Sam Beebe: Doug Tompkins

Douglas Tompkins passed away on December 8, in a Kayaking accident in Lake General Carrera, in the heart of Patagonia. He was above all an adventurer and conservationist.

Tompkins first encountered Patagonia as young traveler, arriving in the early 1960’s with the Funhogs, a group of North American climbers that included a young Yvon Chouinard and inspired the documentary “Mountain of Storms.” With them he climbed Mount Fitzroy and paddled Patagonia’s undammed rivers. There was no tourism industry there at the time, and almost not another soul to see. Patagonia must have been easy to fall in love with.

His trajectory as an adventurer led him to found co-found The North Face and the Esprit clothing brands, along with his then-wife Susie Buell. These pursuits built him a fortune, but left him with an existential dilemma.

Following in the ideological footsteps of environmentalists such as Dave Brower, Edward Abbey, and John Muir, Tompkins was a self-avowed deep ecologist who said that it compromised his values to own a huge international retail business. He sold his stake in Esprit in the early 1990’s and went to work as a conservationist.

The first time I heard of Tompkins was in Argentina. An Argentine friend I was staying with at the time lamented that her nation was selling out to foreigners: international corporations owned the trains, European companies owned the supermarkets, and a gringo had bought up all the mountains in Patagonia.

This was in Buenos Aires, a long way from Patagonia. Rumors about the reclusive American’s intentions were bizarre but widespread, and Argentinos, from gauchos to tangueros, wondered if Tompkins was going to dispose of nuclear waste or sell the glaciers to China. Maybe he was another arm of the global financial system, which had thoroughly abused them during economic meltdown of the early 2000’s. Maybe he had come to take away whatever the country had left.

The controversial nature of what became Tompkins’ life’s work—purchasing swaths of land in Chile and Argentina for conservation—put him at odds with the locals, but also large developers. Tompkins beat them at their own game, using his wealth and land holdings to support the fight against a major dam project, salmon farming along the Chilean coast, and the endless encroachment of overgrazing in the Patagonian grasslands.

Tompkins, along with his wife, Kristine McDivitt, and half a dozen conservation organizations that they founded, protected an unprecedented amount of wilderness. In the end, with an estimated two million acres in land holdings, his legacy will be the farthest reaching park systems in Latin America.

By Brian Gruters


Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.