Millionaires With a Mission

It sits on the northern edge of Patagonia in Southern Chile. Eight hundred thousand acres, most of it virgin wilderness. Pumalin Park is one of the most remote places on Earth. (Click here to visit the Pumalin Park Web site for much more).

It's where the snowcapped Andes Mountains tumble spectacularly into the sea. Where rivers roar with glacial waters. Where 3,000-year-old Alerce trees strain for the sky. Where sea lions rule from their perch on the rocky coast.

Jeffrey Kofman continues his reporting Tuesday, June 19 on "World News with Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. EDT.

And where an American millionaire has bought every acre the eye can see. His mission: preserve this magnificent landscape forever. And as much wilderness as his money can buy.

Our story begins with the journey to find him. Getting to Pumalin from the United States takes more than two days. Flights; a dusty highway; a ferry ride; more highway; then a five-hour boat ride down a majestic fjord. You really have to want to get there.

The final leg: an early morning boat ride to the end of another fjord. And then it gets really interesting. The boat beaches on mud flats, a tractor with giant wheels spins toward us from the trees. Wondering just where we are being taken, the "Nightline" crew piles into the back with its gear.

Paradise Found

Suddenly, in this remote mountain valley near the bottom of the earth, we enter a manicured lane way, passing immaculate gardens, glass greenhouses and then, far from everyone and everywhere, a graceful home. This is where Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kristine, live.

Their passion: saving this Earth. And with their millions of dollars, they have the means to do something about it.

You can hear the anger in Doug's voice when the subject turns to the environment.

"As we see this human project sweeping across the globe, wiping out everything in its trajectory, it's upsetting," Doug said. "I don't want to call it anger, but it's upsetting and I try to use my 'upsetedness,' if you will, to get me going in the morning. We are immersed in a serious crisis, and we have to rethink the living arrangements on the planet."

And so the Tompkinses have single-handedly decided to devote their wealth to preserving as much wilderness as they can. They began assembling land here in Southern Chile in 1991.

Seeing Pumalin From the Sky

Under assault from the massive flies, Doug was eager to show us his Pumalin. The best way to see it: from the air. We clamber into his four-seat Cessna and head for the skies, taking off from the private grass runway next to his ranch.

Doug is an experienced bush pilot, an avid outdoorsman, but that's just the beginning of his resume. He made his millions -- a lot of them -- in the apparel industry in San Francisco, as founder of The North Face, which manufactures adventure and travel gear, and Esprit clothing lines. He abandoned it all 16 years ago to preserve a patch of this planet. A very big patch. Kris Tompkins is also a refugee from the apparel industry: She was CEO of Patagonia Sportswear.

In the air Doug gives his tour over headsets. He explains that there are about 60 miles from the north end of the park to the south end, and between 30 miles and 40 miles from the ocean to the Argentine border.

"We are down here in the middle of Pumalin. You have to understand this is like the size of Yosemite National Park here, so it's pretty big," he said.

We see a volcano from above, and when asked whether he purchased it, Doug said, "Yeah, that came with it."

Doug says those last words with just a hint of irony. Not only did he buy active volcanoes, he also bought glaciers and dozens of lakes. South America may be the only place where land like this can be bought on a scale like this.

Conservation on a Grand Scale

Most of Pumalin, a 400,000-acre parcel, was purchased from 150 heirs of a Spanish conquistador who was deeded the land almost 500 years ago.

With deep conviction, and even deeper pockets, Doug and Kris have assembled land for conservation on a scale never seen before. Pumalin is now just the biggest of 13 parks they have created in Chile and in Argentina.

Together the Tompkinses have bought almost 2.5 million square acres of land, about the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. They've already gifted two parks, one in Chile and one in Argentina, so their current holdings are about 2 million acres or 3,300 square miles.

"Well it's peanuts," Kris said. "Compared to the number of acres that are transformed and destroyed every year, it's peanuts. If you weigh it against what's being saved on an annual basis versus what's being destroyed, we are on the losing team."

