Can eco barons save the planet?

Billionaires are buying up entire ecosystems To slow global warming and environmental catastrophe.

ecosystem 88 (photo credit: )
ecosystem 88
(photo credit: )
Billionaires worldwide are buying up entire ecosystems and turning them into conservation areas and national parks. Their goal? To slow global warming and environmental catastrophe Sebastian Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, has a resume that includes introducing credit cards to that country, ownership of South America's most successful airline and large-scale real-estate developments. Now he has added what every chic billionaire needs - his own private ecosystem. Parque Tantauco, which Piñera created last year, is 120,000 windswept hectares located on Chiloe Island, near Patagonia. Piñera has promised to make conservation of offshore blue whales and inland virgin forests a top priority. While yachts and jets marked the status of last century's super rich, today the stylish accessory is your very own private ecosystem. From Patagonia to Montana, millions of acres are being bought by business leaders and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a present. "It is pretty hard for a country to turn down a gift of 300,000 hectares," explains Douglas Tompkins, 64, the de-facto dean of this new class of eco barons who has spent the past decade and $200 million spearheading a new movement called Wildlands Philanthropy. Tompkins has bought or organized the purchase of some 25 properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina. Tompkins earned his money as the entrepreneurial founder of North Face and Esprit and was cruising in the top levels of international jet set, complete with his huge estate in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood and a world renowned art collection. Then he read a book on "deep ecology," the philosophy pioneered by Norwegian Arne Naess who calls for a radical reevaluation of man's relationship to the planet. Tompkins was an instant convert - he sold the estate and the art, and went to live in Southern Chile in a rough wooden cabin. For a year he lived simply, no electricity, no modern interference. Today, Tompkins combines the two worlds. Together with his wife Kristi McDivitt, the former CEO of Patagonia clothing company, they have focused their business acumen on building coalitions of funders, environmentalists and governments to create national parks. "There are more and more of these projects," says McDivitt. "People are very interested in leaving something more permanent than a wing on a museum. And, really, how many Citation jets can you own?" Together the couple have created the Parque Nacional Corcovado in Chile (via the NGO and Parque Nacional Monte Leon in Argentina, (through the non profit Plans for two additional parks are nearing completion. "In Argentina we had a big blow-up over the purchase of conservation lands," explains Tompkins. "Then we pointed out, to the ministries and to President [Nestor Kirchner] saying, 'Hey look guys. We are taking land from the private sector - sometimes buying it from foreigners - and giving it back to the state.' That has a tendency to quell a lot of waters." Tompkins described Swiss art magnate and philanthropist Ernst Beyeler as a key ally in these land purchases. "Ernst helped my wife buy Chacabuco [part of the next Chilean national park] in Patagonia," he said. "He organized fund-raisers in Switzerland and I consider him the one of the best Swiss conservation philanthropists that I know." Prices are skyrocketing in Patagonia. When conservationists bought 70,000 hectares several years ago, they paid approximately $10 million. Current listings include 2,000 hectares on the waterfront for $1.7 million and 9,000 hectares for $12 million. At the center of the Tompkins's conservation efforts is Pumalin Park ( a pristine wooded ecosystem that includes volcanoes, old growth forests and hidden hot springs. The park's 300,000 hectares are off limits to all development except small scale enterprises like Pillan, a line of organic honey. "I fundamentally believe in national parks," said Tompkins. "I don't believe in private parks. I believe that nations do best and have done best when they really value their park lands and areas that are off limits/out of bounds to development." HANSJÖRG WYSS, one of Switzerland's richest men, agrees. After amassing a fortune estimated at $8 billion from his position as CEO of Synthes - a company that produces artificial spinal discs and specialized nails for repairing broken bones - Wyss tackled a far larger reconstructive project: the wild areas of the American West. Through his foundation (, Wyss has donated millions of dollars to preserve wild lands in Utah and Montana. As chairman of the board at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the best-organized grassroots conservation groups in the American Southwest, Wyss instituted a corporate structure that includes a $5 million cash surplus, investments in stocks and mutual funds and a $1.4 million office building in downtown Salt Lake City. To save thousands of acres in the Rocky Mountains of Montana from development, the Wyss Foundation bankrolled a simple solution - simply offer to buy up the mineral rights from the mining companies. While the plan was initially considered too ambitious, thanks to Wyss's understanding of corporate America, the foundation discovered a strategy to effectively pay the oil and gas companies to leave the area. In that Montana battle, the Wyss Foundation was an early funder and longtime proponent of the "buy 'em out" strategy. EVEN INVESTMENT bankers Goldman Sachs have caught the bug. In 2003, the company received 270,000 hectares of forests in southern Chile and Argentina as a result a bankruptcy settlement. "It was part of a large package of distressed debt; of course we knew about it when we bought it. Then we started asking, 'What do we do with a million acres of forest at the end of the earth?' We had to get out an atlas," laughs Lawrence H. Linden, an advisory director to Goldman Sachs. "Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, so we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem down in Tierra del Fuego? So we called in the Nature Conservancy to study the land and they came back with the conclusion that it was actually a very valuable piece of land from an environmental point of view." Today the Goldman Sachs land is one of the last remaining pieces of alpine and coastal beech - the largest intact stands in South America - and home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal that roams the forest. With winds that regularly gust to 100 kph, the forest is particularly fragile. Due to the low temperatures, the lenga grows slowly, reaching its 20 meter height only after 200 years. Industrial forestry projects or clear cuts would be like stripping away thousands of years of evolution. Linden spoke passionately about the forests of Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island, more like an inveterate backpacker than a suit-and-tie banker. "If you look at it," he said. "There are very few old growth forests in the Southern Hemisphere." Goldman Sachs raised an $18 million endowment for the park and works closely with the parks manager - the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We didn't want this to be a burden on the taxpayers," says Pete Rose of Goldman Sachs. "This is not a question of preserving pristine wilderness; this is about using 21st-century science to maintain it." The Goldman Sachs decision was just the latest example of a long American tradition of land conservation, of which Tompkins considers himself the modern heir. "Despite my great disappointment in American foreign policy, I am very proud of the American tradition of wild land conservation," says Tompkins. "It is the best tradition and example of land conservation in the world. It goes back a long way. Every single national park had some component of private philanthropy." In Europe, eco barons are also spending millions on land conservation. Dutch businessman Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who died in 2006, was a leading figure in the European eco baron movement. From his 33,000-hectare estate in Scotland - which he proudly advertised as perpetually open to the public - he managed supermarket chains, energy companies and investment trusts. However, his passion was Africa's beleaguered national parks. In barely two years, Vlissingen poured millions of dollars into the then-incomplete Marakele National Park in South Africa, a job that would likely have taken more than a decade without his backing. Today Marakele is part of a far bigger park system and the healthy home to classic African wildlife - including elephant, white and black rhinoceros, buffalo, hyena, cheetah, wild dog, giraffe and eland. To consolidate his philosophy Vlissingen helped create the African Parks Foundation (, an NGO that continues to reinforce the infrastructure and funding for national parks in Africa. Before his death last year, van Vlissingen was widely considered the richest man in Scotland, and with tens of thousands of acres, the nation's largest land owner. But, he refused the latter title, "You can't own a place like this. It belongs to the planet," he said. "I'm only the guardian."