BIG GREEN | When Conservation and Business Fail to Mix

How a Bid to Save a Species Came to Grief

By Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2003

Second of three articles

TEXAS CITY, Tex. --Eight years ago, Mobil Oil gave the Nature Conservancy what was one of the group's largest corporate donations, a patch of prairie that encompassed the last native breeding ground of a highly endangered bird.

Mobil officials said that the donation offered "the last best hope" of saving the Attwater's prairie chicken, a speckled grouse whose high-stepping mating dance attracts avid bird watchers to the Texas plains each spring.

Then an unusual role reversal took place.

The Conservancy, whose core mission is preserving land to protect species such as the prairie chicken, started acting like an oil company. The Conservancy sank a well under the bird's nesting ground.

Drilling in sensitive areas is opposed as destructive by most environmentalists. But the Conservancy subscribes to an aggressive form of "compatible development," a pragmatic approach that seeks to accommodate the needs of business as well as environmentalism. The Conservancy wanted the Texas City Prairie Preserve to be a national model to show that drilling can be accomplished without harming the environment. It would use the drilling profits to buy more habitat for the birds.

That's not the way things worked out.

Today, there are fewer prairie chickens on the preserve than there were when drilling began. The number of endangered grouse nesting there has fallen from a peak of 36 in 1998 to a current estimate of 16. A previously unreported analysis by the Conservancy's Texas science director stated that the project had subjected the grouse to a "higher probability of death."

The drilling also led to legal and financial problems: Another national charity accused the Conservancy of stealing its mineral rights, forcing the Conservancy and its partners last year to pay a $10 million settlement.

After The Washington Post began looking into Texas City, Conservancy President Steven J. McCormick wrote an internal memo stating that the organization made an "incorrect" assumption about the mineral rights that resulted in "a mistake." But he insisted, "Our local staff always put the interests of the Attwater's prairie chicken first. . . . We did not compromise our commitment to our mission."

A Conservancy vice president told a reporter visiting the preserve 20 months ago: "We have not been able to detect any negative impact on the birds."

Records and interviews tell a more complex tale.

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