April 1, 2013 | By:

#46 Around the Campfire; The Rise and Fall of The Nature Conservancy Part II

Nature reserves [are] the little fragments of landscape where Man expects to preserve nonhuman life…. Nature reserves are the most valuable weapon in our conservation arsenal.

–Michael Soulé and Bruce Wilcox

 Steve McCormick, the President of TNC in 2005, wrote, “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.’” These are upset-the-apple-cart words to wilderness and wildlife conservation.  They butt heads with what the founders of the Society for Conservation Biology believe.  Michael Soulé and Bruce Wilcox wrote in the first chapter of the 1980 landmark book Conservation Biology that “nature reserves” are “the little fragments of landscape where Man expects to preserve nonhuman life.”  Moreover, they wrote, “Nature reserves are the most valuable weapon in our conservation arsenal.”  The heart and soul of conservation biology is the optimum design of protected areas or wild havens.  The bedrock work of the wilderness and wildlife conservation network for well over one hundred years has been setting aside wild havens of sundry kinds.  When TNC lost that wisdom, they lost most of their worth for conservation.  What Soulé and Wilcox write is wise and free of gall, with a goal of keeping all life and evolution’s hope for life tomorrow.  On the other hand, McCormick’s words about doing away with set-asides highlight how TNC’s target shifted in the early 1990s under John Sawhill by taking on “working” cattle ranches and “working” sawtimber forests.  The shapers of TNC today aim to raise institutional money from and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the industrial world.

TNC’s new road has long been the way of hard resourcism and Man’s overweening gall.  It is worrisome what this could mean for the scores of little reserves long owned and cared for by TNC as toughly sheltered wild neighborhoods for threatened wildeors and ecosystems.  Members and donors need to know how well TNC is going to care for awesome spots such as Sonoita Creek and Ramsey Canyon in Arizona.  What does “breaking down the barrier between set-asides and sustainable use” truly mean?  Why, it means nothing less than the end of protected areas.  The “barrier,” after all, is the barbed-wire fence that keeps hungry cattle, yahoos on ATVs, and firewood-cutters out of the lush, tangled, healthy Sonoita Creek riparian forest where live birds and grow wild blossoms that seldom can be seen elsewhere in the United States.  This “breaking down the barrier” whim belittles the whole thought of wild havens.  It goes against what we have learned about Man and wildlands.  It rings of the way the U.S. Forest Service spoke against Wilderness Areas.  It is pissing on the lore and bequest of conservation, public and private, since Yellowstone National Park was withdrawn in 1872.  The only way “to move past the place where we see people as essentially enemies of nature” is for people to quit being the enemies of nature.  The best way we have found to do that is with “set-asides.”  And barriers—by wall or law or armed wardens—are the only way to keep landscalping out of the loveliest, most winsome, and wildly tangled “hot spots of biodiversity” in The Nature Conservancy’s “portfolio” of land and water riches.  Not so long ago, The Nature Conservancy was all about sheltering the “Last Great Places.”  Not only have they dropped that campaign, they do their best to hide that they ever did it.

Matchless “hot spots” of biological diversity have been bought and set aside by TNC over the years; that work is far and away the most worthwhile thing TNC has done, and for buying and caring for such “hot spots of biodiversity” TNC earns backing—but only for such work.  The Nature Conservancy’s help in buying bottomland-woods in Arkansas for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker stands out.  I don’t know now if an Ivorybill was truly seen, but big steps were taken to keep and rebuild the best kind of neighborhood for it.  Whether or not any Ivorybills are there, a throng of other Earthlings now have a better home in the White River bottomland big woods.

Within the staff of The Nature Conservancy are conservationists of all kinds working on keeping whole the best homes for wild things.  Alack, they are now being wedded to resource managers who want to show how wildlife and their neighborhoods can be healthy without “set-asides” and where gas is drilled, trees are logged, cows eat the grass, and tucked-away plots are sold to high rollers for get-away starter castles.  In a way, we see the whole twentieth-century dustup between resource conservationists and Nature conservationists being replayed within the organization and lands of The Nature Conservancy today.  Resourcism has won hands down.

The Nature Conservancy’s Shameful “Stewardship”

TNC’s cocksure garden-path has led to sundry other stumbles that harm the soundness of TNC’s biodiversity “reserves” and bigger “working” landscapes, and TNC’s fellowship with conservationists. Wildlovers among TNC’s members and donors and in other conservation clubs have been aghast at how TNC has cared for some of its lands and for the wildlife living there and upset at how badly TNC has worked with smaller conservation clubs and teams.

