From Eco Barons, ©Edward Humes

The little Cessna darted out from under the clouds and Doug Tompkins got his first glimpse of Reñihue Fjord, a misty blue gem in southern, where the longest country in the world is pencil thin and the snow-capped Andes tumble toward the sea like an army finishing a long march. A colony of seals basking on the fjord’s rocky beach lifted their heads skyward to bellow at the passing plane as Tompkins banked inland, away from the sparse ranch that occupied the brown and narrow coastal flats. Now he was over a majestic river valley, woods seemingly untouched by saw or axe or torch, and though he was not a religious man, it was impossible not to think of fabled Eden in this damp and glorious setting, the world’s last intact temperate rain forest. Everywhere he looked, a raw, primordial wilderness filled his senses. Wet, sun-dappled, mysterious, it was colored in shades of green and blue not even Rousseau imagined for his most vivid jungle canvases – colors lit from within and pulsing with life so deep they seemed of another world.

Tompkins’ world was a very different one, the world of industry and commerce, of image over substance -- the fashion business. Between 1970 and 1989, he had built a catalog of knock-off clothes into a distinctive brand, and then the brand into a symbol of what people yearned to be, and then he had become an icon himself, a personification of his company, the hottest label of the era: Esprit. That made him a visionary, or so people said. But now it was 1990 and his company was in turmoil, his marriage destroyed, the pride he had always taken in his craft, reflected by the official title of “image director” he chose instead of CEO, had long since ebbed. Cruising now above a turquoise river twisting through virgin forest, Tompkins found himself wondering, and not for the first time, just what the hell he had been thinking all those years he spent deciding what color socks teenaged girls would wear, or how tight or low-cut their jeans would be next fall. Fashion accolades and success didn’t seem to mean much here in the heart of Patagonia, the lush bottom third of the South American continent, named by Magellan for the Patagons, the mythic giants he swore lived there. Patagonia remains one of the last completely wild big places left on earth, home to sleek and elusive pumas and tiny pudu – rare deer scarcely bigger than poodles – and 3,600-year-old Alerce trees, towering cousins to California’s Sequoia. The tallest still standing are among the oldest organisms on earth, living things that bore witness to the rise of civilization, and like every other wild and untamed thing in Patagonia, they are in danger.

Tompkins had been an outdoorsman all his life, a daring whitewater kayaker, a skier who harbored Olympic aspirations, a serious mountain climber who once spent four weeks holed up in an ice cave with four buddies, waiting out an epic storm until they could finally blaze a new trail to the summit. That had been in Patagonia, too, twenty-two years and a lifetime away, but ever since, he had always built into his business model three or four or five months in the wild somewhere. MBA, he called it: Managing By Absence. He had done it when Esprit was little more than a young married couple in San Francisco selling flowery hippie dresses out of their station wagon in 1970, and he had done it as CEO of a billion-dollar global fashion empire. More often than not, with the whisper of an ancient forest and the pelting drumbeat of rain so frequent it has to be measured in meters rather than inches, the wild place that called to him was Patagonia. He understood what Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel-laureate poet, was getting at when he wrote, “Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.”

For years, Tompkins had tried to nurture his inner environmentalist through his business. He regularly wrote checks to respectable conservation groups. He built an urban park near Esprit’s San Francisco headquarters, a splash of green and transplanted redwoods beloved by the neighborhood’s kids and dog owners. There were the essays he slipped into the company catalogs, urging people to embrace healthier lifestyles, recycle more, consume less. And when his old mountain climbing buddy, the founder of the clothing company Patagonia called him in 1988 and asked him to chip in to buy and preserve some fast-vanishing Chilean forest land , he impulsively agreed. Tompkins’ fifty thousand dollars helped bankroll a nature preserve that saved from the chainsaw a stand of an endangered subspecies of the araucaria, a towering evergreen with a whimsical Dr. Seuss look, commonly called the Monkey Puzzle Tree. Just like that, a park was born instead of a field of stumps. No red tape. No bureaucrats weighing commercial interests against the environment –lobbyist-driven balancing act that has turned whole swaths of the United States’ protected national forests into lucrative fiefdoms for timber, mining and oil concerns. Six thousand miles south, however, it seemed all you had to do was write a check, and it was done. Now no one would ever cut down those, araucaria, rare living fossils that have survived as a recognizable species since the age of the dinosaurs, impervious to all threats but one: the age of man.

Suddenly it seemed so clear to Tompkins. He had been on the wrong side too long, running a global fashion business with factories in Hong Kong, boutiques and superstores worldwide, offices in a dozen countries. He shipped clothes all over the earth, using artful images and beautiful models to persuade people to consume things they didn’t need, then eagerly replace them each season with new things before the old were even close to worn out. He had tried to compensate with his donations and his essays, but Esprit was never going to be green or sustainable or good for the earth, and neither was Tompkins -- so long as he was part of it. And so, amidst crises and takeover bids at Esprit, as the vulture investors circled and his empire of image began to collapse, he rounded up a few close friends and, with no explanation beyond his need to get away for an adventure, they flew to Patagonia in a pair of small planes. Tompkins’ company and his marriage were in turmoil and yet, as the Chilean rain forests slid by below, his friends could see he looked happier than they’d seen him in years.

