Doug Tompkins, Presente!
December 10, 2015
Peter Fimrite / The San Francisco Chronicle & Jimmy Langman / Earth Island Journal
Douglas Tompkins, an outdoorsman, environmental activist, conservationist and entrepreneur who co-founded the North Face clothing company, has died in a kayaking accident in southern Chile. Mr. Tompkins, who also co-founded Esprit with his then-wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, capsized while paddling with five others on Patagonia's General Carrera Lake. He leaves a legacy of books, friends, and more than 2 million acres of wilderness parks protected from clearcutting and development.
Douglas Rainsford Tompkins, American conservationist, outdoorsman, philanthropist, filmmaker, agriculturalist, and businessman.
Photo: Esteban Widnicky Earth Island Journal
Born March 20, 1943, Ohio.
Died: December 8, 2015, Coyhaique, Chile
By Daniel Dancer *
B R O K E N S K Y from Daniel Dancer on Vimeo.
Douglas Tompkins, Presente!
Peter Fimrite / The San Francisco Chronicle
(December 8, 2015) -- Douglas Tompkins, an outdoorsman, environmental activist, conservationist and entrepreneur who co-founded the North Face clothing company in San Francisco, died Tuesday in a kayaking accident in southern Chile.
Mr. Tompkins, who also co-founded Esprit with his then-wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, capsized while paddling with five other people on General Carrera Lake in the Patagonia region, according to reports confirmed by North Face officials. He was eventually pulled from the water, but died of hypothermia at Coyhaique Regional Hospital. He was 72.
General Carrera is a picturesque lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the Andes. It is known for spectacular geological formations, unpredictable weather and cold water, generally below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mr. Tompkins, an experienced kayaker, and his fellow paddlers capsized after being hit by large waves in bad weather, according to reports from the Chilean army. A military patrol boat rescued three of the boaters, and a helicopter lifted out the other three, according to the army.
South American news stations reported that Mr. Tompkins was in the water for a lengthy period before he was rescued.
Mr. Tompkins was born in Ohio in 1943 and grew up in Millbrook, N.Y. A ski racer, rock climber and alpinist with several first ascents to his credit, he founded the California Mountaineering Guide Service in 1963. He co-founded North Face in 1964. The retail store -- named after the coldest, most unforgiving side of a mountain -- was founded in North Beach as a way to equip mountaineers, explorers and climbers. It still sells high-performance climbing and backpacking equipment.
Mr. Tompkins was described as an adventurer and risk taker who employed his brilliant imagination both in business and in trying to save the Earth. He met his first wife, Tompkins Buell, while hitchhiking. The two had two daughters and co-founded the Esprit clothing company. By 1986, Esprit had grown into a global brand, hitting $800 million in sales. They divorced in 1989.
"I'm incredibly saddened by this, but he lived on the edge," said Tompkins Buell, who remained close to her ex-husband. "He used to come home from adventures and say, 'Well, I cheated death again.' That's the way he lived. He was a very inspired person. There wasn't anything he thought he wanted to do that he didn't do."
His daughter, Quincey Tompkins Imhoff, of Healdsburg, remembered a time as a girl when her father landed a small plane on a remote beach in Baja California only to notice later that the tide was rolling in and covering the wheels. She, her sister and the other passengers were told to sit on the tail wing to give the plane traction and then jump off as the plane caught air.
"He flew off and there we were on the beach," she said. "He flew back about an hour later and dropped off a backpack with a sleeping bag, some snacks and a note that said, 'I can't land till low tide, write me messages in the sand that I can read from the air.'
"We spent all day there thinking we were doomed," Tompkins Imhoff said. "Soon enough, he came back and landed and everything was fine. That was my dad in a nutshell. There weren't too many dull moments."
Mr. Tompkins had first visited Chile in 1961 and frequently returned to climb, ski, kayak and hike. After his divorce, he climbed Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia, an experience that he said helped inspire him to become an environmental activist in the area.
