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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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."