He Saves the Rain Forest by Buying It

Victor Perera, the author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" (University of California), is writing a book on the whales of Patagonia for Alfred A. Knopf

If Thoreau were to come back to life, he might do with his book royalties something that Douglas Tompkins is doing with his private fortune: invest it in a swath of pristine woodlands in a remote South American country and convert it into a vast Walden Pond. But the eccentric tycoon who made his money from the sale of stock in his Esprit clothing chain has gone one step farther. After spending more than $10 million on 700,000 acres of spectacular temperate rain forest, mountain lakes and coastline in southern Chile, he offered to turn it over to his host country as a national park, with the sole proviso that it be declared a nature sanctuary. The Chilean government turned down the offer, denouncing Tompkins as a dangerous radical and his gift as a Trojan horse.

The Chilean government’s seemingly perverse response is not altogether surprising. Truth is, it has good reason to be alarmed by Tompkins.

A self-professed “deep ecologist,” Tompkins contributes millions of his foundation money to environmental groups that regard Homo sapiens, at best, as a single thread in the fabric of Earth’s biodiversity and, at worst, as a willful destroyer of nature’s grand design. No one is more detestable in Tompkin’s radical cosmology than the industrial forester and land developer.

In an afterword in his book “Clearcut,” Tompkins confides that flying his plane over devastated forests of British Columbia--hidden from public view--aroused a “green rage” that converted him into an environmental radical. He is an advocate of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who calls for a global council of sentient beings to feel our planet’s cries of distress in our own bodies before taking remedial action.

Close inspection of the proposed Pumalin Park reveals why Tompkins has raised such a ruckus. His nearly 714,000 acres resemble an upended boot aimed at the heart of southern Chile. If he acquires the strip of land separating his two main holdings, Tompkins could effectively split the country in two, since his property straddles Chile at its narrowest point, a corridor running about 50 miles between the Pacific coast’s Gulf of Ancud and the Argentine border.


Pumalin Park would thus become an effective buffer against the northward advance of loggers and land developers, which may be precisely what Tompkins has in mind.

Tompkins evidently enjoys being in the eye of an environmental storm. “They are getting so paranoid that when Santiago college students marched to oust foreign loggers from Tierra del Fuego, President Eduardo Frei accused me of paying for it,” he says, sipping tea in his Education, Science and Ecology Foundation headquarters, constructed from fallen alercetrees, the native giant sequoias that grow on his property. While his lawyer claimed the foundation’s telephones were tapped, Tompkins accused Sen. Claudio Alvarado of lying to the Chilean Supreme Court about his driving homesteaders out of lands adjacent to his property.

“I’m offering them hard cash for agriculturally unproductive land,” he says. What’s wrong with that?”

Since then, Tompkins has offered to help settlers relocate to more productive land. He has also set up a model farm at the park entrance to showcase sustainable agronomy.

At times, Tompkins’ disingenuousness comes across as real naivete. He is a brilliant businessman and articulate spokesman for his ecological ideas--and hopelessly heavy-footed in dealing with political opponents. But he backs his objectives with real clout. He recently transferred $85 million worth of Esprit stock to his foundations, in addition to his initial $50-million investment, to demonstrate his commitment to biodiversity.

Tompkins has managed to polarize not only the political far right but the traditional left, which is suspicious of his money and his connections to corporate America. He professes surprise at the alarm he set off when he sued a salmon farmer for poisoning the bays with chemicals and killing sea lions on his coastline. He has taken on Chile’s three most powerful lobbies--the loggers and land developers, the copper miners and the sacrosanct salmon farms--that are pouring billions of dollars into the resurgent Chilean economy.

Still, Tompkins is a true believer in the paradigm shift that will turn every thinking person into a deep ecologist in the next millennium. He insists we accept individual accountability for the harm we inflict on the planet, and become infected with his “green rage.” And he may be right that time is on his side. He finances all the progressive environmental NGO’s in Chile and many more abroad. Young environmental radicals have started calling him a hero. As his popularity spreads, so does his controversy, and he appears to like it that way, for all his insistence that he and his work have been “overdimensionalized.”

One of his new staff environmentalists, Carlos Cuevas, is assisting in the production of a companion tome to “Clearcut” that will expose the devastation of Chile’s forests. Cuevas asserts that Tompkins’ park works hand in glove with an emerging green revolution among Chile’s youth. “What Doug stands for would be just as threatening to the Chilean establishment if he were Chilean-born. The main difference is that, as a lippy foreigner unacquainted with our politics, he is vulnerable to nationalistic attacks on his ‘gringo arrogance.’ ”

One of the most controversial--and exciting--projects sponsored by Tompkins’ foundation is the Gondwana Global Park project, supported by Defensores del Bosque Chileno (Defenders of the Chilean Forest) and other cutting-edge environmental groups. (The head of Defensores, Adriana Hoffmann, is receiving an award from the United Nations this week for her work protecting Chile’s forests.) They are proposing a land sanctuary in the southern tips of Chile, Argentina, Tasmania and New Zealand that would protect rare trees like the lengas and the giant sequoias that once formed part of a single sub-equatorial land mass before continental drift split them apart. The Gondwana park would be a mirror image of the whale sanctuary declared by the International Whaling Commission in 1994 to ban whaling in all Atlantic waters south of 40 degrees latitude.

On paper, the Gondwana park project seems relatively inoffensive. In fact, it confronts, head-on, the Frei government’s promotion of large-scale deforestation in Chile’s far south, where hundreds of thousands of lenga and Chilean sequoia have been converted into wood chips for export to Japan and Europe. At present, defenders of the Chilean Forest and other environmental groups have teamed up with the Sierra Club and two Chilean congressmen to strengthen environmental legislation and stop the decimation of Tierra del Fuego’s lenga forests by Trillium Corp., part of a Bellingham, Wash.-based industrial development consortium that recently began logging operations in the U.S. Northwest and abroad. Chile’s Supreme Court is about to rule on the congressmen’s petition to forestall the logging of 50,000 hectares of lenga and coihue forest as an ecologically unsustainable project.

On the advice of his new, more savvy staff, Tompkins has toned down the rhetoric, and the government’s attacks on him and Pumalin Park have abated. Recently, two progressive ministers in President Eduardo Frei’s government voiced support for his park. Tompkins has even extended a conciliatory hand to the salmon farmer he sued, who is linked to his nemesis Sen. Alvarado. But his phones are still tapped, and sensitive documents mysteriously disappear from his files.

Tompkins admits he has been stymied by the virulence of the government’s opposition; the missing land strip, Loncohuinay, which is owned by Chile’s Catholic University, is out of his reach for now. “My wife, Kris, and I will work on infrastructure for the park, and wait for the next elections. I am in no hurry.” Although Tompkins has derided ecotourism as “the point man” for destructive commercial tourism, his projects include opening miles of forest trails for his alerce groves, fiords, volcanoes and high country lakes, and an airstrip to provide access to visitors. “I am bending over backward,” the new, more accommodating Tompkins insists before breaking into a broad grin, “to meet the government halfway.”