Published: May 2009
By Kent Black
Californian Douglas Tompkins gave up a multimillion-dollar company to save a remote Chilean wilderness. His 1,000-square-mile refuge, Parque Pumalín, may be the best defense against the forest's destruction.
It was a Chilean version of As You Like It, with Douglas Tompkins as the benevolent duke presiding over the wedding feast. Fifty guests had gathered in a grove of alerce trees for the marriage of two of Tompkins's employees. A steady drizzle not only failed to dampen the spirit but actually seemed to strengthen the sense of camaraderie, as if there could be no more special place than this patch of temperate rain forest in Chilean Patagonia. Tompkins stood slightly apart from the others, quietly observing the rites of a couple whose love of this land equals his—enough so to swear devotion while standing ankle-deep in mud. I thought of Shakespeare's duke speaking of Arden: "Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court… /And this our life exempt from public haunt/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones and good in everything."
But like the duke in his forest, Tompkins has had a hard time keeping the outside world from encroaching on his new Eden. In local newspapers and in the Chilean senate, Tompkins has been accused of being a drug baron, a Zionist out to create a Jewish homeland, an agent of the U.S. government establishing a secret dumping ground for nuclear waste.
For someone who might have reasonably expected to be hailed as a savior from El Norte, it was a decidedly unexpected reaction.
Ten years ago Doug Tompkins was a successful businessman, designer, and art patron, one of San Francisco's most visible men-about-town. A high school dropout who founded the North Face outdoor gear company and co-founded the Esprit clothing line, Tompkins had a flair for marketing that made the latter a global success—a success he would come to despise.
"In 1985 I came across George Sessions's book Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered," Tompkins tells me after the ceremony, as we help ourselves to plates of barbecued lamb. "I'd always considered myself an environmentalist, but Sessions's book crystallized my thinking and started me down this road." The road led to a life dedicated to environmental philanthropy. In 1990 Tompkins sold his share in Esprit for a purported $150 million and used part of the money to create the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the Conservation Land Trust in San Francisco. He then set off to find a piece of the earth still worth saving, searching "all over the world" before deciding on this remote region of southern Chile. One day in 1991 Tompkins flew his private plane to the head of the Reñihué fjord and landed at an abandoned ranch, not far from the site of our wedding feast. The ranch was run-down and neglected, but the surrounding area was breathtaking. He acquired the initial 42,500 acres "for the price of a bad nineteenth-century oil painting," he recalls with a laugh. Not long after he purchased Reñihué, 74,130 contiguous acres came on the market. Tompkins snapped them up.
Originally, he says, he was "simply buying pieces of land to resuscitate them. There was no grand scheme, but things have a tendency to take on a life of their own." Within two years he possessed 766,630 acres—the main portion ranging from Reñihué to the small coastal town of Chaitén (including Michinmáhuida, an 8,100-foot active volcano), plus a non-contiguous tract just south of Hornopirén. Tompkins's holdings stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Argentine border, bisecting the country—a fact not lost on his Chilean critics. He named the property Parque Pumalín, after a local farm.
To date, Tompkins has spent at least $20 million creating what might be the largest private reserve in the world (bigger than Yosemite National Park). But his intention was never to build an empire of his own. Rather, he hopes someday to present Parque Pumalín as a gift to the people of Chile, to be managed by a Chilean foundation.
Inevitably, news of a wealthy American buying up huge tracts of land alarmed many Chileans. Tompkins says the situation got ugly as a result of his feud with a salmon-farming neighbor, whom Tompkins accused of killing sea lions. The farmer was a former heavy in the Pinochet government. Instead of being proclaimed a hero, Tompkins became a pariah. Wild stories were published about him in both trashy and respectable newspapers and journals. "It was tense for a couple of years," says Tompkins's wife, Kris. "We were totally unprepared for the attack."
The Pumalín project suffered a setback in 1998, when the 125-square-mile tract that separates the park's two sections—land that Tompkins had been negotiating to buy from its owner, the Catholic University of Valparaíso—was sold instead to Endesa, a Chilean energy company known for its rapacious exploitation of the environment. It was an ironic and disappointing twist, but perhaps not so surprising: distrust of gringos is still widespread in Latin America, and particularly in Chile, where people remember bitterly the American government's support of the Pinochet regime. One young Chilean I met at the border of the park was virulent on the subject of Tompkins. "I'm a patriot," she spat. "I don't want my country divided by a foreigner!" Even after one of Tompkins's employees explained to her that Parque Pumalín would one day belong to Chile, she repeated her objections in the face of all argument.
But despite the very vocal opposition—and reports in both Chilean and U.S. media playing up the controversy—many Chileans do support the Pumalín project. Most of those I spoke to in the neighboring towns and countryside commended Tompkins for his vision and looked forward to the prosperity they hope will result from an influx of tourist dollars. Even the few who were ambivalent about the park conceded that Tompkins himself was "un buen hombre."
In any case, few of Tompkins's harshest critics have even visited the ecosystem that Tompkins intends to save. Admittedly, it is not the easiest place to reach; only a few miles of road lead into Pumalín. This is not a Yosemite-style "tram-and-trail" park. The only way to experience its magnificent granite fjords, mineral springs, active volcanoes, and dense rain forest is to get out and rough it.
