Should the Wealthy Buy Wild Lands to Save Them?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | October 13th, 2011 | 45 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living


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

Mariposa Grove

Some eco-philanthropists are buying up forests to keep them from being logged. ©Travis John Andrews

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.

Yosemite National Park

PBS filmmaker Ken Burns called our nation’s national parks “America’s Best Idea.” ©John T. Andrews

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?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Is it a good idea to allow wild places to be transferred into the hands of private citizens? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews



  1. I think the wealthy should help non-profit Land Trust organizations buy the land.

    John Daly | October 17th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. I believe that Ted Turner owns more land (as a single landowner) than any person in the U.S. and he buys it and leaves it alone (for the future to enjoy) – awesome. Yes, if that is what needs to be done to save open spaces.

    Bonnie Flach | October 17th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. I suppose it’s often a good thing, provided the parks aren’t interested in acquiring those lands.

    Jack | October 17th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. Candace~

    I love the question posed. It is a topic that surfers face here on the west coast regarding beautiful coastline and access to the public.

    This question consistently boils down to a matter of wealth, resources and power as those who are in position to make decisions that impact us all.

    This is the power of education. If mass populace is aware of how these decisions happen every day and personally effect us whether short term or long term with generations to come, hopefully this will provide motivation enough to take action and get involved!

    Thank you for your insightful article.

    Songbird | October 17th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. I know many private landowners who cherish their property and work closely with agencies to preserve, restore, and/or conserve it. Perhaps it depends on what exactly you mean–would they purchase as part of a preservation agreement (i.e. no development) or get to do whatever they choose with it? Unfortunately even in good economic times government agencies don’t automatically do a better job than the private sector. I think we put a little too much faith in government sometimes.

    Rachel Kutschera | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. Sadly, no matter the philanthropic intentions of one generation, their descendants may not share their views – the history of the Scottish Highlands and islands bears testimony to this.

    Forbes Inglis | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. I don;t know we have a Land Trust Company dedicated to purchasing tracks of land with a mission to preserve, restore, and/or conserve it, a recent purchase bought several acres of pristine wilderness from the city who was going to do who knows what with it, I feel their motivations are clear and this land is not to be developed ever. I don’t know the specific contract. But this is prime habit with breeding grounds for shore birds including sandhill cranes. A run of King Salmon up the steam and with Beluga Whales feeding at the mouth. Our Audubon Society was extremely please with this purchase. Do you think wealthy environments are a better choice taking into consideration a possible backfire.

    Anita Gomez | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. This issue is an important issue – The wild lands should be saved and a place preserved for wildlife. Organizations exist to assist land owners in the process. Why can’t these independently organizations also acquire wild lands that are wildlife habitat?

    Kathleen St.Clair - McGee | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. The worry is perhaps we have to trust them. But can we trust Government? Here in Victoria Australia the state government has just scrapped a global conservation conference ( took two years to organize ) because it’s policy on cattle grazing in fragile national parks home to endangered species would come under scrutiny

    Mike Hamilton | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  10. I think everyone knows about the success that Ted Turner has had on the 2 million acres that he owns in the US and in Argentina. He has managed to expand his bison herd in Montana to 50,000 head and I believe this is the largest herd in the country. I think the mega wealthy have the time, energy and interest to address environmental issues and they have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on their local communities by setting a good example for land stewardship. I wonder if it might be better if we take management of national parks out of the hands of the federal government and have private companies run them. I think it would be less complicated and we might see some job creation as a result.

    Debra Ferris | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  11. I believe that it is probably one of the most proactive approaches to conservation of critical lands and endangered species. Government subsidies and incentive programs provided to the private land owner offer incentive to maintain lands in perpetuity. Left in private hands, the lands can be put to more creative and positive use, as well as benefit local communities. There is no room for “trust” as one cannot control the future of the private land holder’s fate. However, if “conditions precedent” are applied at the on-set of procurement of land and entry into a conservation plan, the lands and species can be protected in perpetuity, removing the reliance on the human”trust” factor. What is of greatest concern to me are the so-called “conservation buyers” that are posing as environmentally friendly groups, backed by investment funds who are simply looking to bleed government subsidized program, and ultimately do not care about the final disposition of the lands. Still, in the right hands, under the right conditions with proper controls, private parties with government supported programs are the best hope. There is a fine balance in discerning the good from the bad here.

    Sonia Wisniewska | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. I agree with Sonia, that if there are conditions set, this could be a very positive move for habitat conservation. Similarly, private land owners could enter into agreements with environmental groups, such as the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, to entrust the land to the group once the family no longer lives there, or to share the land in some way, or to transfer ownership of the land entirely. If private, wealthy citizens are purchasing lands for conservation, then yes, we definitely need background checks, conditions, and at least annual check ups to ensure the continued preservation of the land.

