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Forever Is A Long Time
— by Lee Pitts

In a letter to the Nature Conservancy congratulating the group on its 50th anniversary President Bush wrote, "The Nature Conservancy´s accomplishments over the last five decades are remarkable."

No kidding! Surely the founders back in 1951, who were then known as The Ecologist Union, could not have envisioned what their organization would one day become. Fifty years later The Nature Conservancy . . .

  • Averages one land purchase per day in the United States.
  • Has acquired more than 12 million acres of land in the U.S. that is organized into more than 1,400 preserves.
  • Has been called "the largest real estate developer in America."
  • Has become the richest of all green groups. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2000, TNC reported total revenue and other support of $786.8 million.
  • Has eight regional offices, along with 50 state chapter offices and a national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
  • Boasts a membership of 1,029,012 people who pay at least $25 to join.
  • Earned $60 million from government awards, $14 million from private contracts and $161 million from investment income in fiscal year 2000. It also received gifts of land worth $90 million. This is all in addition to its dues revenue.
  • Employs 3,000 people.
  • Doubled its membership and quintupled its revenues during the 1990´s. Today, The Nature Conservancy is the 10th largest nonprofit institution in America.

A Change In Plans

For awhile there it looked like The Nature Conservancy had plans to buy up all the land in this country. But they realized that even they didn´t have quite that much money. Besides, the more land they bought the more they had to pay to take care of it. According to writer Tom Knudson, "from 1990 to 2000, administrative overhead at the Conservancy jumped from $14.8 million to $40.2 million -- up 170 percent. Its fund-raising bill, which includes membership solicitations, went from $8.8 million to $45.7 million, up 420 percent."

If The Nature Conservancy wants to brag half a century from now about the same kind of growth it achieved in its first fifty years, then they had to change their business model. This was clear to TNC´s new president Steve McCormick, a lawyer and former head of the California arm of TNC. While he ran the Nature Conservancy in California, McCormick changed that group´s focus from trying to buy up all the land to merely being able to control it. His first year at the national organization has been spent trying to instill that same philosophy.

McCormick has said that "nature preserves are not sufficient to heal an ailing planet. Our mission speaks to preserving biological diversity, not creating nature preserves. Land acquisition alone will not enable us to work at the scale we have to work at." To McCormick the problem was clear: Almost half of the group´s income was going toward taking care of properties they already owned, and as they purchased more land there would be less and less money left over to satiate their desire for more real estate. "Custodial maintenance is an Achilles´ heel for us," McCormick said.

McCormick now wants to shed some Nature Conservancy property by selling it or gifting it so the group can turn their efforts to protecting much larger regions of this country and the world. To do this The Nature Conservancy doesn´t have to own all the land, merely control it. Why buy the land when you can effectively control it through conservation easements? And if they could get paid to manage that land, well, that´s even better! Thus the new battle cry for the Nature Conservancy seems to be a variation on Horace Greeley´s sage advice: "Go west young man . . . and bring back conservation easements."

A Trojan Horse

Not everyone is thrilled with The Nature Conservancy´s new look. Huey Johnson, a former western region director of the Conservancy and green activist has said McCormick has "made the Conservancy a tool of government and companies with questionable environmental records."

The Capital Research Center in a report titled "Land Grabbing Secrets Of The Nature Conservancy" said, "The truth is The Nature Conservancy is really little more than a massive, ruthless real estate machine using its tax exempt status and ties to the government to create wealth for itself. The Nature Conservancy hides behind phony corporations; serves as a shill for government agencies and works behind the scenes with more visible environmental groups to intimidate property owners into selling." Their long-term goals, according to The Capital Research Center, are simple: money and power and so far so good. "Its power, wealth and control is almost beyond comprehension," says the Capital Research Center, "yet it is able to maintain an image of idealism and concern for the environment."

Judy Keeler of Animas, New Mexico has been up close and personal with The Nature Conservancy for years and she has been less than impressed. "My experience with the Nature Conservancy is there is no accountability," says Keeler, who´s ranch sits right in the middle of the million-acre Malpais Borderlands/ Nature Conservancy Project. "I´ve been attending meetings, on a local level, for seven years now. I try to go to the Malpai Group meetings, when they invite me, which is rare, even though our ranch sits in the heart of the one million acres they intend to "manage" for ecosystems and fires. If you disagree with them, they just quit inviting you to their meetings. If you question their agenda, they just conceal it a little deeper. They no longer include me, or anyone else that questions their agenda, in their "management" scheme for this one million acres. However, they continue to steam roll their agenda over the tops of all the other land owners in our area.

"TNC didn´t come into our area like friends," continues Keeler. "They came in with the attitude they they knew it all and were going to "educate" us local ignoramuses on how to "properly" manage our ranches. I just keep collecting more information that continues to alarm me as we advance in this "socialistic" agenda, not government owned, just government managed!

"When you study their mode of operation, you can see how they start with something believable, but move to the "unthinkable" quite quickly. Every con started with something believable and good," says Keeler. "That´s how TNC appears to work. In our area, it´s my opinion that the potential gas and oil reserves is what they´d really like to tie up. They already own all the mineral rights under the private lands on the Gray Ranch, this was "granted" to them as a gift from Tenneco about 10 years ago.