Setting aside small to middling natural areas is what TNC did wonderfully well, but lording over sweeping empires of “working” timberlands in the Northeast and big cattle ranches in Wyoming is a whole other thing.  Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Times found that “Nearly half of the 7 million acres that the conservancy said it is protecting in the United States is now being grazed, logged, farmed, drilled or put to work in some fashion.” Since then, the “working land” sleazy, sneaky scam and misspeak has become even more the overlord of TNC holdings. I now think of TNC as a business kind of the “multiple-use” United States Forest Service.  Under Sawhill and McCormick, TNC’s resource management was said to be done with a light touch, with “biodiversity” the “resource,” and with ecological restoration the goal.  That’s the spin—but other things have been seen on the ground.  (It’s gotten worse, as we’ll see, with Peter Kareiva as TNC Chief Scientist; biodiversity is no longer even the stated goal.)  For one, the head of the Wyoming TNC office in the 2000s, who wangled cattle-grazing onto TNC lands, had an anti-wolf bumper sticker on his office wall, a scientist who worked there then has told me.  In one western state, wildlovers began calling The Nature Conservancy “The Open Space Conservancy” in the early 1990s; in the Northeast, wilderness watchdogs griped unhappily about “The Logging Conservancy.”

One of the great little-known leaders of the conservation network in the last half of the twentieth century is Huey Johnson of California.  He was The Nature Conservancy’s first Western region manager some forty to fifty years ago and then Secretary of Resources for California Governor Jerry Brown.  In 2002, he said, “I knew the founders of this organization [The Nature Conservancy] on a first-name basis, and they would be turning over in their graves” about the drilling, grazing, logging, and so on being done by TNC on its lands.

The Nature Conservancy was started and long run by naturalists; ornithologists and birders were much of the backbone of the outfit.  For a score of years, though, bird lovers have been harsh chiders of TNC’s phony stewardship.  What should be one of TNC’s most carefully and lovingly stewarded reserves is the Texas City Prairie Preserve, a 2,263-acre home for the highly endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, in the oil patch of east Texas.  In 2002, there were only forty of the prairie grouse left in the whole world, down from tens of thousands not long ago.  Half of the last birds live on the TNC preserve.  The Conservancy also runs a thickly spread natural gas drilling and pumping business on the less than four square miles they own for the prairie chicken.  Oh, TNC also grazes the “preserve” with cattle.  A TNC spokesman said of the drilling and grazing, “We believe the opportunity we have in Texas City to raise significant sums of money for conservation is one we cannot pass up.”  He further said TNC was “convinced” the industrialization on the little “reserve” wouldn’t hurt the Attwater’s Prairie Chickens.  But the president of The Wildlife Society and the man who knows prairie chickens best, Clait Braun, said, “There are no data to indicate that the Attwater’s prairie chicken can coexist with oil and gas drilling.”  And “The Nature Conservancy is speaking out both sides of its mouth: ‘We can have this wildlife, and we can make money, too.’ … Well, that’s not true.  They’re exploiting the Attwater’s prairie chicken to make money.”  The Wildlife Society, by the way, is not known as an activist or hardcore bunch—it is a professional society for wildlife biologists.

Fishy land deals with big backers thrust The Nature Conservancy into the news spotlight and before Congress in 2005 thanks to a series of deep-digging investigative articles in The Washington Post.  It seems some rich folks were giving TNC big bucks to buy nature reserves and then getting a slice for a lovely, hideaway holiday home site.  As the story was about to break, I got a call from the President of TNC (McCormick) asking me to talk to the Post reporters about how much good the Conservancy had done.  As a well-known “radical conservationist” but longtime friend of TNC, he hoped I could offset some of the shady dealing harm.  Though I had growing qualms about TNC, I thought of doing his bidding—I liked him and, darn it, I still loved The Nature Conservancy.  But after calling some better in the know, I couldn’t do it.  I felt badly.

I was taken aback by this shoddy behavior—I never thought such dirt would get stuck to the boots of TNC.  It helped me see what kind of bigwigs were now helping to call the shots in the Conservancy.  Was real estate overwhelming wild neighborhoods on TNC’s to-do list?  As a share of their so-called “portfolio?”  (Beware any land-shielding group that calls their reserves a portfolio; you know business has too big a seat at their table.)  This shady deal-making said something about the kind of folks coming into TNC as staff, trustees, and donors.  Now The Nature Conservancy was full of big players and high rollers, not frumpy-looking folks with binoculars and beat-up old hats.

Some TNC members and donors became wroth when the stewards of a Nature Conservancy ranch in Kansas poisoned hundreds of prairie dogs on the TNC-owned land.  Moreover, they put out the worst poison for the job and they failed to get the legally needed permit for poisoning from the right agencies in Kansas.  Now, this “reserve” is in a benighted county in Kansas that bans prairie dogs (maybe they will next ban clean air).  TNC holds that they did the poisoning so that none of their prairie dogs would slip over to ranches owned by crotchety wildlife-haters.  They thought playing whack-the-varmints with such neighbors would lead to the county leaving alone the prairie dogs in the middle of TNC’s ranch.  This grisly behavior has led some landowners from Atlantic to Pacific to drop out of easement deals with TNC and some donors to write off TNC.  Wildlife shielding clubs and some scientists were madder than hell when news of the sin came out (along with TNC’s forlorn spinning).  We can lay this sad tale side-by-side with a gain for prairie dogs in Mora County, New Mexico.

