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Doug Tompkins, the road and Chile's Chaiten volcano

May 13, 2008 | 12:22 pm

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).