The Magazine

In Land We Trust

The conservative approach to preservation.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By G. TRACY MEHAN III
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Nature's Keepers

The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World

by Bill Birchard

Jossey-Bass, 252 pp., $24.95

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE WOULD NOT be surprised. It took a bit of time to happen, but happen it did. Today, Americans support more than 1,300 land trusts, nonprofit organizations that conserve land--open space, habitat, scenic vistas--primarily through purchase and gift of land and conservation easements. These nongovernmental, voluntary associations of like-minded citizens have protected more than 6.2 million acres, an area twice the size of Connecticut, according to the Land Trust Alliance, which tracks these things. This is a 226 percent increase over the 1.9 million acres protected in 1990.

Tocqueville, one Frenchman who will never be out of favor in this country, recognized that

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.

He noted how this was a uniquely American predisposition: "Whenever at the head of some new undertaking," he wrote, "you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." The first land trust was established in 1891 in Massachusetts, by landscape architect Charles Eliot, to preserve 20 acres of woodland. By 1950 there were still only 53 land trusts operating in 26 states. Today, similar grass-roots organizations protect land in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The growth in the number of these private institutions is due, in part, to the nation's increasing prosperity and the rise of the original conservation movement and modern environmentalism. It is also a reaction to the accelerated pace of development that inevitably accompanies a growing population and a thriving economy. The Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that, between 1997 and 2001, 2.2 million acres were developed. Yet the Land Trust Alliance's most recent census of land trusts reports that, from 1990 to 2000, local and regional trusts conserved open space at a rate of about 500,000 acres per year.

The Little Traverse Conservancy, in northwest Michigan, is an example of this brand of local stewardship. It focuses on the area surrounding the bay of the same name on Lake Michigan. Since 1972, it has protected 22,400 acres and 67 miles of lake and stream frontage for public use and enjoyment, natural beauty, and resources protection. Recently, the Conservancy acquired a 200-acre parcel with a mile and a quarter of river front on both sides of the Pigeon River, a "blue ribbon" trout habitat with deep pools.

Conservationists have extended the trust concept to water in the drought-prone West, where maintaining minimum stream flows for fish, wildlife, and plants is a daunting task. In 1993, the Oregon Water Trust began buying and transferring valuable rights to water for the purpose of maintaining streamflows. Donors such as the Orvis Company support its work. Other states have emulated this example as a cooperative, voluntary means of reconciling traditional Western water law ("First in time, first in right") with conservation objectives.

The Nature Conservancy, incorporated in 1951 as a nonprofit entity and successor to the Ecologists Union, is the Ohio-class boomer of land trusts and conservancies. Starting out as a shoestring outfit on a corner along K Street in Washington, with modest offices over a prosthetics shop, it has become a gigantic organization with a commanding presence in worldwide conservation. It is now the largest environmental group in the world, bringing in over $800 million each year. It employs 3,450 people operating from 400 offices in 50 states and 28 countries. It protects more than a million acres of land a year, for a total of 120 million acres to date. And it has 1,500 trustees of boards in each of the states, and one million members and supporters.

The story of this singular American institution is the subject of Bill Birchard's account. Relying on 225 interviews and thousands of documents, Birchard offers a compelling narrative, covering more than half a century, revolving around the stories of individuals who either shaped or epitomized the Conservancy's mission and institutional culture. As a journalist who has covered both management and the environment, he provides an extended case study of managerial challenges, successes, failures, and adaptation to change in the context of an institution whose mission is "to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Each chapter illustrates a lesson in terms of the success of the Conservancy, such as developing strong and effective leaders, avoiding mission drift, and establishing a high-performance culture. Richard Jenkins was a scientist who joined the Conservancy in 1970, and posed two fundamental questions: What should it be doing, and what is it able to do? Certainly, the organization was interested in land preservation, but preservation for what, exactly? As related by Birchard, Jenkins's answer was that "it should be protecting the diversity of life on earth, in particular lands rich with rare species and habitats." As to what it was able to do: "It can zero in on the unique; it can assemble a select collection of the diverse. In short, the Conservancy can preserve a 'Noah's Ark' of biological components."

