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Eco-philanthropists to the rescue of wildlife?

Former CEOs lead a pack of eco-philanthropists who are bankrolling parks to conserve pristine land and wildlife.

By Staff writer / February 22, 2010

Ecophilanthropist Kristine Tompkins purchased land to create the Future Patagonia National Park in Chile.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - Staff

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Estancia Valle Chacbuco, Chile

While everyone else is sitting down to dig into a roast-chicken dinner, hostess Kristine McDivitt Tompkins is padding around her lodge barefoot, binoculars in hand, charting the movement of a duck on the pond outside.

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When she finally tears herself away from the picture window – which frames the rolling hills of her $10 million, 173,000-acre Patagonian spread – to sup with her guests, it's with a bird book open next to her plate so she can annotate the guests' sightings. And no one dares a lengthy deliberation on politics or the personal; Ms. Tompkins steers all conversation straight to her obsession: wildlife.

"I have always had a real affinity for the nonhuman world," explains the former CEO of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Her extraordinary wealth has allowed her – and her husband, Doug Tompkins, also a former outdoor clothing magnate who founded The North Face – to bankroll that simple sentiment into a complex crusade to save vast tracts of South American wilderness.

This power couple leads a movement of like-minded monied conservationists – eco-barons who, instead of waiting for the world to grow an environmental consciousness, are purchasing land with their own money and protecting it themselves. This band of former executives and entrepreneurs generally donates tracts as new national parks or preserves.

The Tompkinses have purchased 2 million acres in Argentina and Chile and already created two national parks. Their latest project here, on the rolling, dry steppe that was once one of the Chile's largest sheep ranches, is named, for now, the Future Patagonia National Park.

Called everything from spies to Zionists set on creating a Jewish state in Chile (neither of them is Jewish), the Tompkinses have not always been well received.

For example, one vast parcel they purchased – a swath running from the Argentine border in the Andes to the Pacific, known as Pumalin Park – literally cut the narrow nation in two, arousing nationalist sentiments against them. They've been derided as a part of a "green" chic trend, where the nouveaux riches are no longer buying the landscapes of the great painters but the landscapes themselves.

"Many people would love to see Doug leave Chile and never come back," concedes Ms. Tompkins. But that has zero impact on the couple's single-minded and – in their minds – desperate drive to help save the planet.

"I do not want to live in a world where there are no orangutans, or Magellanic woodpeckers," she says. "You have to conserve large tracts of land to preserve biodiversity."

Certainly most environmentalists could never dream of the resources the former retail clothing giants wield. But they are not lone wolves; they head a pack of ecophilanthropists who are taking conservation upon themselves.

Largely American, and often entrepreneurs from Wall Street or the West Coast, they have recast the mold of the philanthropists of the 20th century who helped assemble the jewels in the crown of the US National Park Service.