Douglas Tompkins

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Douglas Tompkins
Doug Tompkins.jpg
Tompkins in 2009
Born Douglas Rainsford Tompkins
(1943-03-20)March 20, 1943
Conneaut, Ohio, U.S.[1]
Died December 8, 2015(2015-12-08) (aged 72)
Coyhaique, Chile
Cause of death hypothermia
Occupation businessman, conservationist
Children Summer Tompkins Walker, Quincey Tompkins Imhoff[2]
Awards New Species Award, Good Steward Award, David R. Brower Award

Douglas Rainsford Tompkins (March 20, 1943 – December 8, 2015) was an American conservationist, outdoorsman, philanthropist, filmmaker, agriculturalist, and businessman.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, he and Susie Tompkins Buell, his first wife, co-founded and ran two companies: the outdoor equipment and clothing company The North Face and the Esprit clothing company. Following their divorce and Tompkins' departure from the business world in 1989, he became active in environmental and land conservation causes.

In the 1990s Tompkins and his second wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins bought and conserved over 2 million acres (810,000 ha) of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, more than any other private individuals in the region, thus becoming among the largest private land-owners in the world.[3] The Tompkins' were focused on park creation, wildlife recovery, ecological agriculture, and activism, with the goal of saving biodiversity.

Early life[edit]

Tompkins was born in Conneaut, Ohio on March 20, 1943, the son of an antiques dealer and decorator.[1] He spent the first few years of his life in New York City before his family moved to Millbrook, New York. He graduated from Indian Mountain School, a pre-prep school in Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1957. In his senior year at Pomfret School in Connecticut, Tompkins was expelled for various minor infractions. He returned to his hometown in Millbrook, but did not graduate from high school.[4]

Tompkins spent the years between 1960 and 1962 ski racing and rock climbing in Colorado, Europe, and South America.[5] In 1963, Tompkins founded the California Mountaineering Guide Service.[6] It was during this time he met Susie Russell, a casino employee who gave him a lift while hitch-hiking to Lake Tahoe.[7] They married in 1964 in San Francisco, where Tompkins borrowed $5,000 from a bank to set up The North Face, now a global retailing company.[citation needed]

The North Face, Inc.[edit]

Main article: The North Face

In 1964, Douglas and Susie Tompkins started The North Face, Inc. as a mail order and retail company, selling rock climbing and camping equipment. The early years set the design standard of good quality sleeping bags, backpacks, and mountaineering tents. The Tompkins' designed The North Face tents that were some of the first to avoid a pole in the middle, by using bendable rods that push out in their sleeves instead. This design also increased the strength of the tent because the domed shape allowed the wind to roll over the tents. These tents were widely copied throughout the world. In 1966, the first store was opened; the band The Grateful Dead played at the grand opening.[8] Two years later, Tompkins sold out his stake to Kenneth "Hap" Klopp for $50,000, using the profit to join his wife in co-founding Esprit, a fashion house. Tompkins sold The North Face with the intention of a focus on adventure film making.[9]

Adventure film-making[edit]

In 1968, Tompkins headed off on a six-month road/adventure trip from California to Patagonia, along with Yvon Chouinard and two other climbing friends. They put up a new route on Mount Fitzroy, and made an adventure film, Mountain of Storms, about their experience.[10] The 2010 film 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless describes a modern-day recreation of this journey.

Tompkins also became a skilled whitewater kayaker, claiming first descents of rivers in California, Africa, and South America. In addition, he was a skilled bush pilot.[11]


Main article: Esprit Holdings

In 1968, Tompkins, his wife Susie, and her friend Jane Tise began selling girls' dresses out of the back of a VW bus, which they had planned on the kitchen table. In 1971 they incorporated the booming business under the name "Plain Jane" which later became Esprit.[12] By 1978, sales topped $100 million a year and the company had formed partnerships in Germany and Hong Kong. Tompkins titled himself "image director", developing his own marketing approach: overseeing all aspects of the company's image, from store design to catalogue layout, while his wife served as design director. Emerging as one of the hottest brands of the era, the company grew into a transnational company operating in 60 countries. In 1989, the Japanese art publisher Robundo published Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle (ISBN 4947613203), which documented the all-encompassing design principles that Tompkins had created for the brand.[12]

Growing increasingly concerned about the ecological impacts of the fashion industry, Tompkins decided to leave the business world in the late 1980s. In 1989, he sold his share of the American company back to Susie, from whom he had separated, putting most of his profits into land conservation.[13] Subsequently, in 1989 and 1994, he sold his interests in the other Esprit entities around the world.

