What's Behind Louis Bacon's Impressive Conservation Record?

How does a Wall Street hedge fund guy end up caring so much about conservation that he spends $175 million on a huge chunk of the Southwest — and then basically hands most of it over to the federal government a few years later? (See Wall Street Donors.)

Louis Bacon — the  billionaire founder of Moore Capital Management who recently agreed to put a 90,000-acre track of land he owns in a conservation easement — has pointed to the influence of his grandfather, Louis T. Moore.

Moore was a prominent citizen of Wilmington, North Carolina, in the early 20th century and an ardent proponent of environmental conservation in the state at a time of rapid development in the South. In particular, Moore sought to preserve old growth trees and fought threats to such trees in Wilmington and southeastern North Carolina. Bacon's grandfather died when Bacon was five, but his conservation became a big part of family lore. Nature also was a big part of Bacon's North Carolina childhood, and he grew up hunting in the woods.

He also grew up swimming and fishing in North Carolina's Neuse River — only to see it later become basically "a toxic dumping ground." "That really struck me," Bacon later told the Wall Street Journal. "It hit home about what the rest of the country needs in terms of citizen vigilantism when it comes to enforcement of environmental laws."

Bacon went to college at Middlebury, a liberal arts school located at the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. Bacon — who graduated in 1979 — was surely one of the few literature majors at Middlebury who went deer hunting in those woods.

After a career with several Wall Street firms, Bacon started his hedge fund in 1990 with $25,000 he inherited from his mother. He became quickly — and phenomenally — successful. And once the big money started rolling in, Bacon started buying property.

His first major purchase was Robins Island, a 435-acre island in Peconic Bay by the eastern end of Long Island, which Bacon bought for $11 million in 1993. Before Bacon showed up with his big check, it looked as if the island could fall into the hands of developers who would build multiple luxury homes. The New York Times called Robins Island "one of the most valuable undeveloped islands on the Eastern Seaboard" and an "island that local environmentalists have described as Long Island's Yosemite Valley, the Mona Lisa of the East End, and one of the few remaining natural jewels in an area that many say has been tainted by overdevelopment."

After he purchased Robins Island, Bacon brought in naturalists to help him map out the island's ecosystem. He soon learned that it was a habitat for other species under pressure from development in the region. Bacon gave $1.1 million to the Nature Conservancy to monitor the rare species on the island and, in 1997, put most of the island in a conservation easement that will permanently prevent development beyond the structures Bacon has built or refurbished.

Bacon struck another important blow for conservation on Long Island when he donated Cow Neck, a 540-acre peninsula in Southampton, to the Peconic Land Trust in the form of a conservation easement. Bacon had bought Cow Neck in 1998 for $25 million.

The conservation easements for Robins Island and Cow Neck have been celebrated by environmentalists. But they are not without controversy. Even as Bacon gets big tax benefits, these properties are not open to the public, and Bacon maintains use of them for his private purposes, including reported pheasant hunts on Robins Island.

Louis Bacon has since been involved in many other conservation efforts, including preserving land in North Carolina and the Bahamas, and supporting the Everglades Foundation. He's also a founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, which works to protect waters around the world. In addition, Bacon has been a major supporter since the mid-1990s of Riverkeeper, which works to preserve and revive the Hudson River. Bacon has given more than $1 million to the group. He has said about his work preserving rivers and other water bodies: "A lot of these watersheds have become a little bit like the Wild West in terms of the polluters using the waters freely for their own benefit," and there is no one "to enforce the laws even though the laws are on the books."

The National Audubon Society announced in 2012 that it would bestow an Audubon Medal on Bacon, a major honor in the conservation world.

Beyond his most notable conservation efforts, Louis Bacon supports numerous conservation organizations through the Moore Charitable Foundation. These days, Bacon is still busy managing money (and making more of it). Eventually, though, he'll surely come to focus more of his attention on philanthropy. And with a $1.4 billion fortune, it seems likely that even more impressive gifts from Bacon lie in the future.