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THE NATURE CONSERVANCY GAME
Bil Gilbert
October 20, 1986
The richest environmental organization of them all mixes real estate savvy with altruism to gain a monopoly of half a million of God's rarest acres
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October 20, 1986

The Nature Conservancy Game

The richest environmental organization of them all mixes real estate savvy with altruism to gain a monopoly of half a million of God's rarest acres

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Peter Stroh, the chairman and CEO of the brewery of the same name, is a national board member and major benefactor of TNC. He finds the staff people particularly congenial and impressive. "They are pragmatic, not at all doctrinaire or dogmatic," he says, and it is true that TNC executives do tend to be more relaxed and less zealous than many in this calling. A TNCer will joke, "Maybe we should be paid on a piece rate, so much for each tree, salamander and beetle."

David Younkman is a former landscape architect who became director of TNC operations in Ohio, then moved to the national office in Arlington, Va., where he is now in charge of Special (i.e., large) Gifts. "Nice seeing you," he will say. "It's interesting to talk to somebody who is not a millionaire—but millionaires are O.K., too."

On a summer's day Younkman clears his calendar of millionaires and flies to Ohio to show visitors around a prime TNC property he knows well. The place is called the Edge of Appalachia, and lies in the hill and ravine country along the Ohio River, 70 miles southeast of Cincinnati. The preserve contains about 6,000 acres, but after it was purchased, TNC transferred half the land and shared-management responsibility to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. In the sanctuary, according to TNC inventory, are some 50 species of plants and animals thought to be rare or threatened. Among the rare ones are the Eastern wood rat, a green salamander, the earleaf foxglove and the little gray polypody. A fence line on a ridge marks the sanctuary boundary. The land beyond the fence is eroded and leached, having obviously been too harshly logged and grazed. Younkman, standing in his own vigorous habitat, nods across the fence into the barrens and says casually, "Over there they have another theory of land management." This brings up the question of how local residents feel about TNC practices. "Some of them did, maybe still do, think we were pretty weird, letting everything go to weeds and critters. But we get along all right. When I was here I'd tell them, you guys want to clear-cut, run mud into your springs and root out thistles, it's fine with us. It's your place. But this side of the fence is our place. That's America for you. People respect that, especially in rural areas where life revolves around property lines."

There is a full-time manager at the Edge of Appalachia, which is one of TNC's more frequently used sanctuaries. However, this is unusual. In all, TNC has about a thousand preserves scattered throughout the country. The smallest, half an acre, is on Scotia Lake Island, near Schenectady, N.Y., and has a good but tiny bit of undisturbed limnetic woodland. The largest is in Texas, the 67,000-acre North Rosillos Mountains Preserve, a critical wildlife habitat which, though the inventory is still incomplete, is thought to contain at least 23 species of endangered plants. Nationwide, only 35 of the sanctuaries are managed by full-time employees, the remainder being taken care of on a volunteer basis by local TNC chapters.

Walt Matia, academically a biologist/artist and one of 14 TNC vice-presidents, is the overall supervisor of the million-plus acres of sanctuaries. He says, "As a private landowner, we could lock them all up, but we only do so in a few places where the ecosystem is so fragile that any use threatens it. Otherwise we play it by ear. If local people have been in the habit of picking berries, walking and hunting on a place and it doesn't bother anything, we don't bother them. We don't want to come on as heavy, holier-than-thou outlanders. We are not big on ideology."

The pragmatism of TNC is in a sense inherited. It is the organizational descendent of something called The Ecological Society of America, which was formed by a small group of academics, mostly botanists and zoologists, in 1917. This was a period in which the technology and financing for heavy mining, timbering and earth-moving projects were in place but the legal and public-opinion apparatuses for restraining them were not. The nature of the country was then being changed more rapidly and massively than at any time before or since. Members of the Ecological Society were concerned more for vocational than aesthetic or sentimental reasons. They feared that soon they would not have good places for collecting data about truly natural phenomena. Eventually more lay persons joined the group, which in 1951 became TNC.

Two years later an ad hoc group of New York City exurbanites purchased a 60-acre tract in the Mianus River Gorge, a pretty, largely undeveloped area in the suburbs of New York City, and asked if the newly formed Conservancy would accept the tract as a gift. TNC agreed to do so and continues to manage the Mianus Gorge as its oldest sanctuary (now expanded to 440 acres).

Mulling over this serendipitous happening, Conservancy trustees decided that it pointed the direction in which the group should move: Rather than waiting for public agencies to do so, it should privately acquire and protect its own natural sanctuaries. During its first 20 years TNC depended largely on gifts of money and land from its members. Thus, operations were rather small-scale and piecemeal. "The approach was essentially anecdotal," says Robert Jenkins, another vice-president—for science. "Somebody, often an academic, would recommend an interesting spot and if he was persuasive and, particularly, if he was willing to work at fund-raising, acquiring it would become a project. But there was no system for identifying what areas were of the highest priority."

Jenkins is a large, passionate, formidably articulate man who has been called the "soul of the Conservancy." This is because he has probably had more to do than any other individual with creating the present philosophy and many of the procedural practices of TNC. Having received a doctorate in biology from Harvard, Jenkins decided, "as a matter of temperament." that academic life would be too confining. He joined TNC as its science director in 1970. "Nobody knew exactly what a science director was meant to do. I guess it sounded good to have one. It seemed to me the first thing was to define exactly what we were trying to conserve."

After considerable cogitation, Jenkins decided TNC should be preserving biological diversity. He is a great hand for natural one-liners: He says the important thing is saving "the last of the least [i.e., rare and endangered species] and the best of the rest [good examples of important American ecosystems and habitats]." Given the indisputable fact that we can eliminate many of the least and best natural phenomena but cannot create them, he suggests it is prudent to preserve as many of them as possible. So far as the organization goes, the pragmatic bottom line is that TNC wants to create and keep what Jenkins calls "lifeboats of biological diversity."

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