Late founder of North Face fought to build a spectacular park in Patagonia

It's a new Chilean national park with the best features of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Teton, and without the traffic or wait lists. It's also the brainchild of outdoor gear and apparel mogul Doug Tompkins, who gave up business for a life outdoors before dying this week in a kayaking accident. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports from Patagonia.

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    Now: a spectacular new wilderness park in Chile and the man who helped create it.

    Earlier this week, Douglas Tompkins, the founder of the outdoor equipment company The North Face, died in a kayaking accident in Chile, the country where he spent much of his time. Tompkins and his wife, Kris, have long been dedicated to purchasing natural wilderness areas and then turning them over to the countries in South America.

    The latest, the Patagonia National Park in Chile, is opening this month.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre has this report. It features Tompkins' final broadcast interview before he died.


    Imagine a national park with the best of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks, without the traffic or wait lists for campsites.

    Chile's new Patagonia National Park will be the size of Rhode Island when it's combined with two adjacent national reserves, complete with snowcapped mountains, wild rivers and sweeping grasslands, as these ultra-marathon runners discovered on their 100-mile fund-raising run the length of the park, sponsored by the Patagonia Company.

  • MAN:


    KRIS TOMPKINS, CEO, of Patagonia, Inc.: Since we have moved to Chile, we have been really fortunate enough to have acquired just about 2.4 million acres between Chile and Argentina, all of which we hope will become part of a national park system in either country.

    There's a reason that people come from all over the world here, and they stay, because there is something alluring about it. After 24 years of working on the company Patagonia, I thought there must be something to this. I'm going to go see it for myself. And I fell in love.


    Kris Tompkins, the Patagonia outdoor clothing company's first CEO, also fell in love with Doug Tompkins, the founder of North Face and Esprit companies, who moved to Patagonia after exiting the business world in the mid-'90s.

  • DOUGLAS TOMPKINS, Conservationist:

    Boy, they're a lot more satisfying than selling a lot of clothes that nobody needs, and being part of the problem, rather than an attempt at a solution to the immense eco-social crisis that we're all immersed in.


    Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia clothing company, first discovered the Patagonia region while making a movie of their infamous 1968 road trip to the tip of South America in a van, surfing and climbing mountains the length of Chile.


    I'm sort of half-Chilean at this point anyway, half-Argentine. This is where I have been living and working for a long time now.


    The road less traveled to Patagonia and their new park and home away from home is still unpaved. It took us eight hours to get there from where Doug picked me up at the closest commercial airport in the Aysen region on the Chilean side of Patagonia, nearly 1,000 miles south of Santiago, and nearly as many miles north of Tierra del Fuego at the tip.

    Valle Chacabuco, the original land for the park, was one of South America's largest sheep ranches until it went into serious decline due to severe overgrazing.


    It was really a diminished landscape. In some places, the land had been eaten down so consistently and for so many decades that there wasn't really an opportunity for it to come back.


    The Tompkins, along with the help of other conservationists, bought the nearly 200,000-acre ranch in 2004 for $10 million.

    Over the past 20 years, they have invested another $55 million of their and other conservation foundations' money to restore the grasslands and local fauna, including the nearly extinct huemul deer and pumas, which had become quite scarce.

    With the help of local and foreign student volunteers, they have removed over 500 miles of fences and created hundreds of miles of trails. They designed and built the park's infrastructure to make it more accessible and accommodating to visitors from Chile and around the globe.


    Before too long, we step out. We are donating this park, these lands, the infrastructure, the whole story, to the Chilean people, and through that, the Chileans will develop their sense of ownership.


    We choose the national park idea because it's really the highest form of protection for landscapes that exists under current law, especially in Chile and Argentina.


    The idea of privately funding parks and then turning them over to the government for national parks might be new to Chile, but not in the United States. Some of our more famous parks began with private donations and citizen stewards, from Teddy Roosevelt protecting a redwood forest in Muir Woods, California, donated by a local couple, to John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s donation of private lands which became the Acadia National Park in Maine and part of an American park system which some believe to be one of our greatest ideas.


    The national parks system is a great combination of public and private effort, and certainly it's the case in everything that we're working on.

    You can't separate out the necessity, the urgency of the private sector, individuals. And I don't care if they have a lot of money, they have a little money. That is not the point.


    Like the conservation vs. development battles in the U.S. and elsewhere, not all Chileans have shared the Tompkins' conservation vision.

    Over the years, they have been buffeted by shifting political winds, many of them generated by opposition rumors that they were trying to divide the country in half, and the ones about creating a doomsday refuge and an American nuclear waste site.

    It was a pro-development plan to dam the local rivers and run hydroelectric power lines through their parks and the length of the country that finally turned Chilean public opinion in the Tompkins' favor in order to protect the future of Patagonia.

    The controversy turned Doug Tompkins, the mysterious American conservationist, into a local and national hero.


    The byproduct of the main thrust to protect the biodiversity of a given place is that you get especially young people out to the parks, because it will be future generations that will have to value these landscapes and these ecosystems and make sure that nobody is changing the law.


    This park is going to be a good thing for Chile. I think that the peoples that work here transmit all the knowledge about this park about the nature to other people. And this site it's going to be Like a huge economic resource for the country.


    If they build it, will the people come? And will eco-tourism help the local economy as much or more than other types of development? It's about to become much clearer this summer season in Chile starting December, when most of the park will finally be open to the public.


    You are seeing what you might have seen 150 years ago in here in the United States. People are starting to go and really learn about the country they were born into and enjoy it.


    For the PBS NewsHour, this is Mike Cerre reporting from Patagonia, Chile.

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