Earth Notes: Wildlands philanthropy

164ASP944757289-443By Joyce White

I am deeply grateful to those individuals who have used their imaginations and resources to protect land from exploitation and make it available for other people to enjoy.

Edward Humes wrote Eco Barons in 2009 about a band of visionaries — inventors, philanthropists, philosophers, earth activists, lawyers — who are using their wealth, energy, celebrity and their knowledge of the law and science to persuade governments in the direction of conservation.

The prize-winning author writes masterful, often poetic, descriptions of the lands these people are trying to save from development while describing in detail the struggles of Doug Thompkins, Ted Turner, Roxanne Quimby and several others against corporate greed and adverse public opinion. These eco barons “seek to show, in deeds and words, that it is possible to strike a better balance between consumption and conservation.”

In contrast to the so-called robber barons, those aggressive men who have sought to organize and exploit the resources of a nation in an uncontrolled appetite for private profit, Douglas Thompkins is described in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2007, as “the de facto dean of this new class of eco barons, who has spent the past decade and $U.S. 200 million spearheading a new movement called Wildlands Philanthropy.”

Always a lover of outdoor adventure, Thompkins began selling high end mountaineering and camping equipment while his wife, Susie, created mini-dresses which they showed from the back of her old station wagon. The name brand Esprit fashions evolved from those early beginnings. While Esprit was becoming hugely successful, Doug was further influenced by the deep ecology movement developed in the 1970s by Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, who argued that humans have no right to destroy nature except to meet vital needs.

Following a flight over British Columbia, where Thompkins absorbed the stark vision of mile after mile of clear-cut forest beneath him, his zeal for the fashion business faded. Of his change of attitude in the 1980s, he said, “I had realized that the production and promotion of consumer products not vital to anyone’s needs were as much a part of the eco-social crisis as anything. I was simply contributing to the problem itself.”

He enlisted help from Jerry Mander to make plans to use his money to help environmental causes. When the dust settled from the sale of the Esprit empire, he had $200 million in the bank and was a single man again.

Thompkins used some of that fortune to buy land in the Patagonia section of Chile. He had also lodged a complaint about salmon farms polluting his property and the surrounding ocean. The press and government went after the wealthy American who had become Chile’s second largest landowner. Thompkins, not the polluting salmon farm, was under investigation. Lies spread. He received death threats.

He put it into perspective: “This is what nearly always happens to eco-philanthropists — it’s been the same for 100 years.” When he used his money and clout to ship American jobs overseas with Esprit fashions, expending huge amounts of energy and resources creating and selling products nobody needed, he pointed out that he was lauded as a visionary entrepreneur.

The vehement opposition to the $35 million park he aimed to donate to the people of Chile went on for four years during which time he and his new wife, Kris, kept buying Chilean and Argentine land. All were unique landscapes and habitats, which had been in danger of being mined or logged into oblivion if left unprotected. By 2005, they had acquired more than two million acres for conservation. Finally, with a new president in place, Pumalin Park was granted the status of a nature sanctuary, open to the public and on track for eventual donation to the people of Chile.

Roxanne Quimby didn’t fare any better in Maine than Thompkins did in Chile. She still hasn’t succeeded in her efforts to establish a national park. Quimby’s fortune had its beginning at the Common Ground Fair, where she had sold her homegrown honey, beeswax candles and lip balm painstakingly prepared on an old wood stove in a log cabin with no electricity, water or phone. She would work her small booth all day at the Fair, and then spend the night in her truck.

But that was 30 years and many 70-hour work weeks ago. Her Burt’s Bees had grown to a $60 million a year enterprise and she turned her business skills and her money toward conservation. Her focus is to chart a possible future for the vast, rugged part of Maine called the Unorganized Territories, ancient forest, 10 million acres of largely unoccupied woodlands. Here Quimby’s vision was “up against America’s largest landowner, a timber and real estate company with a reputation for of rapaciousness and with roots stretching back to the robber barons.” But Quimby was interested in a long-term investment in land and trees, focused not on profit but on conservation.

After years of opposition and public hearings about the proposed national park, Quimby came up with another proposition for her land — the same thing Franklin D. Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller Jr. did in the face of opposition to the creation of Grand Teton National Park. Less than a park but still protected, in 2008 she proposed a national monument, which only requires the order of a president, not an act of Congress. Eventually, she hopes, people will see that a National Maine Woods Park is no threat.

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