Brian Miller, steward of the Thaw Charitable Trust’s Wind River Ranch on the Mora River, sees healthy prairie dog towns as key for rebuilding the former cattle ranch’s land health (he did his Ph.D. on black-footed ferrets and is widely acknowledged for knowing prairie dogs, the prey for ferrets).  Mora County also had a throwback ordinance against bringing prairie dogs into the county.  It had gone through with little thought a few years earlier when these anti-prairie dog ordinances became the thing to do in hinterland counties.  Well, everyone loves Brian and he is a great neighbor to the ranchers around Wind River Ranch.  The County Commission tossed the ordinance and the neighbors didn’t object to starting the prairie dog colony on the Wind River Ranch. Brian has since run some workshops on Wind River to show how prairie dogs are good for grasslands and takes visiting school groups to the colony.

For at least thirty years, TNC has often dealt with other conservationists in a cheeky and smarter-than-thou way.  But only in the last ten years have they worked against land-shielding goals held by other conservationists.  Does the leadership of TNC know how disliked TNC is among other conservationists?  Or even among some of its own staff?  Former members?  I’ll give just two tales of how TNC has gone against others.  Since the 1930s, conservationists have worked to shield the lands of the Colorado Plateau.  Nowhere else in the world is there such a landscape: an eye-stretching dryland of sandstone slickrock, weathered by wind and rain and frost into buttes, slot canyons, and arches, with mighty canyons carved by big rivers flowing with the snowmelt-water of high mountains far away.  Not only was this the last truly unknown landscape in the Lower 48 states; it held the biggest roadless area until Glen Canyon Dam flooded the heart of it in the 1960s.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes worked for a four-million-acre National Monument in the 1930s.  World War II put aside Ickes’s hope that Roosevelt would proclaim it.  In the 1960s, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall worked hard for an 800,000-acre Canyonlands National Park, smaller indeed than Ickes’ great dream and even smaller after the senators and representatives of Utah and the West wore it down (at 337,570 acres, the Park ended up less than half of what Udall wanted and less than one-tenth of what Ickes wanted).  Since then, we’ve worked to make it bigger and to set up Wilderness Areas on BLM and National Forest lands nearby.  As long as he lived, Udall spurred us to make the Park bigger.

In the fall of 2010, Utah conservation clubs met with then-Senator Robert Bennett’s staff about filling out Canyonlands National Park with some of the public lands next to it.  Clubs and teams from the fairly mellow Grand Canyon Trust to the tough Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) “all had well thought out proposals for park ‘completion.’  The Nature Conservancy stood out in their opposition to park expansion as it might affect grazing at the Dugout Ranch,” wrote Brooke Williams of SUWA.  So much for TNC showing how livestock grazing could be done in way that fit with land protection.  When an opening to enlarge one of America’s greatest National Parks came along, TNC was more worried about a few scrawny cows for which it has a permit on BLM land that would be put in the Park than in the wildland itself.  Here TNC behaved like a run-of-the-mill benighted rancher, caring about their commercial grazing and not about a great hope for the land.  They tipped their hat on how they saw the Canyonlands in a press release about their “partnering” with the Dugout Ranch, which leases thousands of acres of public land for cattle grazing.  The press release began, “The Colorado Plateau is a landscape in crisis.  Climate change coupled with increasing human demands are threatening the region’s natural resources and communities.”  Whoa.  What about the local communities scalping the land for over one hundred years?  It’s the wild things and wilderness of the Colorado Plateau that are threatened, but TNC doesn’t talk about that.

In Maine in 2011, a state court turned down a “sprawling resort and residential development in the Moosehead Lake region” by the big logging and land development business Plum Creek, widely thought a thug by wildlovers.  Conservationists and sportsmen cheered the ruling that would stop the wrecking of one of Maine’s loveliest and most loved landscapes.  Plum Creek appealed the ruling.  Then The Nature Conservancy jumped into the legal case—by joining Plum Creek in its appeal.

I could keep going with sad tales from my files, but they would only be more of the same.

What you can do

If you are a member of TNC, scold the leadership for their shameful stewardship.  If you know of like outrages on TNC preserves, please send me the information.  If you want to give money to buy private land for protection, give money and bequests to the Wilderness Land Trust, which buys private inholdings in Wilderness Areas to stop development.  www.wildernesslandtrust.org.

Dave Foreman

Adapted from Take Back Conservation

Click here to read the original Campfire which includes references and footnotes.

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Jack Turner
10 years ago

A fine article, Dave. I see it as, at best, the resurrection of Wise Use and, at worst, conservation’s Munich. We need a Churchill.

Jack Turner

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