He and his second wife, Kris Tompkins, whom he married in 1993, bought more than 2 million acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina and devoted themselves to creating parks, protecting wildlife and supporting ecologically sustainable agriculture.
In 1991, Mr. Tompkins bought the 42,000-acre Reñihué Farm and founded the Pumalín Project, dedicated to the protection of the land's primeval native rain forest, which was being threatened by logging.
"I've never come in personal contact with anybody who could think so big," said Tompkins Imhoff. "He had the ability to walk his talk. and the mark he left in terms of conservation and vision will live on. He used to always tell me, 'Don't let your imagination get in the way of your potential.' He is gone, but he will not be forgotten."
Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by his mother Faith Tompkins and brother John Tompkins, both of Millbrook, N.Y.; daughter Summer Tompkins Walker of San Francisco; and five grandchildren.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Photo: The Guardian
* Daniel Dancer is an international aerial-art-activist who creates and films gigantic living paintings that only make sense from the sky. His modern resurrection of a 3000 year-old art form is a teaching in the power of collaboration, a lesson in the dangers of climate change and a call to change the way we perceive the world before it is too late. Initiated in 2001, he has created nearly 200 human mosaics, reaching directly thus far, over 200,000 people in 8 countries and 40 states.
Dancer's book, Desperate Prayers: A Quest For Sense in a Senseless time tracks his early work as a solo Earth artist creating eco-mandalas from found materials around the world. Daniel lives in an earth-sheltered home made of recycled materials in Rowena Wilds, an eco-community he founded in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.
A Conversation with Doug Tompkins
Jimmy Langman / Earth Island Journal
In 1990, Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing companies Esprit and The North Face, decided to get out of "making stuff that nobody needed" and instead focus on the issues that really mattered to him: corporate globalization, sustainable agriculture, preserving wild places, and stopping the clearcutting of ancient forests. Or, as he puts it, saving the environment and communities from an out-of-control economic model that each day is edging civilization "closer to the abyss."
So Tompkins started the Foundation for Deep Ecology and moved to Chilean Patagonia, where he began using his fortune to buy up large parcels of land to form Pumalin Park. In the last two decades, Tompkins has expanded his holdings to include 740,000 acres of snow-capped volcanoes, Andean mountains, temperate rainforest, and turquoise-colored rivers. Today, Pumalin Park is considered the world's largest private nature preserve.
Among his other conservation initiatives, Tompkins has donated private land to establish two coastal national parks in Chile and Argentina. A third, the half million-acre future Patagonia National Park in the Aysen region, is in the process of being transferred to Chile.
His most ambitious project is still in the works: a huge property at Esteros del Ibera in northeastern Argentina, which he aims to make the key piece of a 6,500-square-mile national park to protect that region's wetlands.
These accomplishments have won Tompkins a shelf's worth of environmental awards. The land acquisitions and his outspoken opposition to salmon farming and dam construction have also earned Tompkins criticism from many Chileans and Argentines who worry that his vast holdings compromise their national sovereignty and inhibit economic development.
Tompkins is unapologetic and says he has as much emotional claim to the Patagonian wilderness as Chileans and Argentines. "You come to realize the passport is meaningless," he says.
Jimmy Langman: What brought you to Chile and Patagonia?
Doug Tompkins: I came here the first time in 1961. So I knew this part of the world really well. I knew I wanted to live outside a big urban area like San Francisco. Once I got free of business, I also wanted to get a farm. I looked around, and this is a nice part of the world. And I have a lot of friends here from all my years of climbing here.
I'm also a forestry activist, and in the late 1980s, Yvon Chouinard, Alan Weeden and myself helped buy the Cani forest near Pucon [a resort town in southern Chile's Lake District]. That kind of got my feet wet [with land conservation], and then somebody told us about a farm in Rinihue, and that was attached to another piece of land Rick Klein told us about at Cahuelmo, and we went down to take a look at it, and one thing led to another.
Jimmy Langman: You've gone through some difficult times in Chile and Argentina in your efforts to protect nature there.
