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A little known hero in public lands conservation

This week’s topic for the #NatureWritingChallenge:

And here’s my submission

The first time I heard the name Wyss, it was during a staff meeting discussing grant proposals. I was fresh into my new role as Membership Director for a statewide conservation group here in Arizona, and we were reviewing our existing funding sources. The Wyss Foundation figured prominently in our revenue spreadsheets—as it does for many, many public lands groups across the West.

A year later, I found myself working for the Sierra Club on a special project to help defend five recently-designated national monuments that now found themselves under threat from the Bush Administration. While I was already well into my national parks quest, which included nearly all of the existing national monuments, I wasn’t very familiar with the new ones I was charged with advocating for.

That’s because these were managed by the Bureau of Land Management instead of the National Park Service. The BLM, as it’s more commonly known, manages more public lands than any other federal agency—nearly 1/7 of the land mass of the United States. But unfortunately, due to both history and politics and even policy, the BLM doesn’t have a strong tradition of conservation. In fact, the BLM was often jokingly referred to as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining.

Our National Conservation Lands

Bruce Babbitt, a fellow Arizonan and the Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton, had a strategy to change that. When Clinton designated a number of national monuments during his term—starting with the amazing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—Babbitt broke with tradition and kept the BLM in charge instead of transferring management to the National Park Service.

If you want BLM to do good things, you have to give them good things to do.

– Bruce Babbitt—countless times—on his strategy to instill a stronger conservation ethic into the BLM

That act began what’s now known as the National Conservation Lands, which comprises about 10% of BLM’s public lands and might be our nation’s last great system of protected public lands. The idea was that if you could help create even incremental change in BLM’s culture, you could have a huge effect on land management across the country.

The Wyss Foundation played a major role in securing and establishing the National Conservation Lands after its establishment. It funded the entirety of my own position, plus those of many of my fellow colleagues in other conservation groups. In my work, I helped launch and develop several local Friends groups for these national monuments. And who funded these small, grassroots groups? You guessed it.

Conservation Lands Foundation

Eventually, this ballooning and historic effort needed a new home, and the Conservation Lands Foundation was born. The Wyss Foundation was instrumental in establishing and funding the group, which boasted an incredible board of directors, including Bruce Babbitt, Stewart Udall, and the heads of many heralded public lands groups. Not long after its launch, I was lucky enough to serve as its Southwest Field Director for a number of years.

The Conservation Lands Foundation, working with a number of other partners, worked to establish critically important policy directives for the Conservation Lands, develop a vibrant network of grassroots advocates and stewards across the West, defend our public lands when necessary, spearhead new national monument designations, and educate policymakers and recreationists on the vision for this new system.

While important and pressing work still remains, it’s hard not to see a bright future for our National Conservation Lands.

Our National Conservation Lands are pretty awesome, and often under-appreciated. I’ve had an excellent time on my quest to visit each of the major areas of the system.

Wyss Campaign for Nature

Not satisfied with this historic conservation success, however, the Wyss Foundation has recently embarked on an incredibly bold new campaign to protect 30% of the world’s land and waters by 2030.

Yes, you read that right: 30% by 2030.

And to help make that happen, the Wyss Foundation is committing to donating $1 billion towards the effort. Yes, you also read that right: one billion dollars.

Hansjörg Wyss

And all of that finally leads me to Hansjörg Wyss.

A Swiss native, he fell in love with America’s public lands while working a summer job as a highway surveyor in Colorado while studying at Harvard. He went on to make gobs and gobs of money producing medical devices, before selling is company for more than $20 billion.

Since that time, he’s quietly become one of the most generous philanthropists in the world. While he supports a number of causes, public lands—and what they represent—remain a meaningful part of his life and efforts.

Each investment we make in conservation is an enduring investment in democracy.

Hansjörg Wyss

Through his philanthropy to date, the Wyss Foundation has helped to protect more than 27 million acres across the US. It’s spearheaded countless projects that have resulted in tangible conservation wins. It’s helped to chart a new vision for the nation’s largest land manager, and worked hard to expand the lands included in the National Conservation Lands system. It’s invested in meaningful grassroots organizing, intended to build a network of local advocates and stewards for our public lands.

Through his continued philanthropy, the Wyss Campaign for Nature builds upon the successes and lessons learned of its previous efforts, turning its attention to the rest of the World.

For someone that few have ever heard of, that’s one helluva legacy.

Thank you, Mr. Wyss, for all that you have done for our public lands.

Check out my other posts for the #NatureWritingChallenge

Photo courtesy of Wyss Campaign For Nature.

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