Why North Face founder Douglas Tompkins' legacy isn't just about clothes

The founder of North Face and Esprit dedicated much of his life and his profits to the preservation of the environment.

Reuters
US millionaire conservationist Douglas Tompkins died on Tuesday.

Douglas Tompkins, an environmentalist and businessman whose passion for conservation led him to buy millions of acres of land in Chile and Argentina in an effort to preserve them, died in a kayaking accident in Chile on Tuesday.

Mr. Tompkins first became known as a co-founder of the outdoors-focused The North Face and Esprit clothing companies, but after retiring in 1989, he fully embraced his passion for conservation, winning praise for efforts to raise awareness about the damage man-made activities such as dams or logging can have on ecosystems.

“Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment," The North Face said in a statement. "His legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come."

In Chile, he created Pumalín Park, which spanned several hundred thousand acres of forests, lakes, and fjords that stretched from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. He also owned hundreds of thousand of acres in the Patagonia region that spans southern Chile and Argentina, a mostly-untamed sparsely-settled area known for its natural beauty.

So it was a jolt to friends and family that the region that had consumed much of his time and energy was also where he lost his life in a lake that local authorities said is known for its widely varying water temperatures

On Tuesday, Tompkins was with five others on General Carrera Lake in the Patagonia region of southern Chile when strong waters caused their kayaks to capsize, exposing them to water temperatures of below 4 degrees celsius (or 40 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a radio interview with Pedro Salgado, a local prosecutor, the New York Times reports.

He was admitted to a local hospital’s intensive care unit but died several hours later. No one else was seriously injured.

“He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world,” his daughter Summer Tompkins Walker told The Times. “To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking.”

Tompkins was known for his iconoclastic nature and his deep commitment to the environment, having first begun climbing mountains in the American West as a teenager after being expelled from a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. “I wasn’t too great on heeding authority,” he told the writer Edward Humes, who wrote about him and other wealthy conservationists in “Eco Barons: The New Heroes of Environmental Activism,” a 2010 book.

While he was often identified with The North Face, which he founded with his wife in 1963 as a small outdoors-focused clothing store in San Francisco, selling it five years later, and with Esprit, which he started with his wife by selling women’s dresses from a Volkswagen bus — his passion for natural environments gradually became a full-time commitment.

“These parks are our life's work, not the clothing chains we created, selling people clothes they don't need. We are the ones who keep putting obstacles in our own way by buying more land. I'm a troublemaker and I'm proud of it,” he told the Guardian in 2009.

But as a billionaire able to purchase vast swaths of territory in foreign lands, his efforts were not immune to controversy among Chileans and Argentines, who wondered if Tompkins’ vast land-holdings were coming at the expense of economic development in the region, as well as threatening their national sovereignty over the land.

He rejected the criticism. “You’ve got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance,” he told the New York Times in 2005. “If you’re not willing to take the political heat, then you shouldn’t get into the game of land conservation, especially on a large scale.”

But for environmentalists, what some saw as uncompromising, others viewed as lifelong commitment to preserving the world’s natural beauty.

“For the environmental movement, not just in Chile but internationally, [Tompkins' death[ is a huge loss,” Sara Larrain, a long-time friend of Tompkins who leads a Chilean environmental group, told the Associated Press. “This is somebody who put all his energy, all his fortune, and his spirit in preserving ecosystems.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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