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The Nature Conservancy is often described as the most businesslike of the nonprofit conservation organizations. Newspaper and magazine stories about the Conservancy, which is based in Arlington, Va., inevitably stress that it is run by lawyers and M.B.A.s, tell how it wheels and deals to acquire private land, and conclude that it focuses on "the bottom line." These observations are apt. The Conservancy's M.B.A.s are constantly developing economic strategies, crunching numbers and hammering out deals, while its lawyers study statutes and agonize over affidavits.
But what these stories fail to mention is that the Conservancy's lawyers and M.B.A.s usually are not very good naturalists; that they tend to become babes once they enter the woods. The Conservancy is aware of that fact. One of its cardinal rules is: We do not mix nature with business.
I was one of those M.B.A.s for the Conservancy; I was its vice-president for land acquisition for 15 years. While I greatly appreciate our natural world, my knowledge of it is extremely limited. It is a waste of time for me to evaluate the natural attributes of a piece of land the Conservancy is interested in obtaining. We have botanists and biologists who are far better qualified to determine the ecological significance of a potential preserve. But they had better get out of the way when it comes time to make the deal. Mutual respect and professional courtesy dictate that our lawyers and M.B.A.s spend their time communing with money and leave nature to the naturalists.
Nonetheless, every now and then a Conservancy lawyer or M.B.A. must confront nature head-on. The result is usually disastrous. I stand as proof of that.
It was spring, and I was working on a project near Charlottesville, Va. The area in question was, at the time, a new Conservancy project. It was not even one of the largest or most spectacular tracts acquired by the Conservancy. It consisted of 100 acres of second-growth woods and floodplain that protected the watershed of a small creek. I became involved because a very generous donor to the Conservancy had committed a substantial amount of money toward the purchase of the land. This donor insisted that I personally inspect the property and handle all negotiations.
A key tract that we hoped to protect was one I nicknamed Hidden Springs. It was a country estate with nearly a mile of sloping frontage on the creek; within its boundaries there were, in fact, several hidden springs. If the land were to be developed, the resulting siltation of the creek and septic runoff would inevitably degrade the qualities of the 100 acres of land we had already purchased and set up as one of our preserves. Hidden Springs was owned by a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and his wife, whom I'll call Louise.
Unfortunately, the professor and Louise were not members of The Nature Conservancy. Our research showed that they were well off, childless and totally committed to the university. I was convinced that Hidden Springs was destined to be willed to the school. If that happened, the Conservancy Preserve would be in jeopardy. In my opinion, schools, churches and similar nonprofit organizations can be among the most callous landowners in the country; to them, land is a commodity from which they feel they have a fiduciary duty to squeeze every last nickel. I was fearful that the university would have bulldozers grinding over Hidden Springs even as the university overseers were still placing the professor's name in the Rotunda to commemorate his gift.
I called the professor and Louise to arrange a meeting. They were most cordial. They had already met our generous donor and claimed to be very sympathetic to the Conservancy's objectives as they understood them. They insisted that I come for dinner. They even implied that I was welcome to spend the night at Hidden Springs.
My strategy was simple. I was going to ask the professor and Louise to donate a conservation easement over Hidden Springs to the Conservancy. The professor and Louise could own Hidden Springs for the rest of their lives, and upon their demise they could leave it to the University of Virginia, but the property could never be developed without the Conservancy's approval. Such a conservation easement seemed like the perfect plan. The professor and Louise would get a substantial tax write-off, the University could still make a bundle by selling the property as a country estate (and only as an estate), and our preserve would be protected in perpetuity. All I had to do was sell the deal to the professor and Louise.
The evening could not have started better. It was cool and clear, with the scent of new grass and wildflowers wafting from the fields. The professor, who wore a University of Virginia tie with his perfectly tailored blue blazer, poured three bourbon and branches into silver cups. He and Louise escorted me to the patio. In the twilight, I could see the preserve below, and beyond it, the Rotunda, the centerpiece of Mr. Jefferson's university. "Ah," I said, sipping my drink, "it's a pleasure to be back in Charlottesville. I received a fine education here at the graduate school of business."