A Wild Idea
By Dave Butler
Success in conservation often means employing a unique and ever-evolving basket of skills such as passion, dedication, imagination, business sense, political savvy, all while keeping in mind a long-term view.
All those characteristics and more describe entrepreneur and conservationist Douglas Tompkins as he is portrayed in Jonathan Franklin’s new biography: “A Wild Idea; The True Story of Douglas Tompkins—The Greatest Conservationist.” (Harper One, 2021).
A Wild Idea is the story of a man who was a friend, neighbour and political debater with Steve Jobs, a friend and climbing partner to American adventurer and rewilding champion Rick Ridgeway, a life-long friend to Yvon Chouinard, and a contemporary of famed photographer Galen Rowell, conservationist David Brouwer, and Rick Klein, founder of Ancient Forests International.
Douglas Rainsford Tompkins was a highly successful yet often controversial entrepreneur who started then moved away from gear manufacturer The North Face, then the clothing company Esprit. Unlike Chouinard, whose Patagonia Inc. still operates on four key values: “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to protect nature, and not bound by convention,” Tompkins realized that he “climbed the wrong mountain” and set out to make a difference not in business but in saving the world from humanity and what he saw as the negative impacts of capitalism.
Tompkins was a study in contrasts, just like his sense that the world was either black or green; to him, you were either a problem or a solution. He drove a red Ferrari yet crashed on friends’ couches. He was an environmentalist and a multi-millionaire. His attention to detail was legendary, but that focus did not appear to have been applied to his own daughters.
As he grew older, Tompkins read everything he could about conservation and ecology, and often quoted Edward Abbey. He discovered Deep Ecology and the work of Arne Naes and George Sessions, and he led weekend ecology think-thanks at his San Francisco home. He took inspiration from young activists, and even participated in an anti-whaling expedition, throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese whaling ships.
However, he often returned to Patagonia and saw its potential.
“We hadn’t known it would be like this. So big! So beautiful! So scary! This was a gigantic Chamonix, a gargantuan Bugaboos. Huge was our only impression…”
Instead of resting on his laurels or the piles of cash he earned by selling The North Face and Esprit, he leveraged the money into a large-scale conservation project unlike anything anyone had done. When he left Esprit, one of the bankers asked him: “So, Doug, what are you going to do with all this money?” Tompkins apparently replied: “try to undo everything you guys are doing.”
“By the mid 1980s, I had slowly come to the realization that I was doing the wrong thing. I was in an apparel company making a lot of stuff that nobody needed, my main work was adding to the environmental crisis rather than help revert it, I realized that I had to do something else.”
It had been a thousands-of-miles, three-and-a-half month road trip to the southern tip of South America in 1968 with friends Lito Tejada-Flores, Dick Dorworth and Yvon Chouinard that left a deep impression on the young Tompkins.
When Tompkins set his sights on Patagonia, he couldn’t be stopped, not by frightened politicians, not by reluctant land-owners, and not by large companies trying to log ancient forests or build large hydroelectric dams on pristine rivers in Chile and Argentina. Despite threats to his life, and despite concerns by South American politicians that a lone American was in Patagonia turning conservation on its head, he began buying up massive parcels of private land, first a grove of Araucaria trees, then entire wild valleys. He removed hundreds of miles of fencing, and he began to talk of bringing jaguars and pumas back to places where they were no longer seen.
Beyond that, Tompkins saw a bigger vision: a linked system of parks running to the southern tip of Patagonia.
By the time Tompkins passed away in a kayak accident in 2015, he had bought and leveraged and partnered with national and regional governments to create what has become known as “The Route of Parks” (“La Ruta de los Parques de Patagonia”). Initially, politicians were skeptical of Tompkins’ claims that he would willingly turn over all his private land to governments if they committed to turning his land and theirs into national parks. But it was only after his death that his vision finally became reality, when politicians scrambled over themselves to be part of something good on a continental scale. His wife Kris carries on his legacy to this day.
Now, “The Route of the Parks” includes 17 national parks (one of which is called Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park) stretching 1700 miles and 28 million acres from Puerto Montt in central Chile to Cape Horn in the south. It protects 24 ecosystems, and is home to 140 species of birds and 46 different kinds of mammals.
What’s most fascinating about Tompkins' large-scale conservation model, at least in this writer’s mind, is that it does not close off these places to humans or the economy. Instead, Tompkins understood that local people had to support the idea, they had to make a living, and they had to see that having these lands in parks was much better – in both the short and long term – than any of the alternatives. The linear string of parks includes ecotourism and adventure tourism -- hiking routes, commercial lodges, and guides and outfitters, and it hosts many forms of sustainable agriculture. It's a destination for thousands of visitors each year, and the parks are largely financially sustainable. It is a model of conservation done thoughtfully, with the long game in mind.
It was Edward Abbey who said that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” While Doug Tompkins stepped on many toes during his 71-year life, he was a true embodiment of Abbey’s words.
In "A Wild Idea," Jonathan Franklin, the award-winning public speaker, author and investigative journalist, does a masterful job of telling a fascinating and inspiring story of
a man who -- with passion, conviction and unparalleled vision -- showed the world a whole new way to conserve ecosystems on a grand scale.
“Are you ready to do your part? Everyone is capable taking up their position to use their energy, political influence, financial or other resources, and talents of all kinds to be part of a global movement for ecological and cultural health; all will be useful. There is important and meaningful work to be done. To change everything, everyone is needed.”