THE MINISTER of public lands was about to arrive, a television crew in tow, so everything had to be just right. It was 8:15 on a summer morning in February, and the office of Tompkins Conservation outside the Chilean hamlet of El Amarillo was hive-busy. The philanthropy’s controller was hunched over a laptop filled with spreadsheets. A supervisor was giving orders to groups of men in blue coveralls. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the organization’s president, sat at a conference table toggling between a pair of laptops and her cellphone.
For 20 years, Tompkins worked at the outdoor-clothing company Patagonia, where she became the CEO and transformed the outfit from the backyard start-up of adventurer Yvon Chouinard into a global fashion icon. Tompkins, 69, has stayed brand loyal—she was wearing a Patagonia heather-colored fleece and red puffy jacket with bits of down poking out of a hole near the right pocket. Bowls of organic almonds and blueberries were scattered about the office, leftovers from a meeting that had taken place the day before with staff from the National Geographic Society. Outside the window stretched a postcard view of Pumalín Park: unbroken temperate rainforest climbing toward the glacier-shielded summit of the Michinmahuida volcano.
One year earlier, Tompkins and then—Chilean president Michelle Bachelet had announced an agreement under which Tompkins Conservation would donate to the Chilean government the vast swaths of land acquired by the philanthropy over the course of 25 years—and the government would, for its part, put 9 million acres of southern Chile under new protection, in the process creating five national parks and expanding three others. Now, Tompkins and her staff were racing to wrap up the final details of the deal in advance of the agreed-upon handover on April 30, 2019. The meeting with the lands minister had been scheduled to introduce him to Pumalín Park, which he had never visited but which would soon be his to manage.
In just two months, the table that Kris Tompkins and I were sitting at would be the property of the Chilean people. So would the carved panels of foxes and pumas adorning the room and the framed landscape photographs and the wood-burning stove Tompkins was now stoking. The donation to the government of Chile would also include, among other things, 15 habitable buildings, 11 outbuildings such as barns, four trucks, five dozen chainsaws, 200 shovels, one museum, a fully equipped restaurant, 740 works of fine art, and 16 telephones. Then there were the roughly 725,000 acres to establish Pumalín National Park and another 206,000 acres to create Patagonia National Park in the remote south of the country.
A BROWN SOUTHERN CARACARA
Combined with earlier gifts—Corcovado and Yendegaia National Parks in Chile; Monte León, Perito Moreno, and Iberá National Parks on the Argentine side of the Andes—the Tompkins Conservation donations in South America mark the largest act of wildlands philanthropy in history. Altogether, Tompkins Conservation and its partners have given away an area larger than the state of Delaware. Never before has a private organization donated fully functioning parks of such scale to national governments.
Tompkins was high off the accomplishment. “I’m still truly beaming inside that we were able to pull it off,” she told me. She also admitted to being exhausted from overseeing the myriad technicalities of the handover, including a complex, eight-part agreement governing everything from land use to wildlife conservation. “Oh my goodness, as I say, I don’t know that I would have the strength to do it again. It took everything off our hides.”
The overtime endeavor had been her response to the unexpected death of her husband, Doug Tompkins, in December 2015. Doug, founder of the outdoor-gear company the North Face and a cofounder of the clothing brand Esprit, had been on a kayaking trip on a Patagonian lake with Chouinard and other pals when his boat capsized and he succumbed to hypothermia. Kris said that losing Doug was like “an amputation.” After his death, her instinct was to fulfill their shared vision of donating the properties they had amassed during their marriage. “A week or 10 days after Doug died, I decided to pick it up and just go for it,” she said.
Before meeting Kris, I had talked to many people in the Tompkins orbit—friends, colleagues, employees, former employees—and nearly everybody told me that the land transfer likely wouldn’t have happened had Doug not died. He had been the more visionary of the couple, a kind of Paul Revere warning about the pathologies of capitalism and buying up as much land as possible to help stave off the sixth mass extinction. He was also, by all accounts, an irascible perfectionist who didn’t suffer fools gladly; neither diplomacy nor patience came easily to him. Kris is a different sort: warm, empathic, a natural collaborator. During our short time together, she was unfailingly kind to her employees, asking about their kids by name in excellent Spanish. “The secret to Doug’s success is Kris,” one longtime Tompkins employee told me.
I floated the counterfactual to Kris: Would the deal have been accomplished without Doug’s untimely death?
“That’s a ridiculous question,” she responded. She must have seen me flinch, because she softened her tone. “I ask it myself; that’s why I can call it ridiculous. . . . Do I think that the death of Doug and the loss of Doug within Chile was an emotional factor? Yeah, I don’t see how we can call it anything but that. I don’t think Doug could have imagined we would ever get all the aspects of that proposal through.”
