Douglas Tompkins, American businessman-turned-conservationist, died aged 72 of hypothermia after a kayaking mishap in southern Chile. Tompkins was an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist who launched two billion-dollar businesses, according to The Guardian.
Tompkins was once accused of being a CIA agent bent on secretly stealing Argentina’s underground freshwater reserves. Douglas struggled to decide whether “laughable” or “sad” was the more apt word.
He was an ardent environmental activist who spent his fortune buying up more than 2 million acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina for preservation, so becoming one of the largest private landowners in the world.
Douglas Tompkins was seen by governments as a threat to national sovereignty and by corporations as an obstacle to environmentally sensitive projects. Tompkins once told the Financial Times he was waging a David and Goliath fight to help save a world that was “coming apart at the seams”.
Born in Ohio on March 20 1943 and raised in and around New York, he was always a lover of the great outdoors — he excelled as a ski racer, rock climber, white water kayaker and bush pilot. In his early twenties he launched into a business career that would facilitate his conservationist mission, co-founding The North Face as a retailer of climbing gear, based in San Francisco.
The call of the wild meant that did not last long. Tompkins sold up in 1968 to go with a friend on a road trip from California to Patagonia. There they became only the third group to scale the sheer granite face of Mount Fitz Roy, regarded by mountaineers as one of the most technically challenging peaks.
On his return he set up what would become the multinational clothing company Esprit with his first wife, Susie, initially selling clothes out of the back of their Volkswagen van.
Within a decade the company was operating in more than 60 countries and generating annual sales of more than $100 million.
By 1989, Tompkins had grown tired of corporate life and especially disenchanted with his role in promoting consumer culture. Douglas left Susie, to whom he sold his stake in Esprit, and moved to Chile. Tompkins began buying up land that would later become Pumalín Park, a widely visited 800,000-acre nature reserve of temperate rainforest that stretches from Chile’s Andean border to its Pacific coast.
Together with his second wife, Kris — who survives him along with two daughters, his mother and a brother — Tompkins amassed large chunks of land in several other areas in the region.
These ranged from the humid north-east of Argentina, in participation with the billionaire investor George Soros, to the icy south of Tierra del Fuego. Douglas’ aim was to restore and protect biodiversity and return it to the public domain.
Yet at a time when tracts of Patagonia were being sold to celebrities such as Luciano Benetton, Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone, he too attracted suspicion and criticism from groups opposed to big foreign land holdings.
In 2006, officials threatened to expropriate his land in the Esteros del Iberá, the second-largest wetlands in the world, which he aimed to turn into Argentina’s largest national park.
That led him to complain during an interview that locals often did not understand “what the idea of charity and philanthropy is about.”
Perching on a small wooden stool, he said: “We’re trying to do good things — for the common good — as we believe in that. We don’t believe in accumulating wealth and lavish lifestyles.”
Douglas Tompkins routinely made the journey by bus on bad roads to his modest estancia hundreds of miles north of Buenos Aires, even though able to fly. A supporter of the anti-globalization movement and instigator of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Tompkins was anything but conventional.