Count Pumalin as a big win for the losing team. The mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes here are unique, a temperate rain forest, similar but not the same as parts of Washington state and British Columbia. Three hundred days of rain a year, which add up to 20 feet of rain a year.

Natural Splendor, Hand-Crafted Beauty

There may be other parks in Latin America that rival Pumalin for its beauty, but it is hard to imagine any other park south of the U.S.-Mexican border with better or more beautiful facilities.

In this isolated region with chronic poverty, Doug is creating his own utopian world -- a South American Walden Pond where natural splendor is complimented by handcrafted beauty.

No detail too small: paths made of stone, fences of twigs, signs hand-carved, public campgrounds immaculate. And nine Hobbit-like cabins for visitors. Pumalin isn't just about preserving wilderness, it is about living in harmony with nature.

Doug is intense, driven, obsessive and self-deprecating. He is a curious fusion of Henry David Thoreau and Charles Lindberg with Martha Stewart's eye for detail. But at his core, he is a deeply committed environmentalist.

In one valley he shows me an organic farm that creates local employment and maybe one day, revenue to sustain the park. There are bees for organic honey. Organically raised sheep. And red currants, raspberries, blueberries for organic jams.

"We can have beauty," he said as we toured Pumalin by air and foot, "and we can have production that's clean, that produces a good product and is friendly to the environment."

In another valley ravaged by clear-cutting and failed efforts at farming, Doug is working to bring back the wilderness. Pumalin has its own tree nursery, nurturing species unique to the region.

He points out a three-inch-high Alerce seedling, a cousin to the California Giant Sequoia. Given a chance, it will grow to be 3,000 years old, and if Doug has his way it will do just that. He approaches environmental issues with the same single-minded focus he once had in business.

'I See the World Better Today'

"What I was doing was negative," Doug said of his time in the apparel industry, "in terms of creating false desires for products that nobody needed. I got more interested in environmentalism and conservationism, so consequently I felt that I'd rather be on the side of improving things, rather than making things worse. It wasn't something that happened from one day to the next, it was a long transition. I think I see the world better today than I did before."

He admits that there is more than a little irony to this point. The very industry that he now damns is the source of the vast fortune that has allowed him to do this kind of work.

"That's the same with everybody," he said. "The Mellons [whose family foundation helped establish national parks in the United States] didn't get their money through benign industries. That's the way it is, you can't undo anything. The past is the past, and you see it for what it is."

They can't undo the past, but in this remote part of the world they are trying to change the future, protecting these lands forever from mining, logging and development. Which is why despite their good intentions they have faced suspicion, fear and hostility. Especially here in Pumalin because the park is so large, it literally cuts Chile in two.

Controversy and Confrontation

It was a few years after Doug and Kris began quietly assembling land in Pumalin that people in Chile began to take notice. Just what were these two Americans really up to?

"Well, we're sort of working away here quietly," Doug said, "so-called 'out of the radar screen,' and suddenly one day a small contingent of four or five right-wing politicians arrived in the area and started to create some kind of fantasy story about what we were doing; at first we took it as almost kind of a joke."

Kris continued: "That we were starting a nuclear waste site for the United States or that we were going to start a new Jewish state here -- we are not Jewish -- that we would be a way for the Argentinean army to come and attack Chile. I mean it sounds ridiculous but the truth is, those stories took hold."

Were any of them true?

"Well," said Kris with a mischievous smile, "Douglas, we haven't gotten that waste site finished but we are working on it." They laugh.

"The tunnel under the Andes," Doug said, "we are working on that -- it's expensive. I am rethinking that." More laughter.

"But they were serious stories," Kris said, "they floated around for years."

Chile is a country that has good reason to be suspicious of Americans. In 1973 the Nixon administration supported the coup that began 17 years of brutal dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Yet when the Tompkinses began assembling cheap wilderness land for conservation here, they were stunned to be labeled 'ugly Americans."

The notoriety has made Doug as famous in Chile as, say, Donald Trump is in the United States -- although Doug probably wouldn't like the comparison. Journalist Hernan Osses Suarez has been writing about the Tompkinses for a decade for El Diario Llanquihue, the newspaper in the nearby city of Puerto Montt.