I spent a week touring Pumalín by foot, kayak, and lancha (a renovated fishing boat). After flying into Puerto Montt, the largest nearby city, I drove south to the road's end, at the mouth of the Río Negro, where I joined Captain Rudy Emhar, two guides, and a cook aboard Tompkins's 30-foot lancha, the Cahuelmó. (Tours normally accommodate up to 10 people, but because this was the end of the season, I was the only passenger.) The next four days followed a routine that was alternately languid and physically intense: kayaking in the fjords and channels of Pumalín beside dolphins and curious sea lions, relaxing at sunset with a bottle of Chilean wine in one of the many hot springs along the coast, and then tucking into grilled fresh salmon, sea bass ceviche, or barbecued abalone steaks aboard the Cahuelmó.
What struck me right away on our fjord excursions was the utter impregnability of the shore. The mountains rise straight up from the water; most of the terrain looks as if you'd require a belay just to get a foothold. It's a strange feeling to float among these granite spires and realize they're a submerged segment of the Andean range: this is the spine of South America, where it runs out of land and slips into the sea.
On our fourth day, while moored near the Cahuelmó Hot Springs, a guide and I hiked up the fjord to fly-fish Lake Abascal. Gerardo reckoned few people had ever visited Abascal; he was sure I was the first fly-fisherman. He had cut a path a couple of years before, but it takes only a month of rain here to erase all signs of passage. What was left of the trail now was a tangle of vines, fallen logs, and swamp holes camouflaged with leaf litter. It made the Amazon rain forest seem like Kansas prairie land.
Soon we heard the roar of the river rushing out of the lake, though the woods were so thick we couldn't see the source until we emerged into a clearing and were confronted with a spectacular sight: a slate-blue lake surrounded by granite walls rising a thousand feet or more, their peaks capped with snow and ice, their dark faces veined with waterfalls. Glaciers clung to the towering cliffs above us. Standing on a beach, I cast my wooly bugger into the lake. It wasn't until Gerardo slapped my back five minutes later that I realized I hadn't been stripping line—I was too awestruck by all that beauty to move a muscle. Not long after, I caught the biggest rainbow trout of my life.
"You let it go?" Kris McDivitt Tompkins cried in horror as she sat down to breakfast with Doug and me at their ranch on the Reñihué fjord. Kris and her husband are firm believers in "deep ecology," which holds that "all living things have an equal right to existence." If you're not going after game for food, Kris tells me, there's no justification for the sport; in her view, catch-and-release fishing is tantamount to torture.
Doug sat at the head of the table writing in longhand. (He eschews computers, and in any case, electricity is generated at the ranch for only six hours each day.) He is reticent at first, though that's understandable, given that he and Kris lead a solitary life, rarely leaving Pumalín. Their social interactions are confined to managing the park's 150 employees, overseeing improvements to hiking trails and campsites, building guest cottages. They've also created experimental farms to teach Chilean farmers about organic farming and sustainable industries such as honey production, and hired local colonos (settlers) as park rangers. Doug is especially excited about "agri-tourism": "We're helping the colonos set up bed-and-breakfasts, where tourists can come and take part in daily farm life," Tompkins says. "They'll learn about the area's biodiversity from the farmers themselves."
Meanwhile, Tompkins has broadened his conservation efforts beyond Pumalín. His Conservation Land Trust recently purchased 175,000 acres of wetlands in Argentina, 40,000 acres of grassland at the base of Argentina's San Lorenzo Mountain, and holdings around Chile's Magdalena Island, as well as a share of 200,000 acres of Valdivian rain forest on the Corcovado Gulf, Chile.
The Tompkinses hope other individuals and foundations will follow their lead, purchasing endangered land in order to protect it. "Eco-philanthropy is not a new idea," Doug says. "A lot of national parks were created by individuals. John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land to Grand Teton National Park. So every time I meet someone who has been successful in business, I tell them, 'Look, you've already made your millions. Now you spend all your time just keeping it going. Sell it. Walk away. Take the money and do something that'll make an impact for generations.' "
Kent Black, a contributing editor of Men's Journal, spends half of each year in Latin America.
LanChile (800/735-5526) flies daily to Santiago from Los Angeles, Miami, and New York; fares range from $723 to $1,402 round-trip. From Santiago there are up to four daily flights to Puerto Montt ($394 round-trip). Take a bus from Puerto Montt to Hornopirén on the park's northern edge (four hours) or a 30-minute flight to Chaitén, on the southern side.
TOURING THE PARK
Alsur is the most experienced of the park's tour operators (56-65/232-300; email@example.com). Four- to 10-day sailing trips aboard the Cahuelmó (which include kayaking, fishing, and hiking excursions) cost $550 to $1,300 per person, depending on group size; the boat accommodates up to 10. Horseback riding can be arranged through Carolina Morgado at the Pumalín office in Puerto Montt (356 Buin; 56-65/250-079, fax 56-65/255-145).
The best choice in Puerto Montt is the Hotel Viento Sur (56-65/258-701), set on a hill with views of the town and harbor from every room. Its restaurant is the best in town. In the park, the port of Caleta Gonzalo has seven cabanas that sleep up to five and rent for $70 (call Carolina Morgado for bookings); a nearby café serves simple but well-prepared meals. It has no license for alcohol, however, so stock up on some of Chile's excellent wines before leaving Puerto Montt.