Last updated: December 9, 2015 8:22 am
US environmentalist and businessman Douglas Tompkins, the founder of outdoor clothing and equipment company The North Face, died on Tuesday during a kayaking trip in Chile, a country where he had spent the last 25 years fighting to conserve the Andean wilderness.
The 72 year-old was on General Carrera Lake in Patagonia in southern Chile with a group of five others when his kayak flipped and he fell into the icy waters, the Aysen regional health service said. Local media reported that he was knocked over by a strong wave.
Local officials said he was admitted around 1:30pm to the regional hospital in Coyhaique, some 1,832km south of the capital Santiago, but was pronounced dead of severe hypothermia hours later.
Mr Tompkins’ body temperature was 19C after being taken out of the water. All five of his companions were unharmed.
Mr Tompkins founded the North Face, now part of VF Corporation, in the 1960s as a small ski and backpacking retailer in San Francisco. The company markets clothing and gear to hikers, mountain climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
But in 1989, he turned his back on the corporate lifestyle, moving to Chile where he started acquiring land, attracting the ire of local politicians and business interests opposed to his efforts to conserve vast tracts of threatened wetlands.
Together with his wife Kris, he created Pumalín Park, a public access 800,000-acre nature reserve in the south of Chile’s Lakes Region that today attracts thousands of visitors. In 1997, conservation colleagues in Argentina introduced the pair to the biodiversity-rich Iberá wetlands in northeastern Argentina.
In 2000, he and his wife founded Conservacion Patagonica to create national parks in Patagonia, the southernmost region of Chile and Argentina. He was also part of environmental advocacy group “Patagonia Without Dams,” which opposed the construction of huge dams for power generation company HidroAysén.
“Like many thinking people, we see biodiversity and ecosystems collapsing around us. So we’ve rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work. We have no choice: otherwise we might as well kiss our beautiful planet goodbye,” he wrote on his personal website.
However, his work attracted criticism from local officials opposed to large foreign land holdings. In Argentina in 2006, a bill was tabled for the state to expropriate his land. In an interview at the time with the Financial Times, he complained locals often did not understand “what the idea of charity and philanthropy is about.”
He went on: “We’re trying to do good things — for the common good — as we believe in that. We don’t believe in accumulating wealth and lavish lifestyles.”
There was even a suggestion by one government official that he might be a CIA agent, with claims the US was planning to establish a military base in Paraguay, some 700km from his property — something the US denies.
“This lady is off her rocker and has no idea what she is talking about — if she does she’s being completely disingenuous. Either way it’s a sad story,” Mr Tompkins said.
But he said there was a “pitched battle” facing conservationists. “People are destroying the environment for their own ends and the world is coming apart at the seams. It’s a David and Goliath fight, and it’s not easy.”
Mr Tompkins also co-founded clothing company Esprit, which started with him and his first wife Susie selling clothes out of the back of their car before becoming an internationally recognised brand, according to his conservation website.
In a statement, his company said it was “deeply saddened at the news of Doug’s passing. Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come.”
He is survived by his wife Kris, like him a former competitive skier.