Wyoming Billionaire Pledges to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030

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With a 8.5 million assist from the Wyss Foundation, the Andes Amazon Fund will disperse funds to a range of local organizations working to protect the forested headwaters of the Amazon River basin in Peru and beyond. (Photo: Jorge Láscar/Flickr)

If you follow global conservation and don't already know the name Hansjörg Wyss, there's a good chance you soon will.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, the 83-year-old entrepreneur and businessman first made his fortune in the Belgian steel industry before establishing the U.S. division of Synthes, a multinational medical device manufacturer best known for producing internal screws and plates used to help mend fractured bones. (The company has since been acquired by Johnson & Johnson.)

Now, Wyss — an avid outdoorsman and not-all-that improbable resident of the quaint mountain town of Wilson, Wyoming — is set to help mend the planet's most fractured natural areas with the establishment of the Wyss Campaign for Nature, a special project of the Wyss Foundation that aims to conserve and protect 30% of the planet's lands and oceans by 2030. This is double the amount of the planet's surface that's currently protected.

Bolstered by a $1 billion investment, the campaign plans to reach this ambitious benchmark by "creating and expanding protected areas, establishing more ambitious international conservation targets, investing in science, and inspiring conservation action around the world."

This will all be achieved with help from major conservation players including the National Geographic Society, which will assist on the public awareness and outreach front, as well as The Nature Conservancy and a host of local project partners.

This is huge — and hugely encouraging — news, particularly in an era when headlines on the topic trend towards dire and potentially catastrophic. Yet this act of environmental stewardship shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with Wyss, a multibillionaire whose impactful but low-key largesse has predominately benefitted social and environmental causes, including a handful of high-profile maneuvers to stop fossil fuel industries from degrading protected lands.

Through his foundation, Wyss has also, among other things, supported anti-poaching efforts, river restoration projects, African national park improvements and rails-to-trails initiatives. Most of the foundation's work, however, has focused on land conversation in his beloved adopted home, the American West.

The foreign-born Wyomingite who, as a young student from abroad living in Colorado, "developed a lifelong love for America's national parks and public lands" according to his foundation biography, is also the money — and the name — behind Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biological Inspired Engineering, which was created in 2008 with the largest single endowment at that time ($125 million) from an individual in the history of the university. (Wyss is a 1965 graduate of Harvard Business School.) An ultra-sustainable California winery-cum-wildlife preserve, Halter Ranch & Vineyard, is also the creation of the inimitable Hansjörg Wyss.

'I've seen what can be accomplished'

Hansjörg Wyss
Hansjörg Wyss. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While the Wyss Foundation has bestowed big money — $450 million in total to protect 40 million acres of land and water across the globe — to numerous conservation-related causes since it was established in 1998, the Wyss Campaign for Nature marks the foundation's single largest initiative to date. Urgency, transparency and sheer determination play a central role in the campaign considering that protecting 30% of the planet is no small mission, especially within a 12-year deadline.

But in a recent editorial published in The New York Times, the usually media-shy Wyss, who Tate Williams of Inside Philanthropy describes as having ascended "from a Ted Turner-esque Western land guy to his current role as a major international land and ocean conservation donor," doubles-down on his belief that it can be done.

"I believe this ambitious goal is achievable because I've seen what can be accomplished," he writes, stressing the importance of support from fellow philanthropists and local governments. "We need to embrace the radical, time-tested and profoundly democratic idea of public-land protection that was invented in the United States, tested in Yellowstone and Yosemite, and now proven the world over."

Wyss goes on to note that conservation targets established by the United Nations' Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) should be updated at its 2020 meeting to reflect even more ambitious goals for the following decade. The CBD is about to hold its 14th meeting in Egypt (COP14) at a gathering that includes representatives from over 190 countries — and thanks to Wyss, the pressure is on to be more aggressive on conservation.

"We're behind schedule," Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek explains to National Geographic. "Announcing this [Wyss] campaign should help global leaders at the 2020 COP get serious about meeting targets."

"This clear, bold and achievable goal would encourage policymakers around the world to do far more to support communities working to conserve these places," says Wyss in his editorial. "For the sake of all living things, let's see to it that far more of our planet is protected by the people, for the people and for all time."