Doug Tompkins: Well, I feel totally at home in this part of the world. This is where I am going to croak. I feel a strong bond with Chile and Argentina. I have even begun to think that I am caring for Argentina and Chile perhaps more than Argentines and Chileans.
I feel like I'm sort of a de facto citizen, because I am looking after their national patrimony -- which is the land -- very carefully. You come to realize the passport is meaningless. It is really your behavior that determines whether you're a patriot. If you're trashing your own country, ruining the soils, contaminating the waters and the air, cutting down trees, overfishing the lakes, rivers, and oceans, you're not much of a patriot.
I see a lot of these nationalists pumping their chests about being such a patriot and meanwhile they're trashing their own country, the patrimony. I don't find that so patriotic, I have to say.
"Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view: There are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective."
Jimmy Langman: Are your relations with the Chilean and Argentine governments improving?
Doug Tompkins: Well, our relationship with governments depends on who's in power. We continue to have difficulties because we are also activists working against bad development projects. That doesn't win you a lot of friends if you have politicians that are just pro-development and not conservationist.
Jimmy Langman: In Chile, former President Eduardo Frei and some other politicians criticize you for taking too much land away from development.
Doug Tompkins: Well, we don't have enough parks, and biodiversity is in crisis. I think it's really a question of which side of the coin you're looking at. And I see Chile as overdeveloped. We have gone way past the carrying capacity of Earth to sustain all these people, activities, and consumption. Using all government measurements, nobody has shown that we're as a globe underdeveloped. And yet we're going for more overdevelopment.
Developing countries such as Chile often say that they deserve to exploit their natural resources as developed countries have done in order to grow their economies faster.
Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view: There are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective. A few years ago, we were called the doom-and-gloomers, but it's all being borne out every day. There are limits to growth. Go back and look at William Catton's book, Overshoot, on the ecological footprint from 1980. It's better today than it was when he wrote it. Better in the sense that people accept it hands down today.
Jimmy Langman: Tell me about the national park you're hoping to create in northern Argentina's Esteros de Ibera region.
Doug Tompkins: That's a huge area, 1,700,000 hectares, a combination of wetlands, savannahs, and grasslands, sort of known as the Pantanal of Argentina. And we would like to see this as a national park some day. But there are lots of private landowners inside the master-plan area, which has been designated a reserve by the province for a long time.
But the reserve doesn't really mean much; the national park idea would ensure the best protection for conservation and biodiversity. But that requires the buying of a lot of private land over the next 20 years, and you never will be able to buy all of it. So we are looking at doing something like Adirondack Park did in New York State. Maybe over time, perhaps in 100 years, the rest of it could be bought.
Adirondack is still buying land 150 years [after its creation]. . . . When private people want to sell in the Adirondacks, the state gets a shot at it at competitive prices. I think that's a really good model for amplifying protected areas because it is totally non-coercive. There's no expropriation, it's just that the state gets a chance to meet the best price.
Jimmy Langman: What got you involved in environmentalism?
Doug Tompkins: I joined the Sierra Club when I was 16, but I was very light green back then. I hadn't a clue about the deeper issues, the structural problems, the root causes of the extinction crisis, for example. And then how the worldview was affecting all of this: our epistemologies, our worldviews, our decisions, how we formed economies, and even down to our personal lifestyles. It took me a long time to get to this point. And I think for the most part I don't believe that young people today are really clued in either.
It takes a lot of scholarship. You have to read a lot. Activism helps. I've been more of an activist in the last 25 years. Anyhow, one day, I was at work in San Francisco, at Esprit, and I realized I was more interested in campaigns to stop dams in Canada and things like that.
Jimmy Langman: Your many climbing trips must have also had an effect on you.
Doug Tompkins: Yeah, you go back to places that you had been to ten years before, and there are clearcuts everywhere, bulldozers pushing a road into wilderness areas. You just keep seeing this interminable growth, this sort of implacable march of so-called progress, and you start saying, "Hey, wait a minute!"
