Doug Tompkins in Valle Chacabuco, Chile
Doug Tompkins in Valle Chacabuco, Chile

On December 8, 2015, the world lost one of the greatest conservation champions of this generation when Douglas Tompkins died unexpectedly in a kayak accident in southern Chile. He was 72 years old. Doug led an extraordinary life, first as an entrepreneur and founder and co-founder of businesses such as the North Face and Esprit, and for the past 25 years as a devoted conservationist, ecosystem restorer, adventurer and environmental activist. He was also my father-in-law.

Watershed Media co-founder, Roberto Carra, and I both met and worked with Doug at Esprit, a global fashion company that became a major innovator in design as well as workplace and social engagement. Esprit was the first global company I know of, for example, to ban cigarette smoking from its offices, stores and facilities. The in-house cafe was subsidized, there were sponsored daily fitness classes and yearly river trips. They took the lead on AIDS funding, employee volunteerism, and eco auditing. In the five years Roberto and I worked closely together there, Esprit pioneered the research and production of Ecollection, a clothing line solely dedicated to solutions such as organic cotton, low impact dyes and finishes, artisanal accessories and other developments still considered leading edge today.

Doug Tompkins sold his shares of the brand he helped create in 1991 and moved to a remote part of Chile, a country he had been exploring as a pilot, rock climber and kayaker for many decades. With this life change, he also shifted his powers as a communicator to the ideas of Deep Ecology. Originally conceived by Norwegian author Arne Naess, this philosophy holds that the environmental crises facing humanity require us to address fundamental root causes such as industrialization, overdevelopment, overconsumption, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss.

These were bold and controversial ideas for an environmental movement often more concerned with incremental progress than fundamental change. In an effort to catapult this discussion to the broader society, Doug launched a series of large format picture books, much in the spirit of David Brower’s activist publications with Sierra Club Books decades earlier. He set up and funded the Foundation for Deep Ecology and began the production of hard hitting titles that combined essays with powerful photographs, often employing editorial devices more common in magazines and advertising than book publishing. Grassroots campaigns were linked to these books to draw media attention and build public awareness. The list of titles is impressive, including Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Plundering Appalachia, and at least two dozen more.

Watershed Media co-published CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories as part of the Foundation for Deep Ecology series. Many years in the making, it debuted in 2010, featuring more than 450 photographs and over 30 wide ranging essays. Winner of the Nautilus Prize for Investigative Reporting, it remains the most damning publication about the wrongs of confinement animal agriculture to date. Watershed Media was also a co-publisher of Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, in 2012. When we produced Farming with the Wild in 2003, a book that highlighted farming models that combined agriculture and habitat connectivity, the Foundation for Deep Ecology became our primary supporter. At a time when the foundation community was keenly pursuing market-based solutions, Doug insisted that biodiversity protection had to be the core of any project he supported.

“Doug had a very strong sense of visual style,” remembers Italian born art director and photographer, Roberto Carra. “From the aesthetic viewpoint, he was almost always right.” As the owner of the first manifestation of the North Face, an outdoor mountaineering shop located in San Francisco, Doug visited the studio of Ansel Adams in Big Sur in hopes of securing evocative images of the California wilderness for his retail space. (His trip was successful!) Throughout his life Doug was constantly behind a camera himself, shooting pictures not only to document his life, but to direct ecological farming projects, land restoration, architecture and the many other endeavors he took on.

He loved photo editing but was an equally voracious reader and completely dedicated to making a lasting contribution to important contemporary discourse. Yet communication was but one facet of this extremely productive individual’s life. Over the past 25 years, Doug and his wife Kristine Tompkins privately purchased over 2.2 million acres of land in Chile and Argentina and are in the process of creating 5 national parks and expanding others, essentially importing the long standing American tradition of conservation philanthropy to these countries. They also initiated “rewilding” efforts to reintroduce species such as the jaguar and anteater to their former ranges in northern Argentina.

“For Doug, no detail was small,” remembers Roberto. These are important words for communicators to remember. And they are exceptional considering he held such a large view of the world and had the ability to build organizations and inspire the team work necessary to accomplish his visions.

Doug was amazingly focused. He was enormously talented and inspired. As a collaborator, he was extremely demanding and occasionally overbearing, but his standards were lofty, particularly those he kept for himself. He died among friends doing what he loved amidst the creaturely world he dedicated all his resources and energy to protect.

He will be sorely missed. The conservation efforts he inspired will live on.

Download a PDF of an article I wrote for the 2001 publication The World and the Wild: Expanding Wilderness Conservation Beyond its American Roots, by David Rothenburg and Marta Ulvaeus.

Learn more about Doug and Kristine Tompkins’ work here.

“Unless we learn to share the Earth with all the other creatures on the planet, our own days are numbered. . . . We need to teach our children that each person must pay his or her “rent” for living on the planet, and that means demanding of our governments to make biodiversity conservation a priority. The primary means to this end will be more protected areas and, best of all, more national parks.”
—Doug Tompkins

Photo by Beth Wald.