"I attended a "Community Based Partnerships and Ecosystems for a Healthy Environment" series about two years ago. It was sponsored by the Gila Forest Service. The series was developed "cooperatively" by the USDA-FS, BLM, US F&W, Park Service, TNC and the NRCS. When I asked how TNC had managed to become a federal agency, the leaders all claimed they weren´t. But most of the workshops were presented by TNC personnel! Now they´re trying to get the local NRCS to promote their concept!

"In all my "meetings" I have become increasingly alarmed at TNC´s move to position themselves as ´The All Knowing and Benevolent Land Managers´ of our public lands," says Keeler. "They have signed MOUs with White Sands Missile Range to manage the land. They´re working on a similar understanding with Fort Huachuca . . . and, Lord knows how many other military bases they´re negotiating with. I figure they´ll make more money "managing" these areas, than they did buying them up! Concludes Keeler, "There´s no doubt in my mind that they are positioning themselves as THE LAND MANAGERS on public land, and by extension, private lands, in the West."

The Green Squeeze

TNC has mastered the art of getting what they want, although their methods often vary. Sometimes it´s sheer intimidation, like the letter from TNC´s Illinois director, Albert Pyott, to a professor in Germany who owned land along the Cache River in Illinois. Pyott wrote, "If your land is not acquired through voluntary negotiation, we will recommend its acquisition through condemnation."

They have other methods that are a little more subtle. TNC of Colorado is attempting to develop a free-range, chemical-free beef product to be marketed under the name, Yampa Valley Beef. They refer to their product as "Conservation Beef" and advertise that, "This new product is healthier to consume and better for the environment. The result is the preservation of the cowboy culture and the natural heritage of the American West." The Ford Foundation gave funds for market research and the W. Alton Jones Foundation gave TNC $100,000 to develop a business plan. Conservation Beef was formed with The Nature Conservancy as a full partner. Guess what you have to do to become a producer for Conservation Beef?

To sign up you must agree to manage your land according to standards the Nature Conservancy helped write. After being accepted into Conservation Beef the rancher must either give The Nature Conservancy a conservation easement on the ranch, or transfer development rights on the property.

The Government´s Realtor

In 1996 TNC received 11 percent of its income from the sale of private land to federal, state and local governments. It is estimated that TNC sells about two-thirds of the private land it purchases to the government. Any profits are used to buy up more land and, in turn, sell it the the government. Such behavior has tabbed TNC with the title of "The Government´s Realtor." In many cases, after the land sale, the government pays TNC to manage the property. Using such a business model TNC could go on forever buying up this nation´s real estate. But it gets even better for them.

The Nature Conservancy receives its seed money to buy land from many of our country´s largest corporations. By giving TNC grant money and outright gifts those companies hope to cloak themselves in a green veil. It quickly became apparent to TNC´s President McCormick that begging for dollars the old fashioned way, with phone solicitors and junk mail, was not the most cost efficient way of doing business. So, McCormick went after corporations. "It´s just a greater return," he says.

This author obtained records from 1994 through 1999 to see what companies, groups or foundations gave money to TNC. The biggest contributor by far was the David & Lucile Packard Foundation who gave TNC grants on 34 occasions totaling over $45 million between 1996 and 1999. The John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation gave money 18 times. General Motors donated nearly five million dollars and more than 100 trucks. Canon U.S.A. contributed $10.3 million in cash and equipment.

Some readers were appalled to read in this publication a few months back that The Nature Conservancy was involved in developing up-scale homes for sale on the coast of Virginia. TNC is also involved in oil production and receives oil royalties. In fact, TNC has gone to the well quite often. From 1994 through 1999 the following oil companies contributed land, mineral rights or money to TNC: Amoco Foundation four times, Texaco Foundation five times, Arco Foundation five times, Mobil Foundation four times, Phillips Petroleum Foundation 10 times, Chevron Foundation 13 times, Unocal Foundation and Exxon Mobil one time each.

The Georgia-Pacific Foundation and Weyerhaeuser Company Foundation, both businesses built on what environmentalists prefer to call "resource extraction," were also major donors.

More recent donations to TNC include those of the Doris Duke Foundation, Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the Morgridge Family Foundation who all gave between $10-20 million to TNC´s Campaign for Conservation. Five to ten million dollar donors for the same campaign included the Paul G. Allen Forest Protection Foundation, the Mary Flagler Chary Charitable Trust, Central & South West Corporation and the George S. & Delores Dore Eccles Foundation. Charities and corporations donating $1 million or more include the Ahmanson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Georgia Pacific Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Victoria Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

The Nature Conservancy´s business model of extracting large sums of cash from companies and then using the money to buy up conservation easements, is brilliant and quite effective. But doesn´t it seem ironic that this nation´s businesses, the product of free enterprise and private property rights, are financing the potential lock-up of vast areas of this country? Is this what our founding fathers had in mind?

Land owners and ranchers who might be considering donating development rights or a conservation easement on their land to the TNC, believing it will be protected forever, might want to consider The Nature Conservancy´s seemingly unquenchable thirst for land, money and power. Who´s to say what the TNC will do with your land in 10, 50 or even or even 100 years from now if they need the cash?

Forever is a very long time, you know?