Millionaires With a Mission

'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."

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