Douglas Tompkins: Wild Legacy

Amancecer en Torres del Paine

Of all the ideas ever enacted, nothing staggers the imagination for it’s achievement, than the conservation work of Douglas Tompkins.

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty

Douglas Tompkins
Douglas Tompkins (born 1943 in New York) was an American environmentalist and former businessman.
Douglas Tompkins (born 1943 in New York) was an American environmentalist and former businessman.

Douglas Tompkins was a world-renowned adventurer, entrepreneur, and conservationist. Co-founder of The North Face and Esprit, Doug spent the first half of his life building successful, global brands, while simultaneously adventuring around the world, completing first descents of the world’s toughest rivers.

In 1968 Doug embarked on a trip to Chile, driving with friends from California to the tip of Patagonia. Documented in the film Mountain of Storms, the trip solidified Doug’s place as rock climbing legend. In the early 1990s, Doug sold his part of Esprit and moved down to Chile to do conservation work full time with his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the former CEO of Patagonia, Inc.

Together, over the last 25 years ( written 8 Jul 2016 ), Doug and Kris have protected 2.2 million acres, more land than any other individuals. The foundations under the Tompkins Conservation umbrella, along with their partners, have created five national parks in Chile and Argentina and are in the process of creating five more.

A Wild Legacy tells the story of Doug’s incredible life, his lasting impact on the wild landscapes of Patagonia, and Kris and the Tompkins Conservation team’s efforts to continue his audacious mission. Doug was tragically killed in a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera, north of Patagonia Park, on December 8th, 2015. Douglas Tompkins: A Wild Legacy was presented to audiences at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival on May 24th, 2016 during the festival’s tribute to Doug.

Tompkins was born in Conneaut, Ohio on March 20, 1943, the son of an antiques dealer and decorator. He spent the first few years of his life in New York City before his family moved to Millbrook, New York. He graduated from Indian Mountain School, a pre-prep school in Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1957. In his senior year at Pomfret School in Connecticut, Tompkins was expelled for various minor infractions. He returned to his hometown in Millbrook, but did not graduate from high school.

Tompkins spent the years between 1960 and 1962 ski racing and rock climbing in Colorado, Europe, and South America. In 1963, Tompkins founded the California Mountaineering Guide Service. It was during this time he met Susie Russell, a casino employee who gave him a lift while hitch-hiking to Lake Tahoe. They married in 1964 in San Francisco, where Tompkins borrowed $5,000 from a bank to set up The North Face, now a global retailing company.

The North Face, Inc.

In 1964, Douglas and Susie Tompkins started The North Face, Inc. as a mail order and retail company, selling rock climbing and camping equipment. The early years set the design standard of good quality sleeping bags, backpacks, and mountaineering tents. The Tompkinses designed tents that were some of the first to avoid a pole in the middle, by using bendable rods threaded through exterior sleeves instead. This design also increased the strength of the tent because the domed shape allowed the wind to roll over it. These tents have been widely copied throughout the world. In 1966, the first The North Face store was opened; the band The Grateful Dead played at the grand opening. Two years later, Tompkins sold out his stake to Kenneth “Hap” Klopp for $50,000, using the profit to join his wife in co-founding Esprit, a fashion house. Tompkins sold The North Face with the intention of a focus on adventure film making.

Adventure film-making

In 1968, Tompkins headed off on a six-month road-adventure trip from California to Patagonia, along with Yvon Chouinard and two other climbing friends. They put up a new route on Mount Fitzroy, and made an adventure film, Mountain of Storms, about their experience. The 2010 film 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless describes a modern-day recreation of this journey and also highlights the conservation work on which Tompkins had been working.

Tompkins also became a skilled whitewater kayaker, claiming first descents of rivers in California, Africa, and South America. In addition, he was a skilled bush pilot.


