Millionaires With a Mission

The Tompkins have bought 800,000 acres of wilderness in Chile to preserve it.

ByABC News
March 7, 2007, 11:28 AM

PUMALIN PARK, Chile, March 8, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.