Late North Face founder made enemies on eco crusade

Santiago (AFP) - Douglas Tompkins, the billionaire co-founder of outdoor label The North Face who died Tuesday after a kayaking accident in Chile's Patagonia region, used his fortune to conserve the South American wilderness but also stoked controversy here with his outsized ambition.

The 72-year-old American, who also founded the clothing brand Esprit with his ex-wife, moved to Chile 25 years ago after selling his stakes in both companies.

Not content to sit back and count his fortune, the passionate outdoorsman launched an ambitious project to buy up huge swaths of land in Chile and Argentina and turn them into national parks.

But his plans made him some powerful enemies in a Chile just emerging from the bloody 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

It was a time when the country was deeply suspicious of outsiders, especially from the United States, which backed Pinochet's coup.

Tompkins was accused of being a CIA agent, leading an ecological sect that wanted to cut Chile in two, and hoarding water for a future business venture.

His enemies included president Eduardo Frei, whose administration blocked his first initiative, the creation of Pumalin Park -- a private nature reserve of 3,000 square kilometers (1,200 square miles) in southern Chile.

And while the animosity faded over the years -- the parks Tompkins created are today broadly hailed as an environmental and tourism boon in both Chile and Argentina -- some still harbor lingering bitterness toward the late conservationist.

"He illicitly pressured landholders to abandon the land where their parents and grandparents had lived and died, and bought it up at despicable prices," said former interior minister Belisario Velasco after learning of his death.

Tompkins' biographer, Chilean journalist Andres Azocar, said the magnate was a "visionary" but out of sync with Chilean reality.

"He arrived in a country where everything was much more closed (than today) and people were suspicious of everything. He was doing these things at a time when Chile wasn't ready for them," he told AFP.

- 'A hero' -

But Tompkins is revered by many environmentalists.

"Doug was a hero to so many of us," said Michael Brune, executive director of the US environmental group Sierra Club, who had known him for about a decade.

"He pushed the boundaries -- not just as a businessman and an explorer, but he also pushed a lot of environmental groups to be more bold and ambitious," Brune told AFP at a UN conference in Paris where 195 nations are haggling furiously in a race to secure a climate-saving pact by a Friday deadline.

Tompkins would have been frustrated at the slow pace, Brune said.

"If he were here, he probably would be telling the delegations to shut up and get an agreement that matches what the world needs," he said.

Tompkins launched North Face as a mountaineering store in San Francisco in 1966.

He and his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, soon began selling quirky fashions that, in 1971, became the Esprit brand -- today a hugely popular global chain.

Tompkins sold his stake in The North Face in the late 1960s and in Esprit in the 1980s.

He and Buell divorced in 1989, but she reminisced fondly on their heady days as young entrepreneurs.

"There wasn't anything we were afraid of, there wasn't anything we couldn't figure out how to do," Buell told the New York Times.

"It was just an open book of adventure."

- Life, death in nature -

Tompkins was kayaking with five other people on Lake Carrera in southern Chile when violent winds whipped up waves that tossed them all into the frigid water, officials said.

He was flown to a hospital by private helicopter, but died of hypothermia.

His daughter Summer Tompkins Walker recalled him as an adventurer on a life-long love affair with nature.

"He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world," she told the Times.

"To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking."

Tompkins himself said shortly before his death he had been contemplating his own mortality.

"Lately, I've been paying more attention to my biological clock," he said in his final interview, given in November to Chilean magazine Paula.

"I tell myself to hurry up, that I have to do everything before death catches me."