#45 Around the Campfire, The Rise and Fall of The Nature Conservancy, Part I
We need to move past the place where we see people as essentially enemies of nature. We need to break down the barriers between urban and rural, between set-asides and sustainable use, between “us” and “them.”
Conservation strategies that lack meaningful core areas are naive, arrogant, and dangerous.
The Nature Quisling
Along with the murky pull of enviro-resourcism away from wild-things-for-their-own-sakes conservation, I see some once-leading conservation outfits tiptoeing away from protected areas. Tiptoeing? I wrote that a few years ago; I fear it is no longer the right word. Now it is more of a trot, or even a gallop. Here the wonderful old Nature Conservancy (TNC) stands out as a quisling to the “Nature” it once shielded on scores of matchless hot spots of biodiversity all over the United States. The quote above from Steve McCormick, then-President of The Nature Conservancy, forsakes the underlying beliefs and work of conservation; instead it states the beliefs and work of resourcism. The shift began about 1990 under John Sawhill, who was TNC’s President before McCormick.
I was on the founding board of trustees for the New Mexico Chapter of the Conservancy in the 1970s and think I’ve been a member since the Late Stone Age. I long had a credit card that backed TNC. But I dropped my membership a few years ago after I saw that big business had more or less taken over TNC, and that TNC had hired top staffers who were resourcists, not wild conservationists, who saw Nature not as the Tree of Life to be loved and sheltered, but as raw goods to gobble for growing billions of Men. I did not want to believe this takeover of TNC by energy, mining, logging, and grazing businesses and so I put off believing what I knew until I could no longer shut my eyes to it.
The overthrow of The Nature Conservancy by big business and get-ahead resource managers plays out in ugsome shifts in how TNC cares for its lands and the wild things that dwell therein, and in TNC’s thinking—philosophy, ethics, politics, and even in how the new TNC bosses see the science of biology.
There is a load of dirt in The Nature Conservancy’s “portfolio” for us to look at here. Again, I’m not alone in my glumness. Some of America’s leading biologists are deeply unhappy or cussedly angry over what a few sly ladder-climbers more at home with tycoons than raccoons have done to the once-great Nature Conservancy. They’ve done this hand-in-hand with donors and board members from big business—foremost from extractive industry and polluters, from mining, logging, energy, agriculture, chemical, development, and other landscalping and befouling multinationals. Grassroots conservationists have grown more and more upset as they see The Nature Conservancy going over to the dark side.
End of Protected Areas for TNC
In 2007, the executive director of a statewide wilderness club in the West told me what he and many of his fellows in the wilderness protection network thought, “TNC has totally lost its way. Apparently it is protecting private land so that it can even more scientifically exploit it for human benefits. And TNC donors thought their money was going to preserve habitats for wild species.”
The beliefs laid out in McCormick’s opening quote to this chapter are much more than a shift in how conservation should work; they are a wholesale spurning of what Nature conservation has been for over one hundred years. They also cast off what had driven The Nature Conservancy from its founding to its slipping away from conservation under John Sawhill in the 1990s.
Protected areas are the hallmark of conservation. It is what we do. It is what we have done since Yellowstone. The Wildlands Project book Continental Conservation says bluntly, “Conservation strategies that lack meaningful core areas are naive, arrogant, and dangerous.” Resourcism, on the other hand, calls for resource extraction, “sustainable development,” and management of whole ecosystems without protected areas or with only a few tokens (ecosystem management). Continental Conservation warns, “Such approaches assume a level of ecological knowledge and understanding—and a level of generosity and goodwill among those who use and manage public lands—that are simply unfounded.” The new honchos of TNC are overbrimming with godlike gall in their belief that they can run wild things better than wild things can run themselves. Their new outlook gives the heave-ho to 1960s-1970s pollution fighter Barry Commoner’s teaching “Nature knows best.” The “Nature” TNC now wishes to “conserve” is more garden than wilderness, no longer self-willed but willed by kindly, wise TNC gardeners, who tell beavers, “Dam here, not there.” “This high, no higher.” “Our neighbors fear some of you are going to come on their land, so we’re going to kill half of you, okay?” The Nature Conservancy now sees biodiversity as a natural resource, not as the Tree of Life to be loved and defended for its own sake.
We can see the harm done by the new TNC in two landscapes—the United States and the world. Here, I’ll throw my rotten tomatoes at what TNC is doing in the US; I’ll go after their worldwide misdeeds in the forthcoming True Wilderness. Here, I’ll take the TNC tale of woe only up to the rise of their chief scientist Peter Kareiva. In True Wilderness, I’ll deal with his freakish, farfetched rewriting of what conservation is, and how he thinks he should be acknowledged as the leader of worldwide conservation.