Conservation news

One man’s quest to save the world’s wildest places: Hansjörg Wyss

  • A summer spent in Colorado in 1958 prompted Hansjörg Wyss’s life-long commitment to conservation.
  • As his means increased, Wyss became one of the world’s most generous philanthropists, supporting causes ranging from the arts to social justice to science to conservation.
  • Much of Wyss’s support of conservation has focused on creating permanent public access to the rugged landscapes of the American West
  • In recent years Wyss has expanded his efforts to other regions, including the Amazon rainforest, African savannas and forests, and in Romania.

In the late 1950s, a young graduate student from Switzerland named Hansjörg Wyss took a summer job with the Colorado Highway Department. In his free time, he explored, climbed, and camped in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains.

That summer left an indelible impression on Wyss, who later went on to found a medical device company that developed technologies to help people heal from severe injuries. But while Wyss found great success in business, he never lost his passion for nature. As his means increased, Wyss became one of the world’s most generous philanthropists, supporting causes ranging from the arts to social justice to science to conservation. In 2013 he signed The Giving Pledge, committing to donate the majority of his fortune to charitable causes.

Much of Wyss’s support of conservation has focused on creating permanent public access to the rugged landscapes of the American West: Wyoming’s Hoback Basin, Atlantic salmon spawning grounds along the Penobscot River in Maine, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and Stornetta Public Lands in California, Montana’s Crown of the Continent, and lands along the Hoh River in Washington, to name a few. To date, he has helped permanently protect more than 27 million acres of land in the U.S. and around the world.

Hansjörg Wyss

While Wyss’s conservation philanthropy initially targeted rugged landscapes in the U.S., in recent years it has expanded to other regions, including the Amazon rainforest, African savannas and forests, and the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. The overarching strategy abroad is the same as in the United States: protecting wilderness areas as public lands with strong local buy-in.

“We are in a race against time to protect the world’s remaining wild areas,” Wyss told Mongabay. “We focus on protecting wild areas that are at risk of development. But we do so with a firm commitment to protecting these places as public lands, and in supporting locally-driven conservation efforts.”

“From what I have seen, the most successful land conservation initiatives start with and are led by local communities who want to protect their land, water, wildlife, and way of life.”

Wyss spoke about his commitment to conservation, scientific research, and other causes during a September 2017 interview with Mongabay.com.

Hansjörg Wyss

AN INTERVIEW WITH HANSJÖRG WYSS

Mongabay: We understand that your passion for conservation in the American West began after a visit to the U.S. in the late 1950s. What areas and landscapes particularly inspired you?

Hansjörg Wyss: I first came to the United States as a graduate student in 1958 and took a summer job as a surveyor with the Colorado Highway Department. On weekends and in my free time, I would camp, climb, and explore the Rocky Mountains. I vividly remember Longs Peak, for example, where I traveled before returning to Switzerland.

The Swiss Alps where I grew up are beautiful, but so much of the American West still seemed so wild and untouched. In Europe, many natural areas are privately owned, developed, or otherwise off limits to the public. But I was struck by the fact that America’s natural wonders are protected as public lands; they are open to everyone to experience. I came to love and admire the conservation ideal that is embodied by America’s national parks, national forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges, and I have spent much of my adult life working to conserve wild places as public lands.

Glacier lilies along the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park in Montana. Wyss supported the expansion of Montana’s Crown of the Continent. Photo credit: High Trails / Troy Smith.
The Point Arena-Stornetta unit of the California Coastal National Monument is located in California’s Mendocino County. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management California

Mongabay: In recent years the Wyss Foundation has expanded its efforts internationally, including Africa and oceans. How do you decide what places to prioritize? Are there other geographies you’re currently considering?

Hansjörg Wyss: When I launched the Wyss Foundation in 1998, our main focus was on helping protect public lands in the American West. I am proud of the work we have done over the years to protect vast open landscapes, like the Crown of the Continent in Montana and the Wyoming Range in Wyoming. All together in the United States, our support for locally-driven conservation initiatives has led to the protection of more than 20 million acres of public lands for the benefit of current and future generations.

