Conservationists get a billion dollars. Here’s how it may help.

Humans are rapidly taming the world’s wild places.

In the past century, nearly 80 percent of all land has been modified or impacted by human development. As a result, other species have rapidly declined. One study estimates animals are going extinct 1,000 times faster than they would have without human influence.

To fight that growing trend, conservation groups are increasingly turning to converting biologically rich lands into conservation plots like national parks and marine protected areas. Today, the Wyss Foundation, a charity focused on protecting wild places, announced they are donating $1 billion to launch the Wyss Campaign for Nature.

Hansjörg Wyss says the money will go toward a U.N. goal to protect 30 percent of the Earth by 2030. Wyss is partnering with the National Geographic Society, the Nature Conservancy, and Argentine conservation group Fundacion Flora y Fauna.

How will the donation work?

One of the four initiatives under the campaign will focus on empowering local groups to take up stewardship of their land in their region.

Marine protected areas are on the of the most effective ways to protect biodiversity and ensure the health of fisheries. Photography by Tim Calver.

A Nature study published earlier this year showed that indigenous groups, despite only comprising five percent of the global population, manage 38 million square kilometers of land. By empowering these groups, environmentalists say wild areas will be better protected from outside influences like industrial development.

President of Fundacion Flora y Fauna Sofia Heinonen says the group is currently in the process of buying land containing Argentinian mountain glaciers that provide drinking water to those living in the region. With the Wyss donation, the group will also train local community leaders and create more eco-tourism opportunities.

In addition to purchasing biodiverse wilderness areas to be managed by national parks and conservation groups, the campaign will fund science that supports conservation measures, lead awareness campaigns, and lobby international governmental groups to raise targets.

Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, says these targets will be discussed at the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity “conference of the parties,” or COP, where these groups set targets.

In addition to a COP coming up later this month in Egypt, Tercek says groups are already looking toward a 2020 COP, when major new targets for the next decade will be set.

“We’re behind schedule,” he says of where conservation should be. “Announcing this [Wyss] campaign should help global leaders at the 2020 COP get serious about meeting targets.”

In an op-ed published this morning in the New York Times, Wyss touted the “Half Earth” campaign created by famed biologist E.O. Wilson. The campaign aims to set aside half the planet for conservation, a move the E.O. Wilson foundation says would preserve species and generate ecological benefits.

Other initiatives under the new Wyss campaign will focus on creating awareness campaigns and scientific research.

Helping people understand why nature is important and having the resources to do so are two of the biggest conservation roadblocks, says chief scientist at the National Geographic Society Jonathan Baillie.

What is there to gain?

Setting aside land for conservation will contribute to fighting climate change, environmental groups concluded earlier this year at a conference in San Francisco. Large, forested regions like the Amazon rain forest act as carbon sinks, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Many of the last remaining wild places are in the far northern reaches of the U.S., Canada, and Russia. Photography by Wiliam Albert, National Geographic.

Wilderness also benefits many species, including human beings.

“The objective is to make sure we don’t have mass extinctions and to make sure we have ecological services,” says Baillie referring to benefits nature can provide like keeping air and water clean.

Earlier this week, a newly published World Wildlife Fund report argued that wildlife has declined by 60 percent globally in the past 40 years. Habitat loss is one of the biggest drivers of that species decline, in addition to climate change and pollution.

By hitting the U.N.’s 2030 goal and ultimately E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth goal, Baillie says conservationists are hoping they can stop that rapid decline.