When one of America’s best-known and finest actors, Marlon Brando, bought his own private island in 1966, people generally wrote the news off as just another eccentric act by the rich. Until his death in July 2004 at the age of 80, Brando “owned” Tetiaroa, a 2.5-square-mile atoll in the South Pacific, 37 miles north of Tahiti. (He obtained a 99-year lease to it from the French Polynesian government.)
Brando was a nature purist and hoped Tetiaroa would be part environmental laboratory — mostly for sea turtles — and part modest eco-resort. In a will he signed in 1982, he put Tetiaroa in a trust so it could be preserved for posterity. “If I have my way,” he once wrote in a memoir, “Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago.” His wish was to keep the island from becoming overly developed and in as natural a state as possible.
But less than a year after his death, acting on a revised will that included no specific provision for Tetiaroa, the executors of his estate sold an interest in the island for $2 million to Richard Bailey, a Tahiti-based hotel developer who had approached Brando without success for several years.
I was reminded of Marlon Brando and his famous private island when I recently read about Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face outdoor clothing company, who just bought 750,000 acres of Chilean wilderness to create a nature sanctuary.
But is it a good idea for many of our planet’s last wild places to be transferred into the hands of private citizens?
Tough times require unusual measures
Although Marlon Brando may have started this modern trend, he and Tompkins aren’t alone in their efforts to purchase — and then preserve — some of the world’s most pristine places. In fact, Tompkins is just one of a handful of wealthy environmentalists who lately have snapped up pieces of wilderness with the intent of saving them for all of us. Tompkins bought the land in Chile to create Pumalin Park (Parque Pumalín), the largest privately owned nature reserve in the world.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, recently bought up a forest in Okanogan County in Washington State to keep it safe from logging interests. Half of the state’s endangered Canada lynx are believed to live in the forests and surrounding wilds. In Walton County, Florida, local businessman M. C. Davis and philanthropist Sam Shine purchased a 48,000-acre plantation in an effort to save the state’s remaining longleaf pine and wiregrass wilderness. They now run the parcel as a private conservation area.
In these tough economic times, rich environmentalists do provide a needed means to keep delicate ecosystems preserved before they are lost forever. Often, state and federal budgets do not allow for such land purchases. And if these wealthy philanthropists do truly create parks open to all of us, is it such a bad thing to have some of our last wild lands pass into their private hands?
Posterity doesn’t always go according to plan
While it would seem that Brando, Tompkins, Allen, Davis and Shine have their hearts in the right place, counting on rich, private citizens to help save some of our last precious places may do more harm than good in the long term.
Take Brando’s successor, Richard Bailey. Through his company, Tahiti Beachcomber SA, Bailey envisions a Tetiaroa reserved strictly for the wealthy. For about $1,500 a night, his well-heeled guests will stay at “The Brando,” a luxury resort (albeit, an ecologically sensitive one) consisting of 47 bungalow villas. It’s a ways from the moderate accommodations and “environmental laboratory” that Marlon Brando pictured.
A few years ago, PBS filmmaker Ken Burns reminded us that national parks were America’s best idea, where our nation’s most wild and natural places of beauty belonged to the people, not any one person. But when the people don’t have the funds to acquire those places, should the wealthy step in to buy them in order to protect them for all of us? Or could that just be development delayed?