Over the past decade we have broadened our efforts to help conserve wild places around the globe, while staying faithful to our conservation principles. Yes, we focus on protecting wild areas that are at risk of development. But we do so with a firm commitment to protecting these places as public lands, and in supporting locally-driven conservation efforts. This has led, us, for example, to provide multi-year support to a non-profit organization, called African Parks, to partner with governments and local communities to proactively manage new parks and protected areas in Rwanda, Malawi, and other African nations. We were proud to help Peruvian communities and leaders establish the 3.3 million acre Sierra del Divisor National Park, which will help safeguard the headwaters of the Amazon in the Andes Mountains. We are helping conserve the Carpathian Mountains in Romania so that one day they can be protected as a national park. And, recognizing that our oceans are a shared resource in declining health, we are providing philanthropic support to help countries and coastal communities establish science-based fishery management policies and protected areas.

The Amazon rainforest. The Wyss Foundation is supporting a scaling-up of protected areas in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Elephant calf in Africa. In February 2017 the Wyss Foundation announced a commitment of up to $65 million to African Parks “to support the protection and management of four existing parks in Rwanda and Malawi and to enable the non-profit organization to conserve up to five new protected areas yet to be identified in other countries.” Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: At Mongabay, we often report on “conservation effectiveness”; with the goal of providing actionable information for all those involved in the sector. How do you inform your conservation strategies and set goals for effective interventions?

Hansjörg Wyss: We are in a race against time to protect the world’s remaining wild areas. It is as simple as that. Our primary measurement of conservation success at the Wyss Foundation is straightforward: how much land have we helped permanently protect for the benefit of current and future generations? When we look at potential conservation initiatives, therefore, we look carefully at the ecological value and threats to the land, but we also want to ensure that they be conserved as public lands and that they be conserved in perpetuity.

In 2015 the Wyss Foundation helped The Nature Conservancy purchase 3,184 acres along the Hoh River in Washington state. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Wyss supported the protection of the Wyoming Range in the state. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: Beyond conservation, you support a wide range of causes, from the arts to scientific research. Could you tell us more about what led you to establish the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, for example, and about other philanthropic causes you are involved in?

Hansjörg Wyss: I spent much of my professional life helping establish and grow a medical company that researched, designed, and produced devices to help patients survive and recover from traumatic injuries. There have been remarkable advances in surgical care in the past fifty years, and I am proud that my company was able to be a part of that progress.

Over the course of my career, however, I noticed that there is often a wide gap between the research that is done in universities and labs and the translation of that research to practical applications. What we have done at Harvard – and what we are doing through similar projects with universities in Switzerland – is to bring together brilliant minds from many scientific disciplines and then allow them to be creative and innovative. It is truly extraordinary to see the ideas and breakthroughs that are coming from this interdisciplinary environment. Taking their inspiration from designs in the natural world, researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard are fighting cancer, battling pathogens, improving medical imaging, and spinning out new ideas almost every week. It is remarkable.

And just as we support creativity and innovation in science, I believe it is equally important that we do so in the arts. I have, for example, been fortunate and proud to support the Boston Philanthropic Orchestra for many years, to help provide scholarships at art schools in Switzerland, and to have helped build the Fondation Beyeler, which is now the most popular art museum in Switzerland.

Wildlife ranging from jaguars (above) to barn owls (below) live in habitats that Wyss has helped conserve. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler
Barn owls live across the public lands Wyss has helped conserve. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: At the same time that the world added 23 new sites to the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves program, Donald Trump’s administration removed 17 on U.S. soil. As with the Paris climate treaty, do you think it is possible that private individuals and non-US governments can and should now lead the world in land conservation, too?

Hansjörg Wyss: From what I have seen, the most successful land conservation initiatives start with and are led by local communities who want to protect their land, water, wildlife, and way of life. Yes, political winds can shift from time to time, but there is still a groundswell of enthusiasm – around the globe – to save the last, best places before they disappear. And everyone has a role to play. We are seeing local and state governments in the United States establish policies to encourage the protection of open space. National governments in South America and Africa are eagerly working with local communities to create new national parks to protect at-risk areas and to drive tourism and economic development. And more and more private citizens are giving their time and resources to the cause of conservation, whether it is out their back door or on the other side of the world.

Where the Andes meet the Amazon is arguably the most biodiverse place in the world. The Wyss Foundation is supporting the protection of public lands in this region. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Wyss with TNC staff. Photo courtesy of the Wyss Foundation.

Mongabay: Do you have any advice for other people who may wish to create a conservation legacy?

Hansjörg Wyss: I have long admired the conservation ideal that led to the creation of America’s national parks and public lands: that in protecting our natural wonders we must ensure that all people have the chance to enjoy them. An act of conservation can be an enduring investment in democracy.

Wyss Foundation