In 1968, Tompkins, his wife Susie, and her friend Jane Tise began selling girls dresses, which they had planned on the kitchen table, out of the back of a VW bus. In 1971 they incorporated the booming business under the name “Plain Jane”, which later became Esprit. By 1978, sales topped $100 million a year and the company had formed partnerships in Germany and Hong Kong. Tompkins appointed himself “image director”, developing his own marketing approach: overseeing all aspects of the company’s image, from store design to catalogue layout, while his wife served as design director.

Emerging as one of the hottest brands of the era, the company grew into a transnational company operating in 60 countries. In 1989, the Japanese art publisher Robundo published Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle (ISBN 4947613203), which documented the all-encompassing design principles that Tompkins had created for the brand.

Growing increasingly concerned about the ecological impacts of the fashion industry, Tompkins decided to leave the business world in the late 1980s. In 1989, he sold his share of the American company back to Susie, from whom he had separated, putting most of his profits into land conservation. Subsequently, in 1989 and 1994, he sold his interests in the other Esprit entities around the world.

Land conservation

After selling his interest in Esprit, Tompkins turned his efforts toward southern Chile, where he had spent much time climbing, kayaking, and skiing, to focus on land conservation and environmental activism. He founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology in 1990, which supports environmental activism (see deep ecology), and The Conservation Land Trust in 1992, which works to protect wildlands, primarily in Chile and Argentina.

In 1993, he married Kristine L. McDivitt, a former chief executive of the Patagonia retail chain; the two worked together on conservation projects. The Tompkinses’ conservation efforts focused on preserving wild landscapes and biodiversity. After purchasing large blocks of wilderness, they worked to create national parks, believing that this governmental designation serves as the best mode of guaranteeing long-term conservation.

Pumalín Park

Tompkins’s first major conservation project was Pumalín Park in the Palena Province of Chile, an 800,000-acre (320,000 ha) area of Valdivian temperate rain forest, high peaks, lakes, and rivers. In 1991 he bought the Reñihué farm, a semi-abandoned farm at the end of the Reñihué Fjord, planning to set aside 42,000 acres (17,000 ha) of this unique forest from possible exploitation. In the next decade, The Conservation Land Trust added another 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) in nearly contiguous parcels to create Pumalín Park, which eventually stretched from the Corcovado Gulf to the Andes mountains, over an area of 800,000 acres.

In 2005, then-president Ricardo Lagos declared this area a Nature Sanctuary, a special designation of the Chilean state, granting it additional environmental and non-developmental protection. The Conservation Land Trust (a U.S. environmental foundation) donated these protected lands to Fundación Pumalín (a Chilean foundation), for their administration and continual development as a type of National Park with public access under a private initiative. Through creating public-access infrastructure, including trails, campgrounds, visitor centers, and a restaurant, Tompkins sought to promote wilderness experience, in hopes of inspiring a deeper environmental ethic in the park’s many thousands of visitors.

In March 2017, the Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced that the government was accepting the gift of 1 million acres from Fundación Pumalín and creating a national park covering 11 million acres in all, the largest such park in South America. At a ceremony for signing of the accord between government and the foundation, Tompkins’ long-term friend Yvon Chouinard claimed that “No other human has ever created this many acres of protected wildlands”.

Corcovado National Park

Just to the south of Pumalin, Corcovado National Park represents one of Tompkins’s completed conservation projects. In 1994, The Conservation Land Trust (CLT), along with U.S. philanthropist Peter Buckley, acquired 208,000 acres (84,000 ha) of native forest that was slated for logging, adjacent to vast areas of federal land under the jurisdiction of the Chilean Armed Forces. CLT offered to donate this parcel back to the Chilean state, provided that the whole area became a national park. In 2005, then-president Ricardo Lagos accepted this proposal, and the 726,000-acre (294,000 ha) Corcovado National Park was born.

