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Douglas Tompkins sparked controversy when he bought millions of acres of Patagonian wilderness to donate to local governments. Now, the impact of his vision can be felt from Montana to Mozambique.

Juan Manuel Vial

Palena province, in Chilean Patagonia, is a region of glassy fjords and simmering volcanoes, where the Andes rise to splendid, white-capped heights straight from the sea. It is home to one of the last remaining stands of the majestic and nearly extinct alerce tree, cousin to California’s sequoia. The place is grand, uninhabited, wild. And thanks primarily to Douglas Tompkins—the founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, who died at the age of 72 last December—it will stay that way.

In 1989, Tompkins piloted his Cessna from San Francisco to Chile and started buying up huge tracts of land—eventually more than 2 million acres—to protect from development. And what began as a personal mission has become a global model for conservation.

The idea of privately protecting land is not new, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For centuries, powerful people have set aside hunting grounds, native communities have shielded sacred areas. Acadia National Park, in Maine, was created in the early 20th century with gifts of land, including 11,000 acres donated by John D. Rockefeller.

But when Tompkins began buying territory, “no one was doing anything similar in the world, at least not on such an ambitious scale,” says Chilean journalist Andrés Azócar, who has written extensively about the philanthropist.

Tompkins and his second wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, eventually donated the land to Chile and Argentina. The scale of their work was groundbreaking—in part because such large tracts provide wildlife the space to roam and thrive, but also because it helped mainstream the concept of privately driven protection.

“He really added to the visibility of this type of conservation,” says Jeff Langholz, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and an expert in privately protected areas. “In the last decade or so, it has become a well-established tool around the world.”

Kestrel Camp, at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
Gib Myers/Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

The IUCN says that there are now more private protected areas around the world than can be counted. They include 762 individual tracts in the vulnerable and highly biodiverse Atlantic Forest of Brazil and a number of wetland areas being restored in the Avalon Marshes of England. Many ambitious projects have Tompkins to thank for their inspiration. In Chile alone a number of local millionaires are following his example.

“He’s really a global hero,” says Larry Linden, a former Goldman Sachs partner who helped turn 840,000 acres of bank-owned wilderness in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, into Karukinka Natural Park, with Tompkins’s quiet assistance.

Similarly, the Montana-based American Prairie Reserve (APR) aims to create the largest nature reserve in the U.S. by connecting more than 3 million acres of private and public land. “Doug’s boldness, penchant for problem solving, relentless drive, and boundless ingenuity were a model and an inspiration for us,” says APR president and founder Sean Gerrity. Since 2004, the nonprofit has bought or leased more than 353,000 acres, and while its first priority is conservation, nature-loving travelers also benefit from the work. APR offers a campground and an upscale yurt compound where visitors can enjoy prairie safari experiences.

In East Africa, Gorongosa National Park, home to hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and an estimated 50 to 70 lions, is the result of a 20-year partnership between the government of Mozambique and the Gorongosa Restoration Project. “I saw a documentary about Doug’s work,” says Greg Carr, the American entrepreneur who founded the charity, “and realized that it is possible for individual philanthropist-conservationists to make a difference.”

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