The Kenwood Press
: 01/15/2016

Remembering Doug Tompkins: Environmentalist extraordinaire

Sharon Ponsford

Doug, Dick, Chris and Yvon
Photo by Lito-Tejada Flores. Disheveled but ecstatic, (L to R) Doug Tompkins, Dick Dorworth, Chris Jones, and Yvon Chouinard in campground after their successful climb of Fitzroy in Patagonia, Dec. 24, 1968.

One morning early last month, my husband, Chris Jones, shared with me some devastating news he had just seen on the internet. His long time friend, Doug Tompkins, had died in a kayaking accident in Patagonia. It was a very sad day for us, but more importantly, Mother Earth had just lost one of her staunchest allies.

Doug had become legendary with an international reputation for conservation, but when Chris first met him in the mid-60s, he had recently opened a climbing and ski shop called The North Face. It was in North Beach in San Francisco, right next door to Carol Doda’s somewhat scandalous topless bar. Chris and Doug became friends, skied and climbed together, and as a result of their friendship, Chris was invited to join Doug and three others on a six-month road trip, mostly on dirt roads, driving from San Francisco to Patagonia, where they would surf, ski, and eventually climb the formidable Fitzroy, a mountain in Patagonia. The group called themselves “The Fun Hogs.”

When Chris and I met in the mid-70s, we came from two completely different worlds; mine was all about books and publishing, and his was all about climbing mountains. Initially we had no mutual friends. As we gradually started introducing our friends to each other, Chris told me that we were invited to Doug and Susie Tompkins’ for dinner. I think Chris felt that they were some of the more presentable of his climbing set! I have fond memories of that first dinner with them in their house in San Francisco. By then, Doug and Susie had sold The North Face, and founded the very successful Esprit, a line of women’s clothing.

Through the years we would get together from time to time, sometimes at their house or at the beautiful Esprit office on Potrero Hill. Doug was an astute businessman and ahead of his time in so many ways. We were impressed that Esprit had their own in-house chef as well as a gymnasium for their employees, unheard-of perks in those days.

By 1990 the Tompkins’ marriage was over, and Doug was disillusioned with what he was doing at Esprit. As he put it, he was selling stuff to people who didn’t need it, and sold his interests in the business.

After leaving Esprit, Doug started the Foundation for Deep Ecology. At that time he was dividing his time between San Francisco and Patagonia. He soon discovered that land in Patagonia was very cheap. Old-growth forests were selling for $12 an acre. His first purchase was a broken down cattle ranch on spectacular land. The purchase price for this 24,700 acre property was $600,000. At the time he thought it ironic that a condo in San Francisco would cost about the same as the nearly 40 square miles that would become his home. The only access was by boat or plane, but fortunately Doug was an experienced pilot with his own plane.

Over the years, Doug, and his second wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins, a woman whose conservation values equaled his own , purchased some 2.1 million acres in Patagonia. The lands purchased included rainforests, grasslands, mountains, and everything in between. With each purchase, they removed hundreds of miles of fencing, invasive plants – which were replaced by native plants grown in their own nursery – and basically let the lands re-wild. The lands have become a paradise for the local wildlife, including some species that are categorized as threatened or endangered.

The Tompkins plan was always to give the land back to the people of Chile and Argentina in the form of national parks. Amazingly, the Chilean government, which was happy to let foreign buyers purchase land to be mined and logged, could not believe that a foreigner would purchase land to give back in the form of parks! Doug had a lot of problems with the government, but eventually did create five new national parks, and two new provincial parks, as well as manage the 715,000 acre Pumalin Park, the largest private nature reserve in the world. Eventually Pumalin will also become a national park. Kris Tompkins has said that she is more motivated than ever to continue the plan she and Doug have been working on for the past 25 years.

Why Patagonia? It all stems from that six-month trip taken back in 1968 by the “Fun Hogs.” It had a profound influence on everyone, but especially Doug, and Yvon Chouinard, another member of that group, who went on to found the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The mountain that is on the Patagonia logo is Fitzroy, the mountain that they all climbed on that trip. Yvon has been very active in supporting many of Doug’s efforts in Patagonia, as well as his own considerable conservation initiatives. Yvon was one of six people on that fateful kayaking trip last month.

Chris and I have talked about the way Doug died many times. We think that Doug would have been OK with it, as he was doing something he loved in a place that he loved. His death brings to mind the famous quote from Jack London: “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” Doug was a superb meteor all right! Rest in peace, Doug. We will miss you so.