"There is not one Chilean who doesn't know who Tompkins is," Osses Suarez said. "Some people think Tompkins is a 'crazy gringo.' They cannot conceive how someone with so much wealth would come here and buy a forest and not exploit it."

Doug is careful to note that technically he does not own Pumalin or the other parks. They are controlled by nonprofit foundations, although Doug and Kris control the foundations.

Doug has learned to understand the anxiety his projects have created.

"You can well imagine that it seems weird," he said of the reaction in Chile, "because there is no real tradition of philanthropy. There is no real tradition of conservation. Their focus in the last 18 years prior to our arriving was on a dictatorship where human rights were of great concern, not the environment."

He said, "One thing you should really know is all of this opposition has been fantastic for our working, our themes of conservation environmentalism. It made us public figures. They've given us a microphone we could have never had before."

A Highway Through the Heart of Pumalin?

The Tompkinses' parks have been attacked repeatedly here and in Argentina, but the latest crisis in Pumalin may be the most serious yet: a new push to connect the national highway.

Chile is a long, narrow country, and Pumalin sits in the narrowest part of the country, crossing its entire width from the Argentine border to the ocean and literally cutting Chile in two.

The problem: The national highway -- actually a dirt road -- literally ends where Pumalin begins. It's a rough, rocky 50-mile ferry ride around Pumalin. The only other option is to drive into neighboring Argentina and back. Which is why now there is enormous pressure to push a road right through the heart of Pumalin.

Carving the highway through the Andes would cost hundreds of millions of dollars; it would require snowy mountain passes and tunnels miles long, perhaps a hundred miles of driving to cross 50 miles of park. Yet in this very poor, very remote region of this developing country it has become a question of national sovereignty for some.

Leading the charge is the member of Chile's parliament for the region, Claudio Alvarado, who is pushing for a special debate on Pumalin in the National Assembly in April.

"The reality is that we need to integrate Chileans south of Pumalin into the rest of the country. They shouldn't have to go into another country to get to another city in their own country," Alvarado said.

Alvarado is pushing to expropriate a large swath of Pumalin for the road and for massive power lines. "As Chileans we are not against protecting the environment," Alvarado said. "We just want preservation of the environment to be compatible with the development of our country."

"Mr. Tompkins lives in a reality very different from the one that most Chileans live in. He has been very successful in life. He chose to devote the rest of his life to preserve the environment. But his philosophy in my opinion is extreme, to the point that nothing can be touched or nothing can be changed."

Doug and Kris bristle at the idea of a road and power lines in Pumalin. He is proposing what he says is a more cost-effective coastal route that would take advantage of some little-traveled roads and require two high-speed ferries to jump the deep water of the fjords.

Preserving Pumalin

Preserving Pumalin has become an obsession for the Tompkinses. Doug never tires of the magnificent landscape that has become his life's work.

At age 63, he feels a sense of urgency to his task. From the air he points to the magnificent Renihue Valley, with a glorious lake fed by glaciers. He would like to believe it will remain like this forever.

"Well let's put it this way," he said over the plane's headsets, "I hope it will stay that way. I only have a few more years over which I might be able to exercise a little bit of control over that."

There is already a plan in place to transfer Pumalin from the private foundation to the people of Chile as the country's newest national park. But not yet. While the Tompkinses are alive they still have more work to do here.

Some older Chileans may still be suspect of the Tompkinses' motives, but a group of Boy Scouts from Santiago we met in Pumalin may represent the ultimate vindication of the Tompkinses' dream.

Seeing Pumalin for themselves, they are awed by what the Americans have accomplished. And by the Americans themselves. One of them approached Doug. "Are you the King of Pumalin?" the scout asked.

For once, Doug was at a loss for words. A little embarrassed, a little flattered.

The boys put a scout tie around Doug's neck. "We are proud of you," a young scout said to him, "because you have created this beautiful park for all the world to enjoy."

Doug smiled. There might be just a hint of a lump in his throat.

For more information on Pumalin Park, go to www.pumalinpark.org.

For a map of the park, click here.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...