The Billionaire Quietly Protecting Western Lands From Oil and Gas Drilling

photo: Wyoming Nomad/shutterstock

photo: Wyoming Nomad/shutterstock

Hansjörg Wyss is one of the most influential billionaire philanthropists that nobody much talks about. We’ve seen his Wyss Foundation’s giving expand from Western conservation into work in Africa, ocean conservation, even journalism

And that’s just the environmental giving. Wyss is also a major progressive donor, on the board of the Center for American Progress alongside Tom Steyer. Oh, and he also gave a combined $250 million to Harvard for the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (remember when everyone got so mad at John Paulson for giving $400 million to Harvard?).  

The publicity-shy philanthropist has mostly managed to cultivate a low-key reputation as a Swiss entrepreneur who fell in love with the American West as a college student. Part of that image comes from his track record of buying up beloved land to protect it from industry. Securing land in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and more has always been at the core of his philanthropic interests, and he’s still very much engaged in the cause, as he recently made a gift of an undisclosed amount to the Trust for Public Land, to buy and retire oil and gas leases on more than 24,000 acres in Wyoming. 

At a recent dinner of the League of Conservation Voters that honored Wyss, he described the origins of his environmentalism:

I first discovered the American conservation ethic 60 years ago. I was a student, working a summer job for the Colorado State Highway Department. On the weekends, I hiked and climbed and camped. And I found that—thanks to John Muir, David Brower, Mardy Murie, Paul Kroegel, and so many more—America’s wild places and public lands were open and free for all to enjoy.

Wyss added that "the idea of conserving lands and waters and wildlife for the benefit of all people is as radically American as it is intrinsically democratic."

The transaction in Wyoming completes an effort the TPL has been working at since 2012 to protect roughly 120,000 acres within a piece of land otherwise protected under 2009 legislation. The act prevented any future oil and gas leasing on 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range, but grandfathered about a dozen existing leases on the land in question. In 2012, the trust completed a campaign that raised $8.75 million to retire leases covering about half of the land. In that case, the largest donation of $4.5 million came from, you guessed it, the Wyss Foundation. 

With the latest donation, the amount of which is frustratingly undisclosed (it reportedly went through his foundation), this entire section of the Wyoming Range is now protected from oil and gas development. The area of western Wyoming is known for outdoor recreation and diverse wildlife, but has also been vulnerable to drilling. 

This is the kind of thing Wyss has been doing for some time. In 2010, for example, he made a $35 million gift to protect 310,000 acres of former timberland in Montana. Wyss has been one of the main backers of the Nature Conservancy’s $134 million impact investment deal to protect 165,000 acres of land in Washington and Montana. In 2017, Wyss contributed to a $4.35 million purchase of 4,500 acres in the North Maine Woods. But the name has popped up in the acknowledgements of all kinds of land conservation deals, including outside the United States. 

In Canada, the Wyss Foundation is helping to protect one of the world's large boreal forests. In Africa, the foundation pledged up to $65 million last year to a South African-based conservation organization for its work in Malawi and Rwanda, and in addition, is part of a multi-million-dollar partnership to protect the Pendjari National Park in Benin, one of the last remaining wild landscapes in heavily populated West Africa. In Europe, Wyss donated more than 16,000 acres of forestland and alpine meadows in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains in 2016. In South America, it's been collaborating with the Moore Foundation and the Andes Amazon Fund to protect the Amazon headwaters region, kicking in $10 million for this work last year. It's also been active in Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere. 

The Wyoming gift comes at a particularly charged time for land use in the West. Notably, the Trump administration drastically reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The administration has also rolled back federal environmental regulations on drilling and extraction. In Wyoming alone, oil and gas leasing has skyrocketed—revenue from leases increased 800 percent from 2016 to 2017. 

There’s no indication this latest Wyss donation is any kind of response to the political climate. But at the League Conservation Voters dinner in June, Wyss said that the "conservation tradition, and the democratic ideals in which it is rooted, are all at risk today."

Given the Wyss Foundation’s more than $2 billion in assets, Wyss’s net worth of around $6 billion, and the federal assault on environmental protections, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the donor escalating giving. 

Wyss joined the Giving Pledge in 2013 and is in his early 80s. Now, along with the U.S. conservation movement as a whole, he's facing the environmental fight of his life.