Philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss grew up in Switzerland and now spends the bulk of his time outside Philadelphia, but it is the wild landscapes of the Rocky Mountains where he could leave his most lasting mark.
In recent years the publicity-shy billionaire has quietly donated tens of millions of dollars to the preservation of pristine areas of Idaho, Nevada, Utah and other states.
Now, what appears to be his most ambitious project to date has come to fruition as conservation groups this month closed a deal to purchase vast tracts of Plum Creek Timber Co land in western Montana. Backers say the deal — which included US$35 million in donations from Wyss — could shield an estimated 400,000 hectares from future development.
In an exclusive interview, 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.”
Wyss’s fortune — estimated by Forbes magazine at US$6.1 billion — came largely from Synthes, the medical devices company he ran for three decades and still oversees as chairman.
He has donated to a range of causes, with the largest single gift apparently a US$125 million donation two years ago to create a bioengineering institute at Harvard University.
However, Wyss said the Rocky Mountains have offered a particular allure since he took a summer job with the Colorado highway department during a break from college.
He went on to Harvard Business School and founded Synthes USA in 1974, returning to the Rockies frequently over the last several decades to hike and climb.
“I know the West like my back pocket,” he said.
Lots of billionaires and megamillionaires have come to Montana and decided to claim a piece of it as their own — from media mogul Ted Turner and software entrepreneur Tom Siebel, to former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, who all bought ranches in the state.
While Wyss has a daughter in Wyoming, he has never lived in the region. And the land he helped buy in the recent Montana transaction will not become a private estate.
Instead, most of the 125,500 hectares of former Plum Creek land are being transferred to the US Forest Service and Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Because the land ownership was “checkerboard” — meaning the private property was interspersed with public parcels — its preservation will keep intact a much larger swath of the so-called Crown of the Continent, a region anchored by Glacier National Park.
The deal is one of the largest private conservation purchases in US history. It was arranged by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land and also involved US$65 million from the state of Montana and US$250 million from the US Department of Agriculture lined up by Democratic Senator Max Baucus.