And you start extending that idea into just about everywhere you look, and you see things are getting uglier. You start paying more attention to what's happening in the media, such as reporting on everything from oil spills to lack of fish in the ocean to loss of forest cover, the 1,001 different environmental disasters that we read about every day. Every day they come up with something new! They suddenly find that cell phones are ruining the reproductive exchanges of toads and the toads are all disappearing. It is one thing after another.
Jimmy Langman: It's not often that people as wealthy as you take the turn you took.
Doug Tompkins: Well, everybody's destiny is what it is. I just feel lucky that I somehow escaped from the confines of the business class. Hardly anybody can escape there. They're just chained under that worldview, whether they believe that capitalism is sacred, and, you know, the cornucopia of resources are for our exploitation. I feel so fortunate that somehow I managed to break out of that world and get to do something that really had more meaning. It's like David Brower used to say -- to pay my rent for living on the planet.
Jimmy Langman: You could have easily stayed making money at Esprit.
Doug Tompkins: I'm not the only person with a certain amount of wealth that turns to philanthropy. That's one of the great things about America -- it's full of lots of truly generous people. I think a lot of Americans do a lot of bad stuff, and the country as a whole does a lot of bad stuff that I'm not at all proud of, but on the philanthropic side, I really take my hat off to Americans and that tradition.
I learned from my parents that you have to get pleasure out of what you're doing, or don't do it. And I also learned that you do a lot better and have a lot more satisfaction, and a lot more fun for that matter, by striving after excellence in the craft that you're involved in. You can be in the wrong craft. That is why I got out of making stuff that nobody needs, because I came to realize that all that needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis.
Jimmy Langman: Are you still a capitalist?
Doug Tompkins: There's no doubt whatsoever that there's no future in capitalism. It's a relatively recent phenomenon. It's probably no more than 500 years old, and it's demonstrating over and over again that it is destroying the world. We are going to have to rethink that, and I wouldn't even suggest that we are talking about other failed systems such as socialism and communism.
We should take the best of socialism, the best of capitalism, and form new economic technologies that are going to sustain nature and not destroy it. I don't think capitalism can survive: It's built on the premise of endless growth, and anybody in their right mind knows you cannot grow endlessly. Even the worst impulses of capitalism are very difficult to contain, and the reforms end up changing it into something else.
I think we will look back at this period one hundred years from now, something will have replaced it, hopefully something that really makes the world go round as if nature matters. This recent economic collapse has just shaken the whole foundation and premises of the free market that they call mega-capitalism. There will be and are frantic efforts to save the present system, but we have to see how it metamorphoses into other forms.
Jimmy Langman: Are you still critical of ecotourism?
Doug Tompkins: Yes, ecotourism can bring all sorts of problems. It has to be defined and it must examine carefully what its impacts are. To suggest that ecotourism is the cure-all and it's going to sort out economic issues as they pertain to biodiversity conservation -- I think that would be a very shallow analysis.
Now, if you compare ecotourism with mass industrial tourism, I'll choose ecotourism. But right now, with the overdevelopment issue and its impacts on biodiversity, it wouldn't be hard to say that it would be good if everybody stayed home and found pleasure with their loved ones. If everybody raised their hand and voted that we are all to stay home to reduce pressure on the ecosphere, I would be the first to raise my hand.
Jimmy Langman: You have opened Pumalin Park to tourism.
Doug Tompkins: Yes, we are one of the few places in all of Chile that has public access on private property. Everywhere in Argentina the gate is locked. I think it's not healthy for private individuals, foundations or companies to own a lot of land. I'd like to see land spread out in its ownership, and the way to spread it out best is through public ownership, because then everybody owns it.
The national park is owned by every citizen. That appeals to me. I find that's on the social justice side, and it is also very good for conservation. In our particular case, I think that we see ourselves as sort of provisional stewards. It's a joke to think you own it forever. You're just transient in this world. We're all just brief tenants on the planet.
Jimmy Langman is editor of Patagon Journal, a new magazine about nature in Patagonia. He was an assistant to Earth Island Institute founder David Brower from 1991 to 1995.