Iberá Project

The Iberá Project was a private conservation enterprise that was spearheaded by Tompkins, working with George Soros, Harvard University, and Tompkins’ Conservation Land Trust.[19] Its goal was to expand land ownership and strengthen protection for the Iberá Wetlands natural preserve, in Corrientes Province, Argentina. The Iberá Natural Reserve, established in 1983, consisted of 553,000 hectares of protected floodplains, providing safe habitat for a range of native species, and encouraging a transition from “an exploitative economy” to “an economy of conservation and ecotourism“. Led by Tompkins, the Conservation Land Trust acquired 150,000 hectares of old cattle ranches bordering the existing natural reserve, lands that include habitats not then represented in the reserve.

In December 2015, the Trust donated these lands, including espinal, malezal grasslands, and forests, to the Argentine government to add to the reserve, creating a new, strictly-conserved national park to be called the Great Iberá Park. This new park, which would total 700,000 hectares, would be the largest national park in Argentina and home to hundreds of bird species, giant anteaters, and wild macaw parrots.

Other conservation projects

Other conservation projects that Tompkins spearheaded include:

Organic agriculture

Envisioning “conservation as a consequence of production,” Tompkins developed models of sustainable organic farming, which maintain soil health and ecological integrity at the same time that they provide for families and support the local economy.

In the area around Pumalin, the Hornopiren, Vodudahue, Ventisquero, Pillan, and Reñihue farms serve as exemplars of small-scale ecological agriculture and as informal park ranger stations. Each of these farms produces a variety of products, including sheep, cattle, honey, berries, and organic vegetables. A small facility in the Pillan farm processes honey and berries for jams, which are sold under the name Pillan Organics.

In northeastern Argentina, Tompkins managed cattle ranches in Corrientes Province and polyculture grain and fruit farms in Entre Ríos Province. Each farm pays close attention to developing sustainable practices.

Environmental activism

Through the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Tompkins published a series of large-format, activist photograph books on environmental issues, including:

  • Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry (ed. Bill Devall, 1993, ISBN 0871564947)
  • Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (ed. Andrew Kimbrell, 2002, ISBN 1559639407)
  • Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West (eds. George Weurthner and Mollie Yoneko Madison, 2002, ISBN 1559639423)
  • Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy (ed. George Weurthner, 2006, ISBN 159726069X)

In addition, The Foundation for Deep Ecology had a long history as a grant-maker in categories such as Biodiversity and Wilderness, Ecological Agriculture, and Megatechnology and Economic Globalization, although in-house publishing is now its main focus.

Tompkins also was involved in several large environmental campaigns in Chile and Argentina, such as the “Patagonia Sin Represas” campaign, which opposed the construction of dams on two of the largest and wildest rivers in the Patagonia region of Chile.


Despite considerable controversy within Chile and Argentina, Tompkins’ environmental work won him respect and accolades outside of South America: in 2012, the African Rainforest Conservancy awarded Tompkins and his wife its “New Species Award”; in 2007, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation awarded its “Good Steward” award to him and his wife, Kris; in 2008, the American Alpine Club awarded him the David R. Brower Award, for his work preserving mountain regions; in 2009, Latin Trade named him the “Environmental Leader of the Year”.

In 2007, he was appointed as an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in recognition of his work restoring damaged landscapes. Eco Barons, Edward Humes‘ 2009 account of the “dreamers, schemers, and millionaires who are saving our planet,” uses Tompkins as the first example of this new group of philanthropists.


On December 8, 2015, Tompkins was kayaking with five others on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile when strong waves caused their kayaks to capsize. Tompkins spent a “considerable amount of time” in 40 °F (4 °C) waters.

He was flown, by helicopter, to a hospital in nearby Coyhaique, where he died hours later from severe hypothermia. He was 72 years old and survived by his second wife, Kristine (McDivitt), two daughters, brother and mother.

Tompkins is buried at a small cemetery near the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco in Parque Patagonia.

Photo credit: El color de tu mirada on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA Sam BeebeDoug Tompkins

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