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Doug Tompkins, the road and Chile's Chaiten volcano

Ap_foto_la_terceraDouglas Tompkins just can't stay out of Chile's headlines. A volcanic eruption in his backyard is the latest controversy to enmesh Tompkins, the ex-fashion tycoon (coiner of the North Face label; co-founder of the Esprit line) turned South American eco-warrior.

The spectacular eruption of the long-silent Chaiten volcano in southern Chile has refocused national attention on an uncomfortable fact : Tompkins' signature conservation project, Pumalin Park, divides the country in half. The erupting volcano happens to skirt  the limits of the Yosemite-sized park, much of it a mossy, primeval, temperate rain forest untouched by civilization. Tompkins spent millions of his own savings to keep it that way.

Developers, politicians and others have for years been pressing for a road link through the zone to complete a land route spanning the elongated, narrow nation. Tompkins has an alternative vision: He favors some kind of a combined road and sea connection, with modern, all-weather ferries traversing the heavily indented shoreline. That's more practical  and less environmentally damaging, he says. The dispute had lodged into stalemate. Then Chaiten spewed its innards for the first time in more than 9,000 years.


The eruption forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 people from the thinly populated, exuberantly scenic region. Many were taken out via sea. Some argued the evacuation would have proceeded faster with a land route.

"Don't be afraid of Douglas Tompkins!'' the mayor of nearby Palena shouted at President Michelle Bachelet during a recent meeting in the zone, reported El Mercurio. The president replied: "The road will exist and we aren't afraid of anybody.''

For his part, Tompkins says the sea route was a safer and more logical means of escape. A road exit would have taken evacuees toward the belching Chaiten. "We don't have the intention or the power to stop public works,'' Tompkins said in a statement. "The law is clear in this respect and in no way are we interfering or stopping construction; we are only offering our position.''

Patrick J. McDonnell and Andres D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires.

Photos: Above, Chaiten erupts. (Associated Press/La Tercera). Right: Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kris Tompkins, at their home along Renihue Fjord in southern Chile in 2005. (Liliana Nieto del Rio/Special to The Times).

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Kristine Tompkins was quoted as complaining that she and her husband KNEW they'd be blamed somehow if the volcano erupted. But then she went on to describe the damage to Pumalin Park as if it WAS someone's fault. And whose would that be, dear Mrs. Tompkins? Ma Nature? The Man upstairs? Aha! Unmasked as the virulent anti-conservationists we always suspected they were. Earth to the Tompkinses: Rational folk know that sh*t just happens sometimes, blamers to the contrary.

interesting reporting. thanks for putting the volcano eruption into the road context. I spent two months in one of those roadless farming communities that was evacuated (volunteering). There is no question that a road in that area would be much more susceptible to natural disasters than boats and ferries.

I don't think the problem is Doug Tompkins. It's the geography. Look at the map. It's very rough country with deep fjords which go far back into the mountains. Road building in that section between Hornopirén and Claleta Gonzalo would be very difficult and expensive. Thompkin's is right ferries make much more sense. There is highway across Thompkin's land from Chaiten to Caleta Gonzalo. In the summer months there is a ferry that makes regular runs between Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo. There is not enough traffic in the winter months to make it worthwhile.


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