Land conservation[edit]

After selling his interest in Esprit, Tompkins moved to south Chile, where he had spent much time climbing, kayaking, and skiing, to focus on land conservation and environmental activism. He founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology in 1990, which supports environmental activism, and The Conservation Land Trust in 1992, which works to protect wildlands, primarily in Chile and Argentina.[11][14]

In 1993, he married Kristine L. McDivitt Wear, a former chief executive of the Patagonia retail chain; the two worked together on conservation projects.[15] The Tompkins' conservation efforts focused on preserving wild landscapes and biodiversity. After purchasing large blocks of wilderness, they worked to create national parks, believing that this governmental designation serves as the best mode of guaranteeing long-term conservation.

Pumalín Park[edit]

Main article: Pumalín Park

Tompkins's first major conservation project was Pumalín Park in the Palena Province of Chile, an 800,000-acre (320,000 ha) area of Valdivian temperate rain forest, high peaks, lakes, and rivers. In 1991 he bought the Reñihué farm, a semi-abandoned farm at the end of the Reñihué Fjord, planning to set aside 42,000 acres (17,000 ha) of this unique forest from possible exploitation. In the next decade, The Conservation Land Trust added another 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) in nearly contiguous parcels to create Pumalín Park, which eventually stretched from the Corcovado Gulf to the Andes mountains, over an area of 800,000 acres making it the largest reserve in the world. In 2005, then-President Ricardo Lagos declared this area a Nature Sanctuary, a special designation of the Chilean state, granting it additional environmental and non-developmental protection. The Conservation Land Trust (a U.S. environmental foundation) has donated these protected lands to Fundación Pumalín (a Chilean foundation), for their administration and continual development as a type of National Park with public access under a private initiative.[16] Through creating public-access infrastructure, including trails, campgrounds, visitor centers, and a restaurant, Tompkins sought to promote wilderness experience, in hopes of inspiring a deeper environmental ethic in the park's many thousands of visitors.[16]

Corcovado National Park[edit]

Just to the south of Pumalin, Corcovado National Park represents one of Tompkins' completed conservation projects. In 1994, The Conservation Land Trust (CLT), along with U.S. philanthropist Peter Buckley, acquired 208,000 acres (84,000 ha) of native forest that was slated for logging, adjacent to vast areas of federal land under the jurisdiction of the Chilean Armed Forces. CLT offered to donate this parcel back to the Chilean state, provided that the whole area became a national park. In 2005, then-President Ricardo Lagos accepted this proposal, and the 726,000-acre (294,000 ha) Corcovado National Park was born.[11]

Iberá Project[edit]

The Iberá Project is a private conservation enterprise that was spearheaded by Tompkins, working with George Soros, Harvard University,[17] and the Conservation Land Trust[18] (Tompkins enterprise). Its goal is to expand land ownership and strengthen protection for the Iberá Wetlands natural preserve, in Corrientes Province, Argentina. Since 1983, the Iberá Natural Reserve has consisted of 553,000 hectares of protected floodplains, providing safe habitat for a range of native species, and encouraging a transition from "an exploitative economy" to "an economy of conservation and ecotourism". The Conservation Land Trust has acquired 150,000 hectares of old cattle ranches bordering the existing natural reserve, lands that include habitats not currently represented in the existing park. The goal is to donate these lands, including espinal, malezal grasslands, and forests, to the Argentine government to include in the reserve, creating a new, strictly conserved park called the Great Iberá Park. This new park, which would total 700,000 hectares, would be the largest national park in Argentina.[19]

Other conservation projects[edit]

Other conservation projects that Tompkins spearheaded include:

Organic agriculture[edit]

Envisioning "conservation as a consequence of production," Tompkins developed models of sustainable organic farming, which maintain soil health and ecological integrity at the same time that they provide for families and support the local economy.[20]

In the area around Pumalin, the Hornopiren, Vodudahue, Ventisquero, Pillan, and Reñihue farms serve as exemplars of small-scale ecological agriculture and as informal park ranger stations. Each of these farms produces a variety of products, including sheep, cattle, honey, berries, and organic vegetables. A small facility in the Pillan farm processes honey and berries for jams, which are sold under the name Pillan Organics.[21]

In northeastern Argentina, Tompkins managed cattle ranches in Corrientes Province and polyculture grain and fruit farms in Entre Ríos Province. Each farm pays close attention to developing sustainable practices.[22]

Environmental activism[edit]

Through the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Tompkins published a series of large-format, photo activist books on environmental issues, including:

  • Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry (ed. Bill Devall, 1993, ISBN 0871564947)
  • Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (ed. Andrew Kimbrell, 2002, ISBN 1559639407)
  • Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West (eds. George Weurthner and Mollie Yoneko Madison, 2002, ISBN 1559639423)
  • Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy (ed. George Weurthner, 2006, ISBN 159726069X)

