start to get out in wild nature, they can appreciate the landscapes and value them, and by doing that they change their habits and points of view and how they’re consuming. They want food from righteously grown processes and animals treated well.

There’s not much consciousness-raising when you travel halfway around the world to lie on a beach. But when you’re hiking outdoors and camping, people’s attitude and consciousness goes up.

A lot of the campaigns and projects you’ve been involved in, including Patagonia Park, have met with fierce opposition.
Yeh, yeh, you always have that.

Do you feel your intentions have been misunderstood?
I don’t care much about it. It’s the standard thing to have opposition. As a baseline, conservation and development are two opposite forces.

Do you have sympathy for local people who say Patagonia Park is destroying ranching culture in the area and also stopping development and jobs?
Excuse me, please. We have something like 10-to-1 more employees in the local economy than the ranches did, so that argument is out of the window. Tourism will bring a flow into the local economy, and then they’ll forget about it.

If you took Yellowstone and told them you want to get rid of the park because you’re tired of conserving land, they’d string you up on a lamppost. It takes a while for people to catch on. But the same people who are the loudest opponents often become the staunchest defenders. It’s the damnedest thing. Study the history of Torres del Paine, then tell them you wanted to get rid of the park and they’d shoot you.

Are the issues in Patagonia a microcosm of the wider world?
They are. I come from the clothing business, so one thing I feel confident about is seeing trends. That was my work; I can’t help it, there’s something in my DNA. There’s this thing called ‘cultural lag’, where it takes a while for the mainstream of a culture to catch up with the vanguard. Humanity is very slow to come to terms with big shifts. The world is badly overdeveloped.

All of this has led to the biggest environmental crisis in 65 million years. The development model needs to be scrapped and we need to rethink how civilisation is going to cohabit the planet with the rest of the creatures and keep nature healthy. Instead, we have the developers with a very narrow vision. In most cases they don’t give a shit about what’s happening in the larger question, because they’re just concerned with their own narrow interests.

It’s tough for people to wake up to the fact we’re on path of probably unstoppable climate change. As change comes to any community or society, there are those who adjust and those who don’t. Young people tend to be the ones who see the opportunities; the older ones are set in their ways.

Do you think humanity will get our act together to save the planet before it’s too late?
Worldwide? Woo hoo! I have hope but I’m not optimistic. It’s grim. I’ve been watching climate change trends and predictions for 30 years. Every year they get faster, hotter, bigger, worse. Really reputable climate scientists say in 2033 the game is over.

The methane gun in the Arctic is going to go off and it’ll run this chemical cycle through the atmosphere and it’ll wipe out 95 per cent of all species on Earth. It’s just up the road. I may well be alive to see that. You will be, for sure. I hate to say it, but it doesn’t make one optimistic.

Main image: The Banff Centre / Mile for Mile (YouTube screenshot)

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