    Elizabeth Spence | October 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  13. I suggest reading the book Ecobarons if you haven’t already. Though not always appreciated, sometimes it takes the very wealthy to preserve large parcels from development,especially if there are bulldozers clanging at the gate with government approval. Ironically, when some of these ecobarons attempt to donate the land to the local government or community, the gifts are spurned because they come with stringent protections.

    Beth Surdut | October 19th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  14. That’s been going on here in Maine for a while, as the founder of Burt’s Bees has been buying large swaths of land. …

    Fran Hodgkins | October 19th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  15. In Brazil, land owners can register their land with the IBAMA (the Brazil government environment agency) as private environmental reserves. I don´t know if there are any advantages attached to it, but it seems that it gives some guarantee that the owner cannot change his mind.

    Jacques Jangoux | October 19th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  16. Perhaps it is development delayed, if it is owned by one person or a corporation, who knows what will happen to it in the future. Another key issue to bear in mind is that when we read “Save the planet” it actually means “Save the human race’s life support system”. Earth has been home diverse life forms for billions of years and if we trashed it tomorrow, there other life would adapt to fill the voids.
    With this in mind, any attempts to preserve the eco-systems should be aware that if there are indigenous people living there in harmony with their environment, then they should not be displaced.

    John Williams | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  17. t is a good idea to begin with, but giving it on long term lease would be a better option if that sounds right to them.
    When it gets to become an ancestral property I am not sure if it will be protected with the same passion as the environmentalist now.

    SABIHA RAHMAN | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  18. I think they should though they should do it for the right reasons and not to exploit it. Take for instance many beautiful areas where Nature was at its best and some weathly person bought the land and put in a hotel or game lodge which resulted in destroying the very thing that was so special about the place. Another instance is a weathy hotel company are putting in a 500 bed hotel in the Mana Pools in Zimbabwe destroying a peaceful place for financial gain which is hidden under “eco Tourism”

    Sean Hensman | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  19. Well at least the philanthropic land owners are immune to lobby groups, bribes, votes, back room deals, black mail and the insecurity of the politicians’ psychopathic delusions and the justification that it isn’t lying merely pragmatism. “the only honest politician is one who when bought, stays bought”

    Mike Hamilton | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  20. Good news, Australian Fed Government has told Victorian State Government to get cattle out of Alpine National Parks in the precious High Country.

    Mike Hamilton | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  21. Yes, I believe they should and we have a long history too in the US of some of our key National and State Park lands being donated by wealthy persons with a passion for environmental protection and even specific species protection. There are an array of legal mechanisms for permanent protection, many with very positive tax consequences for doing so, such as conservation easements. We have instances of long term private land holdings/leases within our park system- and many sunset when the last of the family have passed away. There are some very environmentally active landholders and in some instances institutions protecting lands and making a very great difference in many parts of the world. The truth is, that we all need to cultivate a stewardship mentality. I don’t think we can count on purchase alone to protect our valuable conservation lands. We need the entire toolkit and we need big picture Green Infrastructure planning for growth and connectivity… and we need to move away from purely single species management and also begin taking into account the ecosystem services in a true economic model. We are all inter-related. And this is what makes things both formidably challenging and cutting-edge exciting…

    Jeannie Lewis | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  22. Interesting question. Since the lands you describe are already in the public domain they may be freely bought, sold, leased, etc. in accordance with local laws, zoning regulations, etc. As you noted best intentions may fall apart over time or with economic pressures. Hence the on-going efforts of various land trust organizations that also play in this space may require additional marketing resources so others can align with them to achieve common goals.

    And it isn’t just the wealthy. Many of us have access to purchasing land in places like Costa Rica and Brazil. See for one example.

    Jack Pouchet | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  23. If there are pockets of undisturbed habitat left in a sea of ecological devastation/ degraded habitat/ cultivation, then OF COURSE people who can afford to buy up such tracts of habitat, should be given the chance to. It makes total sense. And they don’t ALL want to do it for their own benefit. That is utter nonsense. The purchasing of such areas of land may protect for example, chunks of forest or other habitat types which would otherwise imminently be destroyed by fire, chainsaws or axes.

    Derek Schuurman | October 23rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  24. If we allow wealthy to buy the forest- we are going place the last nail in the coffin. then we may starve for fresh air because they will make business out of these forest and make profit instead of conservation. So beware of these wealthy people who only see money in all the aspects…

    Ravi Upadhyay | October 23rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  25. I only know about Robert Redford, who else have done anything for wild life? I do not know anyone but I would love to know which are these individuals that are protecting or will protect our national parks, open space, etc. I think in my humble opion that the very very rich will try to utilized the land for their monetary benefit.