Carpathian Mountains, Romania
Romanian organization Fundatia Conservation Carpathia will receive a $3.5 million grant to help establish a new wilderness reserve in the Carpathian Mountains, aka the 'Wild Heart of Europe.'. (Photo: Horia Varlan/Flickr)

Safeguarding nature the world over

Harnessing four key strategies — financial support for local, on-the-ground conservation projects; an increase in international conservation targets established by the CBD; a National Geographic-led "inspire to action" effort; and the use of science to ensure maximum conservation gains via a pilot project launched in collaboration with Switzerland's University of Bern — to achieve this goal, the Wyss Campaign for Nature is wasting no time in getting started.

Already, the campaign has identified nine locally led conservation projects spread across 13 countries — 10 million acres of land and 17,000 square kilometers of ocean in total — that will receive $48 million in assistance. As time goes on, additional funds will be granted to additional projects.

As Greg Zimmerman, senior fellow with the Wyss Campaign for Nature, explains to Wyoming Public Media, the grants are being awarded to projects that already enjoy widespread local support as they're more likely to remain protected over the long term than less established projects that lack it.

"Nobody wants to spend money to protect an area of land that's just going to be protected for a few years and then when there's a political shift somewhere, the place is no longer protected," he says. (Well hello, Bears Ears National Monument.)

Dolphins off the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Costa Rican organization Osa Conservation will receive a special grant to help designate thousands of square kilometers around the country's Osa Peninsula as a protected marine reserve. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The first nine conservation projects to receive grants are Aconquija National Park and the National Reserve Project in Argentina; the Ansenuza National Park Project, also in Argentina; Costa Rica's proposed Corcovado Marine Reserve; the multi-country Caribbean Marine Protected Areas initiative; the Andes Amazon Fund, which impacts Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Guyana; Romania's Fundatia Conservation Carpathia, which spearheads conservation efforts in the Carpathian Mountains; the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area in Canada's Northwest Territories; Australia's Nimmie-Caira Project; and the Gonarezhou National Park Project in Zimbabwe.

The Nature Conservancy will be on the receiving end of two of these grants, totaling $6.9 million. One will support crucial marine conservation work in the Caribbean Sea through the recently launched Blue Bonds for Conservation campaign. The other will foster the creation of a sustainable agricultural zone within the Murray-Darling Basin, a significant habitat for migratory birds in New South Wales, Australia.

"The Wyss Campaign for Nature is remarkable for its vision, scale, and extraordinary commitment to conserving lands and waters in the public trust," says The Nature Conservancy's Tercek in a press statement. "The Nature Conservancy is proud to be a partner in the Wyss Campaign for Nature, and we are grateful for Hansjörg Wyss's philanthropic leadership at such a critical moment for our planet's wild places."

Makokwani Pools at_Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe
A grant of $789,000 will be awarded to the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust so it can better manage the 1.3-million acre Zimbabwean park of the same name as it deals with an ongoing elephant poaching crisis. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In like-minded company

While "quietly philanthropic" Wyss manages to stand out from his fellow mega-rich altruists, he's not the first billionaire to give money to projects that protect the planet's most vital and imperiled patches of wilderness instead of waiting for the government to step in and do the right thing.

In addition to investments in green tech, publicity-shunning financier David Gelbaum has given heavily to land conservation in California. The late Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist extraordinaire, gave big to ocean conservation. In 2017, reclusive tech billionaires Jack and Laura Dangermond made the biggest ever single gift to The Nature Conservancy in the organization's history with a $165 million contribution to protect over 8 miles of ecologically sensitive California coastline. Also in 2017, He Qiaonv, one of China's wealthiest businesswomen and an admirer of big cats, pledged to give $1.5 billion — a third of her estimated $3.6 billion net worth — to a slew of wildlife conservation-related causes including the protection and expansion of dwindling Chinese snow leopard habitats. It's believed to be the largest philanthropic contribution of its kind from an individual.

Other open land-protecting billionaires of note include Louis Bacon, Anders Hoch Povlsen, John Malone, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and the late Douglas Tompkins ... and the list goes on.

This all being said, it should be repeated that the act of extremely wealthy people dedicating large chunks of their fortunes to land conservation with the aim to protect wildlife, promote biodiversity and fend off the exploitation of natural resources isn't a new philanthropic trend.

But it would seem that Hansjörg Wyss has now significantly upped the game. Diversified and ambitious in scope, the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which has been described as a "billion-dollar rallying cry" by The Nature Conservancy, not only draws greater attention to the plight of the planet from a conservation standpoint but also benefits a notably diverse range of global causes that all have one common goal: to ensure that Mother Nature's most resplendent handiwork won't disappear anytime soon.