Back in November 2008, the wild beauty of a 1,500-acre parcel of undisturbed North Carolina wilderness known as Stonehill Pines appeared headed for oblivion. Developers were eyeing the dense stands of pine and oak nestled off Interstate 74 to be repurposed as a world-class, mixed-use golf resort community featuring 1,050 homes and up to 90,000 square feet of retail and office space.
When the full force of the financial recession hit, those plans were shelved and the property went back on the open market. Instead of falling into the hands of another developer, an unlikely savior who has made billions turning others into virtual heroes, swooped in to save the day.
"I bought this land because it has a nice longleaf pine forest and was available for a reasonable price," famed game developer Tim Sweeney said in a 2018 interview with The Pilot, a community newspaper in North Carolina. "I’ll be holding it until I find a permanent nature conservation home for it, which will take years or decades."
A 'land grab' for conservation
In the wake of the recession, protecting undeveloped stretches of wilderness like Stonehill Pines has become something of a passion project for Sweeney. As the founder of Epic Games, which has created such hits as "Unreal," "Gears of War," and the international sensation "Fortnite," his considerable wealth has enabled him to embark on what he's termed a "conservation land grab."
As of 2016, he was one of the largest private landowners in his home state of North Carolina, with nearly 40,000 acres protected under his name. This portfolio includes the 7,000-acre Box Creek Wilderness, a vast swath of rich biodiversity tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Sweeney's $15 million purchase saved the land from being carved up by a utility interested in running electric lines through the region. Afterwards, he generously donated a conservation easement covering Box Creek to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, ensuring its status as a permanent conservation area.
Virtual worlds help us save the real one
As he said in a 2016 interview, these strategic purchases are all part of an attempt to stop pristine wilderness from coming under threat from developers in the future.
"When real estate collapsed, it was an opportunity to buy the best and most biodiverse natural areas," he told the Citizen Times. "Box Creek had approximately 5,000 acres owned by developers. The next time there’s a real estate boom, we won’t be able to protect these lands."
And his environmental activism doesn't just stop after he writes a check. With an eye towards helping the ecosystem, Sweeney also institutes programs that address eradication of invasive species, fire restoration, and beneficial practices for rare species of native plants and animals.
Thanks to games like "Fortnite," which last year allowed Epic Games to bank a profit of more than $3 billion, Sweeney's efforts are likely to reap more benefits for the natural world.
As he told WNC Magazine, a publication focused on the mountains of North Carolina, "The idea is to put my money to work for conservation."