Tompkins' Park Place
Douglas Rainsford Tompkins moved to Chile in the early '90s, intent on enjoying his early retirement. The 54-year-old co-founder of Esprit, the international clothing retailer, sold his half to his ex-wife, Susie, for $125 million and hoped to spend his days in northern Patagonia sea kayaking, piloting his small planes or horse packing in the mountains. His goal was to escape the madness of the consumer world. But once an entrepreneur always an entrepreneur. Along the way, Tompkins started buying native forest and decided to create the world's largest private park. He did not intend to become the most talked about man in Chile, but that is exactly what happened.What so aroused, and aggravated, a handful of conservative Chilean legislators is that over the past five years the eco-philanthropist has become the largest private landowner in Chile. Spending $12 million, he has acquired a block of 670,000 acres of pristine forest, mountains, and rivers that literally cuts the slender nation in two, stretching from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean. His intention is to turn the land into a reserve and one day hand it over to Chile's national park system.Until recently, Tompkins had proceeded quietly (or secretly, as critics maintain), purchasing parcels big and small without asking help from nor giving the government much information about what he was doing. His actions now have come back to haunt him, as the legislature launches an investigation. "It was never a secret," Tompkins argues, "We just wanted to have all the land locked up before we went public with our plans for the park." He regards the arguments of his detractors as little more than jealousy sparked by special interests that would rather see the land stripped of its trees for a quick profit. Big wall maps at Tompkins' immaculately landscaped, designed, and decorated Puerto Montt home indicate the pieces of land he has acquired, the parcels for which he is still negotiating, and the tracts he'll never get. One calculation suggests that Tompkins already owns 78 percent of the remaining native forest of Chile. His park -- which he's dubbed Pumalin -- will include the country's largest remaining ancient forests, some as old as 3,000 years. Purchase of the land is almost complete, with 670,000 acres acquired of the 700,000-acre goal. (Tompkins had initially hoped to amass 1.25 million acres, but his foundation board, which controls the purse strings, thought 700,000 was plenty.)Tompkins' interest in Chile may be his best-known, but by no means only, environmental cause. His San Francisco-based Deep Ecology Foundation funds projects in 50 countries. Tompkins hopes that his example in Chile -- a private person spending personal wealth to preserve nature where governments cannot or will not -- might set an example for others. Obsessed with the ecological future of the planet (among its tenants, Deep Ecology holds that non human life is just as important as human life), he attacks this new mission with the same relentlessness he once put into making lime-colored T-shirts an international fashion rage.Nonetheless, Tompkins' plans for Pumalin went awry late last summer when the Chilean government, spurred by the conservative legislators, offered to buy a strategic block of land -- 30,000 acres owned by Catholic University -- which neatly divides his land in two. Tompkins hurried home from a Tuscany vacation and pleaded with government officials and journalists to help him stop the purchase. Today he awaits the decision of a three-minister commission appointed by the Chilean president. The future of Pumalin is, for now, out of his hands.Though he's used to being in the middle of conflict, Tompkins admits he has never been so frustrated. He is willing to spend as much as $20 million to see the park become a reality. That is, if the government doesn't coerce him to give up the land before the park's logistics are secured; newly proposed legislation would limit the amount of land a foreigner could own. "Douglas' biggest problem is that he has become part of a soap opera, fed by envy, one of our great national pastimes," Adriana Hoffman, a respected Chilean biologist and loyal Tompkins ally, tells me.All this was not the reaction Tompkins expected for preserving a swath of native forest as big as Luxembourg out of his own pocket. Perhaps naively -- or arrogantly, an adjective Tompkins' critics often use to describe him -- he thought he was doing Chile "a good deed." "Look, every big project is criticized. That is part of the process," Tompkins says. "That is why we must be as transparent as possible. Naturally this makes our work harder, because we need to answer to all these rumors."Despite his zeal, critics and loyalists alike are concerned that the current hassles will turn Tompkins off and he'll walk away. After all, he fled the fashion business when it got, in his words, "boring." Is it fair to wonder whether he might similarly tire of the Chilean bureaucracy and walk away from Pumalin? He insists no. "It's funny, because I thought they would be glad to have me here," he says. "But to many Chileans I guess what I'm trying to do must seem incomprehensible. Ultimately it doesn't matter what they think. I'm not going anywhere. This park will take the rest of my life."