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A Force of Nature in Chile

An American couple are using their fortune to buy up land for a large preserve that is splitting a nation in more ways than one.

June 12, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

PUMALIN PARK, Chile — Both made their fortunes in trendy West Coast-based apparel: she as a longtime chief executive with the Patagonia label, he as co-founder of the Esprit line.

And both jettisoned the boardrooms and fashion shows to devote much of their accumulated millions to a singular, and contentious, cause: preserving the wild redoubts of this continent's southern cone, from the mist-shrouded rain forests and arid steppes of Patagonia to the wetlands and savannas of northeastern Argentina.

"I come from California, where there is still great beauty, but California has been absolutely overrun," Kristine Tompkins said in the couple's cozy gray-shingled home on the spectacular Renihue fiord, along the wind-whipped Pacific Coast. It is about 700 miles south of Santiago, the Chilean capital.

"Maybe I have some of my great-grandfather's California genes. A lot of Patagonia is like California 150 years ago."

Kris is less renowned, and more diplomatic, than her outspoken husband, Douglas, a counterculture veteran who walked away from Esprit with a reported $150 million in 1990, split with his then-wife and longtime business partner and remade himself in South America as a patron of preservation. Here, in a region with no tradition of private citizens buying land for conservation, he has been alternately reviled and acclaimed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
National park: An article in Monday's Section A about an American couple's efforts to preserve wild regions on the southern cone of South America incorrectly spelled the name of a park in Maine. It is Acadia National Park, not Arcadia.

Not known for his modesty, Tompkins sees himself in the tradition of the Rockefellers and other "eco-philanthropists" who faced down developers and bought lands that eventually were incorporated into U.S. national parks, including Wyoming's Grand Teton and Maine's Arcadia.

"Parks generate tremendous local opposition at first -- it's a given," said Tompkins, more compact and less bombastic in person than his outsized reputation would suggest. "Then, after a while, once the thing gets established, the locals are the most fierce defenders. Sometimes it takes 20 years. But go up to Yellowstone now, for example, and ask them if they want to [disestablish] that park? There would be revolution."

Many tycoons have been drawn to the mountains, plains and coasts of Patagonia, a region that straddles Chile and Argentina. CNN's Ted Turner, financier George Soros and Italy's wealthy Benetton Group have purchased expansive tracts.

But the Tompkinses live on their land, preaching ecology and serving as lightning rods for nationalistic ire and outright paranoia.

"I know in my heart that land and issues about land and land usage strike at the very depth of our hearts," Kris, 55, says of the controversy that has shadowed their efforts.

Using several foundations and investing more than $150 million, most of it their own, the couple have methodically bought more than 2 million acres of varied terrain in South America. They have accumulated parts of volcanoes, glaciers and 1,000-year-old stands of alerce trees, a towering larch species that Chile declared a national monument in 1976.

A fleet of Cessnas ferries these eco-barons about their domain, with Doug Tompkins, a longtime pilot, often flying solo, surveying his lands with the same fervor once employed in designing Esprit emporia. He repeatedly berates the "techno-industrial society," despite the aircraft, satellite phone, computers and other gadgets that facilitate his calling.

His Pumalin Park project here in southern Chile, Tompkins' signature effort (named after the resident pumas), sprawls over 762,000 acres, an area as extensive as Yosemite National Park. It also in effect slices this narrow nation in two, a fact that irritates the Chileans' sense of sovereignty.

What may be a sincere noblesse oblige comes across to many here as arrogant, even imperious. At their most extreme, Chileans have accused Tompkins of being a CIA agent, Israeli spy, cultist and clandestine gold miner. Others, however, just don't want an American telling them what to do, even if they agree with his intent. Many see him as inflexible -- he opposes a road or power lines through Pumalin, for instance.

"Tompkins generates resistance and some support because his positions are so fundamentalist," says conservative Chilean Sen. Antonio Horvath, who argues that the U.S. public would never accept foreign land purchases that cut an entire state in half.

"I can't imagine a situation where people traveling from Washington or New York to Miami, for instance, would be obliged to do it only by ferry or air."

For Tompkins, saving the land is all. He professes concern for the fate of those who work in the forests, pastures or seas, but insists that the salmoneros, gauchos, lumbermen, shepherds and others displaced by his environmentally correct scheme must find other employment, perhaps in ecotourism. That attitude has alienated many.

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