By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
The president of the Arlington-based Nature Conservancy resigned abruptly yesterday, announcing his departure in an early-morning e-mail to all 3,500 employees of the world's largest environmental organization.
Steven J. McCormick, who had been with the Conservancy for 30 years and had spent the past seven as president, gave no indication of his plans.
"I've concluded that I've contributed all I can to help the organization improve its ability to fulfill the mission. I've decided, therefore, to resign, and will vacate my role immediately," he wrote in the e-mail.
McCormick, a lawyer, guided the $4.8 billion organization through the rockiest period in its history, working to sustain its growth and expand its international presence while weathering a major Internal Revenue Service audit and a two-year investigation by the Senate Finance Committee.
Conservancy spokesman James Petterson said McCormick, 56, gave employees no warning he might be leaving. Many of the chief executive's key initiatives were nearing fruition, Petterson said, and a recent summit of senior Conservancy managers ended on an exuberant note. So on Monday morning, Petterson and his colleagues were surprised to find McCormick's e-mail, which began "Subject: Resignation."
"I'm proud of what the Conservancy has accomplished while I've been President," McCormick wrote in the 14-sentence memo. "It is a more global organization today, with substantially increased attention and resources devoted to projects and activities of global importance and scale.
"I'm proud that the Conservancy has an organization-wide conservation goal for the first time in its history, a goal that is incredibly -- and rightly -- breathtaking in its reach and ambition. . . . I am also very proud of helping position the Conservancy to lead in demonstrating and realizing a new vision for conservation in the 21st Century: that our mission is not about protecting lands and waters from people, but conserving them for people."
McCormick's e-mail also referenced the difficulties that the organization faced beginning in 2003, after a series of articles in The Washington Post traced the Conservancy's phenomenal growth and the trade-offs that its leaders had made to achieve it.
"I am proud," he wrote, "that despite a withering, and potentially irreversible, crises following the Washington Post series, and the consequent investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, the organization rallied and not only survived, but improved." He said the organization "became a more unified, more cohesive enterprise producing conservation that is more than the simple sum of its parts.
Conservancy Chairman John Morgridge praised McCormick's tenure and said he would remain an adviser for the next year. Morgridge named the chief operating officer, Stephanie K. Meeks, as acting president.
In an interview, McCormick said he kept his departure quiet to avoid distractions for his staff. He said he recently began discussing the move with board members and a handful of senior managers. He said he had grown tired of traveling, especially after he recently became ill returning from Mongolia.
"I was looking at my calendar for the rest of the year and it was just continuous travel," he said. "It's harder for me to recover from these trips than it was seven years ago."
He added that a new multi-year fundraising campaign will make the job even more demanding.
"It's a combination of things," he said of his decision. "There's never a perfect time to leave. "
He said he would like to remain in conservation, perhaps working on global warming.
McCormick played a pivotal role in the Conservancy's response to public concerns after the Post series and subsequent government examinations.
The series described how the Conservancy had logged forests and drilled for oil under the last native breeding ground of an endangered bird species. It reported that the charity's governing and advisory boards had grown to include executives from corporations that had paid millions of dollars in environment-related fines. It showed how the Conservancy had engaged in deals with executives on its boards.
The stories detailed how the Conservancy gave low-interest loans to its executives and sold scenic properties to its employees and trustees, who built homes on the sites and reaped large tax breaks.
After the Post series, the Conservancy restructured its board and banned some practices, including lending money to insiders, selling land to trustees and drilling on preserves.