To institutionalize this approach, Jenkins classified Conservancy properties with the top class being "ecosystem preserves," the mostly pristine, undisturbed lands big enough to save many components of a diverse system. The next class was "species and special features preserves," which were populated with endangered or rare species. The remaining classes were scientific preserves, open space preserves, and "trade lands," which lacked ecological significance but were tradable for better property or cash. Ideally, the organization would devote time and resources mainly to the top class.

With hindsight, this seems like Management 101. But in 1971, half of all the Conservancy's land projects fell under 25 acres in size, 30 percent under 10 acres--too small to protect ecological integrity. "Jenkins maintained that buying the wrong lands could be worse than buying none at all. Because development was inevitable, protecting land in one spot actually drove developers to other spots," writes Birchard. "If the Conservancy locked up low-grade lands, it could deflect the bulldozers to high-grade ones, thereby intensifying rather than alleviating environmental harm."

One of the distinguishing features of the Conservancy, in contrast with many national environmental organizations, is its devotion to the principle of nonconfrontation with donors, sellers of land, governments, and a wide range of stakeholders, including farmers, hunters, tribes, and environmentalists. This is the legacy of Patrick F. Noonan, president of the Conservancy in the 1970s and, subsequently, founder of The Conservation Fund, which has protected over 4 million acres of land in the United States in the last 20 years.

Noonan was a master dealmaker whose enthusiasm was infectious. His biggest inland deal involved the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, a 250,000-acre tract of evergreen shrub bogs, loblolly pine barrens, cypress swamps, and mixed forest of maple, pine, and white cedar. Prices were likely to soar, given plans to run Interstate 64 across the northwest edge of the swamp. As Birchard tells the story, Noonan approached Union Camp, the owner, to talk about conserving a core tract of 49,097 acres. Given the need to protect the stockholders, Noonan knew the Conservancy could not afford to pay the appraised value of nearly $14 million.

"Taking into account the company's cost basis, tax bracket, net income, and so on, Noonan convinced Union Camp chief executive Alexander 'Sox' Calder that a donation for conservation was the highest and best use of the land," notes Birchard. "The deal earned Noonan a towering reputation . . . it became Exhibit One in the case for the power of the Conservancy's culture at the time--business-friendly, nonconfrontational, results-oriented, fast-acting, and aggressive."

In courting the business sector, Noonan was often criticized for taking tainted money, to which he replied: "The problem with tainted money is there taint enough."

Of course, not everything the Nature Conservancy did was pleasing to all parties. As noted, some thought it too accommodating to business. Local officials objected to some past practices, like using straw parties to buy up properties contemplated for development. Property-rights advocates objected to it serving as a surrogate for government land acquisitions. Birchard quotes Peter Drucker, the dean of management consultants: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first give 40 years of success." He vividly illustrates this in a final chapter focusing on the recent crises engulfing the Conservancy after a series of stories in the Washington Post ("Nonprofit Land Bank Amasses Billions"), a Senate Finance Committee investigation, and an IRS audit involving alleged self-dealing, overvaluation of in-kind donations, and other (infrequent) abuses, all of which rocked the house in 2003. Even a green, not-for-profit organization must learn the hard lessons of corporate America in terms of governance, accountability, and transparency.

Ira Millstein, a prominent New York attorney and expert on corporate governance who was recruited for an outside panel to advise the Conservancy on its troubles, claimed that the organization suffered from "a debilitating attitude of hubris." Nevertheless, under the leadership of its current president, Steven McCormick, and with the support of its board, the Conservancy bit the bullet on governance and oversight reforms with a newfound appreciation of the virtue of humility. Ironically, this crisis of confidence--in this most successful of nonprofit organizations--required that its board, in the words of Millstein, "operate more like a for-profit board," which views its donors and other constituencies as functional equivalents to stockholders.

Given its size, wealth, and reach, not to mention its mission, it is encouraging to learn that the Nature Conservancy, in Birchard's words, "retains the ability to renew itself--whether forced to do so from a sudden crisis or spurred to do so by the challenge of constantly working smarter or faster--and can survive to fulfill the growing needs of its constituencies, decade after decade."

G. Tracy Mehan III, a principal in the Cadmus Group, an environmental consulting firm, served at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.