    Teresita Bastides-Heron | October 23rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  26. I own an eco-lodge in a remote rainforest reserve in Malawi (connect here: ). My experience there is that, in countries with poor economies, the government’s focus is needs be on more life-threatening matters than ‘mere nature’, and governmental management in the form of protected forest reserves and national parks are horribly inefficient and corrupt.

    Likewise are the new local people management schemes (some such are now being introduced by e.g. EU-funded initiatives) where local communities are encouraged to have a stake in responsibly managing forests. When the local people live hand-to-mouth and don’t have the surplus resources or education to worry about the future, such schemes are bound to go desperately wrong. The result is, of course, that resources are being depleted and entire countries deforested and resources are likely to replete even more in the future.

    The only answer for such areas – and I’m only talking about the poorest of the poorest here as that is where my experience lies – must be private ownership by wealthy environmentalists. I can only dream of such a person taking over ‘my’ forest reserve and saving it! But with such an investment also comes a great responsibility, for it is only if such ownership can afford good management that it will improve the situation.

    There is a fine balance to be struck between protecting endangered nature areas and working cooperatively and positively with the local communities who are not only destroying them but also entirely dependent on them for their livelihoods. It takes extreme dedication and intelligence and is a project that should not be entered into lightly.

    Lone Nerup | October 23rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  27. History shows that wealthy men often started to buy land for nature conservation purposes. And maybe they are more attached to this work than any other. For instance Luc Hoffmann, relative of the founder of Hoffmann La Roche is very much involved in nature conservation in the site he bought in the Camargue (France, Rhône Delta). Often these people do a lot because of their individual drive and passion, not simply because it is their job. And they may pass this passion over to their children. As soon as politics get involved it may go down. In his respect I may have more confidence in a noble man. You can make a lot of laws but that is not a guarantee that conservation will be successful. People who give their heart to an area will do their best to find ways to continue and may come to innovative measures. However, I am not saying that we should leave it all to people like Luc Hoffmann, simply because unfortunately not everybody is like him and yes who knows if business is not a success then perhaps there is no money anymore to manage the site. However in these days even countries seem to be at the edge of bankruptcy…I would say please wealthy men, if you have a passion for nature: act and buy and be a hero.

    Jan Jansen | October 23rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  28. Sure they can backfire. However, if the landowner creates a solid, legal conservation easement, it becomes a level of protection that can’t be overturned with a simple change in administration in DC.

    Mark | October 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  29. If a society wants land to be protected for generations, it’s best bet would be making it public land. Historically though, some wealthy benefactor buys the land, enjoys it for a time, then turns it over to the government. I know this was the case with Cumberland Island National Seashore (in Georgia) as well as the Tetons (in Wyoming).

    Scott | October 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  30. Teresita,

    At face value, just considering that the conservation efforts occurred…. historically, I think of the legacies of families like the Rockefellers who have helped preserve many significant large tracts as national treasures.

    The National Park Service has quite a good synopsis of private efforts:

    More current…. Just to name a few….The DuPonts have a land legacy program. Ted Turner – largest US private land owner- has an endangered species foundation and owns very large land tracts in 12 states. The Turner holdings are species and ecosystem focused, with large percentage of the lands under conservation easement. The Turner Foundation (separate) makes grants every year to support diverse environmental efforts.

    Doug and Kris Tompkins are incredible representatives for extraordinary protection efforts (1M acres in S. America) –

    in Chile:

    and Argentina:

    protecting some of the most important biologically diverse habitats and migratory bird areas as well as promoting Patagonian Park creation, and teaching sustainability in agriculture.

    In my backyard (as I’m sure there are in many areas), there are numerous individuals on the coast of Georgia alone that have preserved large tracts of lands in perpetuity, some very wealthy, others the land had passed through their family. Some of these lands are the most biologically rich on our coast and/or are critical habitat. This includes Cumberland Island National Seashore (Carnegie and Candler families and others), which is one of the largest barrier island complexes in the world. Of our 14 islands, only three do not have some form of protection and are largely developed. The others are donations, trusts and holdings of conservation-minded private individuals.

    This is not to say the protection efforts aren’t without controversy one way or another, I am not looking to get into that debate :) but there are very good examples of private land and habitat protection forming the backbone of our national park system in the US, as well as national forests and seashores. And there are excellent examples of individuals working at the state, regional and community scales.

    Again- the stewardship ethic starts within each one of us. We each have an opportunity to do what we can… for some, it’s significantly more than others due to resources…. yet we each can play a vital role.

