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A US Entrepreneur Who Spent His Fortune Buying Up Land in Patagonia Has Died

When Douglas Tompkins, founder of the North Face, began buying up large expanses of land in the remote and rugged region of Patagonia in the name of conservation he was accused of being a CIA spy.

by Nicolás Ríos
Dec 9 2015, 1:45am

Photo par Geoff Livingston via Flickr

A US entrepreneur who bought up huge swathes of land in the southernmost parts of South America in the name of conservation has died in a kayaking accident in Chile.

Douglas Tompkins — the founder of the outdoor clothing and gear company The North Face and the fashion firm Esprit — died of hypothermia at the age of 72 after falling into the freezing waters of the General Carrera lake.

His death was covered as top breaking news by local media in Chile where the former businessman was a household name thanks to the many myths that grew up around him over the years, as well as the number of important enemies he made, and his more recent establishment as an ecological hero.

Photo by Wolfgang Kumm/EPA

Tomkins notoriety began over 20 years ago when he began purchasing large amounts of land in the remote and rugged expanses of Patagonia.

This kicked off rampant speculation about what the rich and mysterious foreigner was really doing. Some said he was seeking to appropriate freshwater sources to sell abroad, others that he was a CIA spy, still others that he wanted to set up a new Jewish state.

The conservationist also had direct run ins with numerous politicians, particularly Eduardo Frei both during and after his spell as president of Chile between 1994 and 2000.

Tompkins both accused Frei of pressuring important landowners not to sell him their property and blocked road projects across territories he owned.

"This man thinks he's the owner of the country," Frei said in an interview with the La Cuarta newspaper in 2006. "Now it appears that we are not allowed to build roads in Chile."

By contrast Tompkins counted President Ricardo Lagos, Frei's successor, as a personal friend.

Tompkins always maintained that his plan was to donate all the land he had bought to the governments of Chile and Argentina to set up national parks. He had already handed over tens of thousands of square kilometers for this purpose at the time of his death.

"It is very gratifying to contribute to the wellbeing of society: in my case saving something of nature for humanity," Tomkins said in the last interview he gave published in the magazine Paula last month.

He added that he would not be leaving anything behind for his two daughters or grandchildren. "That puts a break on personal development," he said. "It takes away the motivation to grow and develop."

Follow Nicolas Rios on Twitter: @nicorios