Before leaving San Francisco, he had called the Chile-based activist who brokered the deal to save the araucaria trees, and Tompkins gleaned the piece of information that would change his life: A lot more of Patagonia could still be bought on the cheap. Old-growth forests could be had for as little as $12 an acre, and one such area was Reñihue. When Tompkins completed his fly-over and started talking to a real estate agent, he found that the broken down ranch next to the fjord, along with all of its spectacular surroundings, was for sale. The seller would even throw in the cattle. He could have 24,700 acres for $600,000.

Tompkins tried to keep a poker face: $600,000? You couldn’t buy a condo in San Francisco for that kind of money. In Chile -- remote, beautiful, wild Patagonian Chile -- $600,000 would buy him nearly forty square miles. Hell, the whole city of San Francisco was only forty-seven square miles. In what kind of crazy upside down world was a tiny three-bedroom piece of the paved-over, used-up urban landscape of San Francisco worth more than the most beautiful wilderness on Earth?

“What about the volcano?” Tompkins asked. In the distance, visible from the ranch house windows, stood the cone of the dormant 8,000-foot Michinmahuida volcano, snowcapped and heavily forested. “That’s included, too, senor.”

And there were many more areas on the market right next door and up and down the coast, the agent added. Deposed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s cronies had bought up the land years ago, trusting the old tyrant to develop Patagonia with roads and factories and thereby enrich his friends. Now Pinochet was out and facing indictment, and land newly deemed worthless was priced to move. “It’s all for sale.” His own volcano – it was almost too much to grasp. You couldn’t preserve the tiniest parcel for that kind of money in the states, but here the possibilities were endless. Tompkins was in his fifties, his hair gone silver, his face weathered, but he still had time. If he sold his interest in Esprit, the millions he’d earn could have a huge impact. He could buy more land than he had ever imagined, with plenty left over to stir up some trouble at home, too. He could endow that foundation he had long coveted. He could publish books, run full-page ads in The New York Times, dole out grants to environmental groups. And in Chile, he could buy paradise. He could save paradise. He could live in paradise.

Here, near the bottom of the world, the fashion mogul saw a microcosm for all of humanity’s environmental ills – and a laboratory for finding ways to fix them. The big threats were all here: destruction of forests and habitats, dying rivers and ocean coasts, topsoil erosion, brutal extraction of resources and energy without regard for life or landscape. There were displaced populations, lost cultures, and mass extinctions already underway -- not just rare animals but critical species that pollinate crops, control pests and cleanse the air -- a rate of dying out that hasn’t been seen in 65 million years, when the once-dominant dinosaurs perished. Underlying it all, there was the inexorable creep of climate change and an utter unwillingness of leaders and populations to confront it in a meaningful, honest way. In Patagonia, as in the United States and throughout the world, nature was under siege as never before, though the difference was that most of Patagonia could still be saved. For Tompkins the issue was no longer about saving a snail darter or a spotted owl; it was about preserving a viable world for his children and grandchildren. It was about averting a disaster of man’s own making -- one he and his fashion empire had been helping along for twenty years. His CEO’s outsize ego would be channeled in a new direction: doing penance.

He would be making the ultimate flip-flop, from global capitalist to anti-consumerism ecologist. Inevitably there would be opposition once his intentions became clear – he could foresee being branded the arrogant gringo, a colonizer, an environmental extremist, a hypocrite who had made his millions but wanted Chileans to remain peasants. This was an age-old response. Buying land to exploit it, pave it, mine it or build on it was welcome everywhere from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, but preserving it… that was suspect and subversive. Sixty years earlier in Wyoming, mobs had burned John D. Rockefeller Jr. in effigy when he proposed protecting the land that eventually became Grand Teton National Park. Now they would go to war against anyone who tried to take it away. At Esprit, Tompkins knew, his colleagues and employees would think he lost his mind. But he thought he had finally found himself.

He made the deal that same day. Reñihue – pronounced, coincidentally and appropriately, “Rainy Way” – was his. And soon Esprit was a memory and he was living half the year on the fjord, holed up in a tiny cabin with no electricity or phone, working to restore the ranch, working with his hands, pulling stumps, preaching the virtues of a local economy in lieu of a global economy. And he acquired more land, a great deal more land. There, in the first piece of an empire to be, he began laying a bold plan for conservation and activism that would make him one of the most influential Eco Barons of his time—perhaps the most influential of them all.