December 22, 2010
Swiss Billionaire Buys Montana Land
Last week my dad sent me a link to this article, about Hansjorg Wyss, a wealthy maker of medical devices, and his campaign to buy and conserve up to one million acres in the mountain west.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Wyss, 75, said he first became enamored of the Rockies as a college student who toured the region in 1958. And he defended his actions against those who chafe at the prospect of an outsider buying up land that in some cases has been logged, ranched or farmed for generations.
"Look, these are beautiful landscapes," Wyss said. "There was controversy when Yellowstone (National Park) was created and when they declared the Grand Canyon as a National Monument. But there are areas in the United States that must be protected."
As the article notes, Wyss isn't the first billionaire to buy lots of Montana land. Ted Turner famously bought and conserved millions of Montana acres in the '90s and the '00s. And Wyss isn't the first businessperson turned conservationist to create controversy. Consider, for example, apparel moguls Kris and Doug Tompkins (of Patagonia and Esprit fame, respectively) who bought up large swaths of Chile and Argentina in what came to be know as "The Green Land Grab." In 2003 one Newsweek writer noted:
For any developing nation, an economic crisis may not be the best time to retire open lands from commercial use. But much of the land for sale in Patagonia has been so overgrazed that ranchers describe it as pelado, or peeled, anyway. So far, Argentines have been too busy protesting international bankers to take much notice of the land rush, but that could change, warns Buenos Aires political analyst Felipe Noguera: "There is the potential for Argentines to feel that yet more of the family silver has been sold off to foreigners." Arguably, if Argentina has to sell off land, better to sell to green tycoons for public nature preserves than to other tycoons for private playgrounds. But it's not clear a financially battered populace would make such distinctions.
It's an open question whether it's a great idea for any nation, developed or developing, to permanent conserve thousands of acres of potentially productive land. But there's no question that the Rockies, and the Andes, are landscapes that are part of our collective environmental heritage. Whether we can conserve these unique areas while allowing the local population to make a living has been an active question for many years. Obviously the last word has yet to be written.
Jamie Baker Roskie
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