She continued, “Let’s put it this way: Maybe it wouldn’t have happened quite so fast, but it never would have happened at all—I mean, not one percent of it—without Doug.”
DOUGLAS RAINSFORD TOMPKINS had his anti-capitalist epiphany at just the right time—after he was already fabulously rich.
He grew up comfortable in New York’s Hudson Valley, where his father owned an antique shop and his mother was an interior decorator. After getting kicked out of a Connecticut prep school, he bummed around the West, mountain climbing and ski racing. In 1964, he and his first wife, Susie, opened the North Face in San Francisco. The pair soon sold the company for a quick $50,000. Most of the profits went toward Susie’s apparel business, which would eventually become Esprit; the rest of the money funded Tompkins’s months-long adventure road trip through South America with Chouinard and a band of guys who dubbed themselves the “fun hogs.” The trip culminated in a difficult ascent, the third ever, of the southern Andes’ Mt. Fitz Roy (the massif, named after the captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, is the peak on the Patagonia clothing label). The experience cemented Tompkins’s bond to the melodramatic landscapes of Patagonia—a place neither province nor nation but a kind of imagined geography straddling Argentina and Chile.
By the 1980s, Doug and Susie Tompkins had built Esprit into a global fashion powerhouse on par with Guess and Gap. Tompkins—a small man with big features who could pack a room with his personality—was known as an exacting but generous CEO. “No Detail Is Small,” read a sign behind his desk. Employees could receive company reimbursement for going to the symphony or a museum.
Then the Reagan-era tastemaker had a midlife crisis. He and Susie divorced, and, at the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for an estimated $150 million. He moved to Chile and bought a ramshackle sheepherder’s cottage on an isolated fjord in the Valdivian rainforest. The high school dropout deepened his self-education in the environmental canon and became enamored with the ideas of Arne Næss, the Norwegian mountain climber and philosopher who had developed a system of environmental ethics called deep ecology. “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis, the mother of all crises,” Tompkins would later say.
Determined to atone for his capitalist past, Tompkins began to buy up properties for conservation purposes, his way of “paying my rent for living on the planet,” as he often said, borrowing a line from David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director. Peter Buckley, a friend of Tompkins’s since the 1960s who was the CEO of Esprit-Europe, remembers visiting him in the early ’90s and flying around southern Chile in Tompkins’s six-seat Cessna 206. Tompkins was like “some sort of demented real estate guy,” Buckley recalled. “He was, you know, ‘Look at that. Isn’t that beautiful?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, it’s stunning.’ And he would go, ‘That’s for sale. We could buy this. We could buy that.'”
A MAGELLANIC WOODPECKER
It was a buyer’s market. During the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, international land speculators had gotten title to huge chunks of land that they were using for absentee logging and cattle ranching. With Pinochet out of power and the political currents shifting, they were eager to sell. “He was very much in his deep ecology phase,” Buckley remembered. “He said, ‘These lands are for nature. I’m just buying these lands for nature. They’re not for people.'”
In 1993, Tompkins married Kris McDivitt, a petite brunette who had grown up on a ranch in Santa Paula, California, and had recently left her CEO post at Patagonia. Kris joined Doug in Chile just as the land acquisitions were arousing suspicions among Chileans. Here were a pair of rich gringos who had cut the nation in half (Chile is a shoelace of a country, and at one point the Tompkinses’ holdings stretched from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean). Yet they had no interest in cutting down the trees. To Chileans accustomed to international investors extracting the country’s resources, it didn’t make sense.
The suspicions metastasized into conspiracy theories. Wild rumors began circulating in the Chilean media. Some people said that the Tompkinses were going to remove cattle from the land and introduce American bison. Others said that the land was going to be used as a nuclear waste dump, or a secret US nuclear base, or a Zionist colony.
Looking back, Kris acknowledges that she and Doug could have “done some things differently.” But she maintains that a degree of controversy was unavoidable. “Anytime something new happens and you can’t understand it, you therefore don’t trust it. Therefore you have suspicion, and therefore you have rejection,” she said.
Dago Guzmán agrees that the Tompkinses’ project was bound to be contentious. Guzmán met the couple in the late 1990s, when he wrote about their work for his master’s thesis at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He had started out skeptical. “There were all these stories about this mysterious project that was going to take possession of the lands and waters of Chile,” he told me. But upon arriving in Pumalín, he found himself fascinated by the project, and he ended up working with Tompkins Conservation for the next 16 years. When I met him, he was acting as the superintendent of Patagonia Park. “Probably if the Tompkinses had entered Chile with a great clothing brand to make money, nobody would have said anything and they could have bought the same land,” Guzmán told me. “But to have a project with private investment for public benefit? That’s a rare thing, and people didn’t understand it.”