In addition, The Foundation for Deep Ecology had a long history as a grant-maker in categories such as Biodiversity & Wilderness, Ecological Agriculture, and Megatechnology & Economic Globalization, although in-house publishing is now its main focus.[citation needed]

Tompkins has also been involved in several large environmental campaigns in Chile and Argentina, such as the "Patagonia Sin Represas" campaign, which opposed the construction of dams on two of the largest and wildest rivers in the Patagonia region of Chile.[23]


Despite considerable controversy within Chile and Argentina, Tompkins' environmental work won him respect and accolades outside of South America: in 2012, the African Rainforest Conservancy awarded Tompkins and his wife its "New Species Award";[24] in 2007, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation awarded its "Good Steward" award to him and his wife Kris;[25] in 2008, the American Alpine Club awarded him the David R. Brower Award, for his work preserving mountain regions; in 2009, Latin Trade named him the "Environmental Leader of the Year".[26] In 2007, he was appointed as an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in recognition of his work restoring damaged landscapes.[27] Eco Barons, Edward Humes' 2009 account of the "dreamers, schemers, and millionaires who are saving our planet," uses Tompkins as the first example of this new group of philanthropists.[28]


On December 8, 2015, Tompkins was kayaking with five others on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile when strong waves caused their kayaks to capsize. Tompkins spent a "considerable amount of time" in waters 40 °F (4 °C) below. He was flown via helicopter to a hospital in nearby Coyhaique, where he died hours later from severe hypothermia.[29][30] He was 72 years old and survived by his second wife, Kristine (McDivitt) two daughters, and a brother.[9][31]


  1. ^ a b Pearson, Stephanie. "Obituary: Doug Tompkins (1943-2015)". Outside magazine. Retrieved 11 December 2015. 
  2. ^ Abrams, Rachel; Southall, Ashley (9 December 2015). "Douglas Tompkins, 72, Founder of North Face, Dies in Kayak Accident". The New York Times. p. B14. Retrieved 9 December 2015. 
  3. ^ “Pleistocene Park” emerges from Patagonia’s rescued grasslands, nationalgeographic, January 23, 2010
  4. ^ The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 10 December 2015, Obituaries [paper only], p.37
  5. ^ "Douglas Tompkins, The North Face Founder, Dies After Kayaking Accident". Retrieved 2016-05-16. 
  6. ^ The Conservation Land Trust
  7. ^ Nelson, Andrew (2002). "Another Roadside Attraction". Intersections: True Tales of San Francisco (blog). 
  8. ^ Synnott, Mark M. (9 December 2015). "How The North Face Founder Went From High School Dropout to Millionaire Conservationist". National Geographic. Retrieved 23 August 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Sarah Kaplan (December 9, 2015). "North Face co-founder turned 'eco baron' Douglas Tompkins is killed in Chile kayaking accident". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Patagonia Mountain of Storms DVD". Retrieved 2016-05-16. 
  11. ^ a b c Diana Saverin. "The Entrepreneur Who Wants to Save Paradise". The Atlantic. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b "company :: about us :: History". E S P R I T. September 16, 2010. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  13. ^ Edward Humus, Eco Barons New York: Harper Collins, 2009
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Kris Tompkins North Face Founder Doug Tompkins' Wife". Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  16. ^ a b "Parque Pumalín". Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Página/12 :: Sociedad :: Reclamos en los esteros". Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  18. ^ "The Conservation Land Trust". 
  19. ^ "What is the Great Ibera Park?". 
  20. ^ "(Re)Born to Be Wild: Coaxing Patagonia Back to Its Natural State". Modern Farmer. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  21. ^ "Pillan Organics - Chile". Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  22. ^ "Founder of The North Face Dies After Kayaking Incident in Chile, Apparently With Other Outdoor Legends". KTLA. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  23. ^ "Página Principal Patagonia Chilena ¡Sin Represas!". Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  24. ^ "Kris and Doug Tompkins receive the new - Species award from african rainforest conservancy". Retrieved August 2, 2012. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Environmental Leader of the Year: Douglas Tompkins – Preserver of the Land". Latin Trade. October 1, 2009. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  27. ^ "ASLA Names 13 New Honorary Members". May 1, 2007. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  28. ^ Edward Humes, Eco Barons (New York: Harper Collins, 2009)
  29. ^ "Doug Tompkins Dead in Kayak Accident". Backpacker. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  30. ^ "Press Release" (Spanish)
  31. ^ Jonathan Franklin (December 9, 2015). "Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of North Face, dies after Chile kayak accident". The Guardian. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 

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