    Jeannie | October 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  31. Well put Jeannie. Those are some really good examples, just a few of many.

    Derek Schuurman | October 25th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  32. You’re right Derek- there are many more examples! You make good points too on the fragmented pieces. We need these areas too- patch habitats are increasingly important for many species that don’t need quite the range in the immediate area. This is something we struggle with as resource managers- what amount of area is too small for feasible use by species of concern? Personally- even on our developed barrier islands, I’m not willing to give up on impacted areas. Just when I am- that’s when I see painted buntings in the wax myrtle among condos or wilson’s plovers trying to raise chicks on a populous beach- or that rare loggerhead nest near rock sea walls. Thx for the kind words!

    Jeannie | October 25th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  33. Yes, of course!

    Captain Alfred Scott | October 26th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  34. I liked Debra’s comments, though would say that the rich probably do not have more time to manage such projects until they are in their golden years and/or have cashed out of building their billions/millions. That tends to take up some personal time. I would absolutely do this myself, given greater resources, though I do think there is room for multi-use and educational tracts of private land as well as those that are managed for wildlife/trees or purely a natural state of being.

    Ryan Garvey | October 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  35. Thanks Ryan but, I disagree with your assessment of the wealthy. They hire people like us to manage their lands, thus, stimulating the economy! Yeah!

    Debra Ferris | October 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  36. I definitely agree, that if wealthy people find it in their heart to invest into protection of natural habitats, they should do it. I also think that it’s not only wealthy people who should buy land to preserve it, but charities should buy the land using public donations too. And I know some that do. I personally find it motivating to donate some of my money to see that it helps preserve nature.

    Nelly | October 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  37. I live in montana now and I have both in the vicinty as well as moose and mountain lions. It doesnt bother me one bit. You just take necessary precautions. But the risk is minimal. I am more likely to die on the road getting to a hiking spot.

    Jackson | October 31st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  38. I’m actually more concerned about getting my head taken off by those Asian carp.

    Jackson | October 31st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  39. How could they work on a revised will if Brandon was already dead?

    Jennifer | November 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  40. In China, this is not easy to happen. But, not a good choice for nature conservation. Here I am working in a Nature Reserve for tigers, but not enough habitat, outside nature reserve belongs to forestry company, even the nature reserve is running with the funding from this company. If we want more protected area here, how about to buy some lands from forestry company?

    Ying | November 3rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  41. In Britain, we have very little land that is owned by the State. What little there is, is mostly farmland and forestry planted with exotic species. There are a few National Nature Reserves, but all our national parks, for instance, are composed of privately owned land that is farmed and developed by private people – we do not have wild lands. In landscapes such as this, the “altruistic self-interest” of a private landowner who wants to do his / her bit for wildlife and the natural environment provides the best and most sustainable solutions to habitat degradation and biodiversity loss.

    David | November 3rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  42. Interestingly it was in the 1940s that conservation in Britain began to gain momentum and in 1949 the first Nature Conservancy was established. The reason for this? The first Chairman of the Nature Conservancy blamed high taxes and in particular death duties that had resulted in the break up of large estates that were then being developed on. Until that point the land was deemed to be in safe hands.

    And he may well have had a point. If you consider the green spaces in London the only large areas to have not been developed belong to the Crown.

    In 1914 Charles Rothschild established the Society for the Preservation of Nature Reserves which are now the Wildlife Trusts – it was Rothschild money that started a network of over 2000 reserves that we have today.

    So the wealthy have also bought land to protect it and I see no reason why they shouldn’t continue or even be encouraged to do so.

    The problem is that the latest thinking on conservation particularly in the UK states that protecting habitat and species in reserves doesn’t work. All that we have done is create islands which are difficult to move between. What is needed is landscape scale conservation which means we can all play a part. Networks between the reserves we have is more important that more reserves.

    Andrew | November 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  43. The questions that Candice asked was “should the wealthy buy wild lands …” In the US and other places that still have wild lands then this is a particular issue that we don’t have to face here in Western Europe and especially not on our foggy, over-crowded island. Andrew is right, there are great opportunities for wealth creators to get involved in nature conservation, but here in the UK it probably involves supporting integrated actions on farms and in forests rather than just buying land in order to leave it alone.

    David | November 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  44. The question, “Should the Wealthy Buy Wild Lands to Save Them?” I can think of instances where the wealthy have saved wild lands, like St. Johns US Virgin Islands and parts of our National Parks. Without the conscience of someone with means preserves may not exist.

    Deborah | November 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  45. I suppose it’s often a good thing, provided the parks aren’t interested in acquiring those lands.

    Anonymous | November 11th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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