In the early 2000s, Tompkins Conservation started to focus on creating public access to its lands—building visitor amenities like trails, campgrounds, and educational signage. The work centered on what today is officially called Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park. The scenery there feels almost scripted: Snow-fed rivers split glacier-sculpted valleys where waterfalls spill from the rocky heights. The signature tree is the alerce, a conifer in the cypress family that is the second-most-long-lived species on Earth. Alerce groves were relentlessly logged during the 19th and 20th centuries, until the Chilean government outlawed the practice. Today, an estimated 25 percent of the alerce on Earth are in the park. During a hike through the dripping-wet forest, I visited an alerce with a redwood-like girth that had been a sapling when Rome was no more than a collection of cottages.
The Tompkinses also began endeavoring to win the goodwill of their neighbors. The couple bought up ranches and farms on the edge of the conservation lands and converted them to organic practices to produce sheep, orchard fruits, and honey. The idea, explained Tompkins Conservation staffer Rodrigo Villablanca, was to create a “buffer zone” around the park so that “people who want to continue working the land can keep working.” In El Amarillo, located at the park’s southern entrance, the Tompkinses launched a sweeping “beautification” campaign. To some locals, it seemed strange that an American millionaire wanted to select the trim colors on their homes; the then mayor of the adjacent town of Chaitén warned that the Tompkinses were going to seize people’s houses. But many residents were open to the proposition of home improvements financed by someone else. “I would go and have maté and more maté,” Villablanca told me, referring to the tea ubiquitous in Patagonia, “and try to determine what the building needed and how to help without intervening in the life of the family.” More than two dozen homes in El Amarillo were refurbished.
DOUG AND KRIS TOMPKINS MOST FULLY REALIZED THEIR VISION OF WILDLANDS CONSERVATION IN CHILEAN PATAGONIA’S CHACABUCO VALLEY.
Doug was immersed in every detail, always with an eye toward creating an idealized rustic aesthetic. All the park signage was hand-carved from wood (a nice touch that park employees say is a pain when they have to change the price of anything). Even the garbage cans were works of art, each of them nestled under tidy shingles. “He’d give you a drawing, and he’d want you to build it to the height, to the dimensions, always coming up with higher standards,” Villablanca recalled.
Erwin González, the superintendent of Pumalín, remembers a time when, as they were constructing a campground, Doug asked for a tree to be removed because it was blocking the view of the volcano. González procrastinated. He liked that tree—it was beautiful and home to many birds. When Doug returned to the site a few months later, he complained that the tree was still standing. He said, “How many trees has this park saved? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?” González cut down the tree.
One former employee told me that Doug was “terrifying to work for.” The staff would hear the Cessna coming in for a landing, and everyone would scramble to make sure everything was perfect. Yet many employees found Doug’s intensity inspiring, and they felt a clannish loyalty toward him and Kris. The Chilean staffers of Tompkins Conservation whom I met had been with the organization for 10 years, 13 years, 16 years, 19 years, 20 years, 24 years. “For Doug, nothing was impossible,” Guzmán said. “He hated to hear that something was impossible. He’d say, ‘OK, but at least let’s try and see the result.’ And look—look what we’ve accomplished in just a short time.”
MAP BY STEVE STANKIEWICZTHE AYSÉN REGION of Chilean Patagonia is a place of boilerplate beauty. Sharp peaks, nearly always headlocked by clouds, drop down to arid plateaus streaked blue with copper veins, which in turn fall into valleys where the rivers run aquamarine. Lenga, a southern beech, covers the hillsides, the tree’s shape reminiscent of a Lebanon cedar’s zigzag posture. It’s a witchy forest, every branch and limb and trunk garlanded with long strands of gray lichen. A native wild strawberry sprawls in the understory, the fruit as small as marbles and as sweet as jam.
Patagonia was the last place that humans arrived in the Americas, and it remains among the most remote locations on Earth. Europeans didn’t show up in any meaningful numbers until the late 19th century, whereupon they wiped out the Indigenous people, the Tehuelche, who had lived there for millennia. Well into the 20th century, Chilean Patagonia was a kind of terrestrial island, so disconnected from the rest of the country that the authorities in Santiago worried about an Argentine takeover. To encourage settlement, in the mid-20th century the Chilean government gave away land to any pioneer who “cleaned” the forests to make way for sheep and cattle. More than 7 million acres of lenga trees were burned down. (Because the forest there is evolutionarily unaccustomed to fire, the woods didn’t recover, and traveling through the region, I saw many hillsides of bleached trunks, like arboreal graveyards.) By the 1970s, there were some 20 million sheep grazing lands that were not adapted to such animals. But the settlers—mostly farmers from the Chilean heartland, along with some Germans—still numbered in the mere tens of thousands. As late as 1980, there was just one phone in Cochrane, the mountain town that is the closest human settlement to Patagonia National Park. In Patagonia, isolation endures: No jet roars or contrails interrupt the sky.