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Founder of The North Face and Esprit brands, Douglas Tompkins, dies in Patagonia

Douglas Tompkins the billionaire co-founder of clothing companies The North Face and Esprit, has died after a kayaking accident in Chile. He had devoted himself to conservation in South America's Patagonia.

The 72-year-old Tompkins was kayaking with five other people on Lake Carrera in southern Chile when they were hit by violent winds and high waves. Officials said the group fell into near freezing waters. Tompkins was flown to a hospital by helicopter but died of hypothermia.

"He had lost consciousness and wasn't breathing" when brought to the hospital in the town of Coyhaique by helicopter, Dr Carlos Salazar told local television stations.

Tompkins set up The North Face as a mountaineering store in San Francisco in 1966. With his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell he began selling fashion items which became the Esprit brand in 1971. He sold his stake in The North Face in the late 1960s and in Esprit in the 1980s.

Perito Moreno Eisberg

Tompkins was kayaking in Chile's Patagonia region when his craft capsized

He then began a conservation project in South America's Patagonia region, buying up large tracts of land in Argentina and Chile. In Chile, he created Pumalin Park on 290,000 hectares (716,606 acres) of forest, lakes and fjords stretching from the Andes to the Pacific.

"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 said while attending the UN climate conference in Paris.


His conservation work also brought him critics. "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," Chilean journalist and Tompkins' biographer Andres Azocar said.

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

Tompkins also worked to raise consciousness about the effect of large-scale projects on the ecosystem. In 2014, Chile's government rejected an $8 billion (7.25 billion euro) project to dam two of the world's wildest rivers for electricity in Aysen, a remote region of Patagonia. Rainfall is almost constant and rivers run from the glaciers in the Andes to the Pacific Ocean.

In one of his final interviews, with Chile's "Paula" magazine, he said he would like to be remembered for the land he had preserved: "I prefer it to a statue. People are going to walk over these lands; don't you think it's nicer than a grave?"

jm/bw (AP, AFP)

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