BIG GREEN | Inside the Nature Conservancy

Nonprofit Land Bank Amasses Billions

By David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 4, 2003

First of three articles

The Arlington-based Nature Conservancy has blossomed into the world's richest environmental group, amassing $3 billion in assets by pledging to save precious places. Known for its advertisements decorated with forests, streams and the soothing voice of actor Paul Newman, the 52-year-old charity preserves millions of acres across the nation.

Yet the Conservancy has logged forests, engineered a $64 million deal paving the way for opulent houses on fragile grasslands and drilled for natural gas under the last breeding ground of an endangered bird species.

The nonprofit Conservancy has traveled far beyond its humble beginnings, when it relied on small donors and acquired a few small plots at a time. Its governing board and advisory council now include executives and directors from one or more oil companies, chemical producers, auto manufacturers, mining concerns, logging operations and coal-burning electric utilities.

Some of those corporations have paid millions in environmental fines. Last year, they and other corporations donated $225 million to the Conservancy -- an amount approaching that given by individuals.

Today, the million-member Conservancy itself is something of a corporate juggernaut, Big Green. It is also the leading proponent of a brand of environmentalism that promotes compromise between conservation and corporate America.

While the Conservancy has done much to preserve green spaces, its strategy of combining conservation and business, including its own pursuit of for-profit ventures, has led to some costly misadventures and awkward positions:

* The drilling foray, on the Texas Gulf Coast, turned into a fiasco. Not only did some endangered birds die after the Conservancy started drilling, but the charity also sold natural gas owned by someone else and kept the profits. The Conservancy and its partners settled a resulting lawsuit last year for $10 million.

* In Virginia, the Conservancy has invested in a number of for-profit businesses on the Eastern Shore: a bed-and-breakfast, an oyster-and-clam farm, an "heirloom" sweet-potato-chip operation, a seaside home development. The businesses failed, leaving a $24 million debt.

* The Conservancy has profited by selling its name and logo to companies, which use the image to gain what one corporate executive calls "reputational value." A Conservancy focus group study found that a few participants said accepting corporate cash in certain cases would be "the equivalent of a payoff."

* The charity engages in numerous financial transactions with members of the Conservancy family -- governing board members and their companies, state and regional trustees, longtime supporters. The nonprofit organization has bought land and services from board members' companies, and it has declined to release property appraisals from the deals. It has sold choice Conservancy land to past and present trustees through its "conservation buyers" program, which offers steep discounts in exchange for development restrictions. It has lent cash to its executives, including $1.55 million to its president.

* The Conservancy's mission makes it reluctant to take positions on some leading environmental issues, including global warming and drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Corporations represented on the Conservancy's board and advisory council have lobbied nationally on the corporate side of the issues. A Conservancy official said the group avoids criticizing the environmental records of its corporate board members.

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