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Old 23-03-14, 19:47   #1
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Thumbs Up The Couple Conserving South America

The Couple Conserving South America

Doug and Kris Tompkins have bought more than 2 million wild acres of Chile and Argentina in an effort to preserve the wilderness

The Tompkins have bought vast tracts of land, including parts of Patagonia, above Photo: Alamy

Geoffrey Lean, The Telegraph UK, 23 March 2014

It was, surely, the biggest Christmas present given anywhere on earth last December. Two successful entrepreneurs, husband and wife, donated more than 94,000 acres at the tip of the Americas to form the core of a new national park.

Doug and Kris Tompkins bought the land – a spectacular array of high mountains, rare forests, lakes and rivers in Tierra del Fuego – some 15 years ago, specifically to nationalise it for nature. It was part of an extraordinary, if little-known, endeavour that has made them the greatest private creators of protected landscapes in history.

So far they have bought 2.2 million wild acres of Chile and Argentina, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, conserving it, restoring it and sensitively providing access and other facilities, so that they can present it to the two countries for national parks.

“Every acre,” Doug Tompkins says, “has been bought for donation for conservation.” To date, 600,000 of them have been handed over in this way.

December’s gift catalysed the Chilean Government to add 276,000 adjoining acres of its own land. The resulting Yendegaia National Park, which takes in both the Darwin Range and the Beagle Channel, protects – among other habitats – the last frontier of pristine sub-Antarctic beech forest and the haunts of the critically endangered red fox, river otter and ruddy-headed goose.

Just seven months earlier, the couple donated 37,500 acres of the Andes to swell Argentina’s Perito Moreno national park, further north in what the poet, Mario Miranda Soussi, called the “Patagonia of infinite land and water”. They have also given two entire parks, one in each country, since the turn of the millennium and are close to handing over three more. They have restored tens of thousands of acres of degraded land, reintroduced locally extinct species, revived communities and built roads and trails, camp sites and visitor centres.

Doug Tompkins, who celebrated his 71st birthday on Thursday, founded both the North Face outdoor equipment company (with his then wife) and the Esprit clothing firm. He was a US civil rights activist, climber and skier, whose love of the outdoors – he never completed his studies – led him to design the poleless tent that founded his fortunes. But by his mid-forties he was “getting restless” in business and becoming “more interested in environmental activism” and in “wanting to use the assets I had built up” to support it.

Drawn to South America

The wiry, soft-spoken entrepreneur started buying up beautiful areas at good prices, at one point acquiring 18,500 acres for “the price of a cheap condominium in San Francisco”. In 1993 he married Kris, the CEO – appropriately enough – of Patagonia, who left the company to join him in their campaign.

They aim to “conserve big, wild landscapes, with their full complement of native species” and believe that “ecological restoration” is a “growth industry”, explaining that “since we humans have degraded so much of the planet, we have almost endless opportunities to restore ecosystems to health”.

But they also work to develop small-scale businesses to provide jobs for the poor local communities and aim to make one of their prospective national parks the first in the world “to run entirely on local renewable energy”.

But can the two governments be trusted with the land the couple has have worked so hard to conserve and restore? Tompkins says he has no qualms, insisting it is “both prudent and safe” to hand it over. He describes himself as “a real believer in the national parks system”, which is the “highest form of protection for land you can get”. The countries, he says, have shown that they can look after the areas and, at any rate, their administrative structures “are going to be there long after our own foundation has faded into the sunset”.

Besides, the gifts can stimulate governments to protect important expanses of their own land, as at Yendegaia, and the resulting parks can serve as models for how land can be conserved elsewhere.

In all, he calculates, he and his wife have spent “coming up to $300 million on the enterprise”. Why? “I have strong views on philanthropy. I think people who accumulate wealth should pay rent for living on the planet, and that means they have got to give it away.

“How much do you need to live anyway? We have blessed lives, but we do not live in luxury. We don’t have private jets, luxury yachts or any of that kind of stuff. Our consumption is way down in comparison with when we were in business. But we get tremendous personal satisfaction from the work we do and the people we work with.
So I can’t think of anything better to do with the money.”
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