BIG GREEN | When Conservation and Business Fail to Mix

The Beef About the Brand

Monday, May 5, 2003

Of all the products that carry the Nature Conservancy imprimatur, perhaps the most unexpected is beef.

Hamburger, rib-eye, filet mignon and tenderloin kebabs that can "satisfy your conscience" are sold under the name Conservation Beef, a brand the Conservancy co-owns with the tax-exempt Artemis Wildlife Foundation.

They use the program to bolster imperiled cattle ranches and, along the way, entice ranchers into environmentally friendly grazing practices. Another goal is to persuade them not to sell their land to developers. In an open letter to customers on the Conservation Beef Web site, a Conservancy official writes, "Your purchase will help save great Western landscapes for future generations."

Conservation Beef costs more than the average supermarket T-bone. That premium allows the program to pay ranchers a few cents more per pound than they could pocket selling cattle on the open market. That can translate into $5,000 or so in additional annual profit per rancher.

The program is designed to sell conservation values to ranchers, who have an "Us versus Them" attitude toward environmentalists, said Artemis President Brian Kahn, who developed the idea while working for the Conservancy.

"This is not some good-old-boy system," Kahn said.

However, Consumers Union, which publishers Consumer Reports magazine, said the program has a conflict of interest "since [Conservation Beef] helps create the guidelines and [Conservation Beef] benefits from the sale of the product."

CU's Urvashi Rangan said, "The ranchers pretty much can do whatever they want. They have very loose guidelines."

Program literature shows that the ranchers help craft their own "stewardship plans," following guidelines agreed on with the Conservancy.

The stewardship plans vary widely. "It is the rancher's right and responsibility to determine specific management proposals to meet the [Conservation Beef] Stewardship Standards," according to the guidelines.

The program works to place development restrictions on participants' land. But ranchers may preserve their rights to subdivide, develop and sell portions of their ranges. Restrictions may affect only part of the grazing land they use. Guidelines have escape clauses, allowing ranchers to substitute "another mutually acceptable way."

Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, comprised of Montana ranchers, helps monitor the program. Ranchlands President John Crumley sells cattle to Conservation Beef himself.

Kahn said that "the monitoring program will be a serious program," but added that it has yet to begin and he does not know what form it will take.

A sales pitch on the Conservation Beef Web site is co-signed by Montana rancher Randy Smith.

Smith said in an interview he has always used the same ranching methods, despite the mention of "innovative land-stewardship plans" in the letter bearing his name.

"People learned a long time ago in this area that if you don't take care of the land, it will take care of you," Smith said. "That's been around for a long time; Conservation Beef is relatively new."

Smith also said he no longer sells beef to the program. Some family members did not want to sign away development rights to their ranch.

-- Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway

© 2003 The Washington Post Company