The Nature Conservancy
With Jim Petterson
Director of Communications,
The Nature Conservancy
Tuesday, May 6, 2003; 3 p.m. ET
Since 1951, The Nature Conservancy has been working with communities and businesses to protect more than 98 million acres around the world by preserving plants, animals and natural communities and the land and water they need to survive. In the largest private conservation campaign ever undertaken, the Conservancy will invest $1.25 billion in saving 200 of the world's "Last Great Places."
This week The Washington Post presents a three-part series on the Nature Conservancy which details its relationship with corporate America and the projects it undertakes in the name of protecting the environment.
Jim Petterson, director of communications at The Nature Conservancy, was online Tuesday, May 6 at 3 p.m. ET, to discuss the Post series on nature and corporate business. A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Jim Petterson: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining this discussion.
For those who are not familiar with our organization, we are a 52-year old non-profit conservation organization committed to protecting important wildlife habitat around the world We have chapters in all 50 states and work in 30 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America, South America, the Caribbean and Canada.
We are known best for developing and implementing creative, non-confrontational, science-based and results-oriented approaches to conservation. Our intense focus on producing real, tangible results have helped our organization conserve more than 116 million acres of the world’s most ecologically-important places.
The Washington Post series presented a very one-sided, limited view of The Nature Conservancy, its partnerships and its conservation work.
I look forward to taking your questions. Thanks.
Indianapolis, Ind.: I am a long time donor to the Conservancy. One day when I was sending my check in the mail, the thought occurred to me: what a disaster it would be if this organization was taken over by corporate and development interest. In light of these articles and given the composition of the board of directors having consisted of representatives of companies with some of the worst environmental legacies, why should I not now believe this has already happened?
Jim Petterson: The best answer to your last question is to look at the Conservancy's record of accomplishment. In the two years the Post has been working on its series, the Conservancy has conserved more than two million acres through more than 2,200 conservation transactions. Those are results you can walk around on.
Regarding our work with the business community, you should know only 10 percent of our revenue comes from businesses. More than 70 percent comes from individuals -- people like you and I.
There are, indeed, high-ranking business leaders on our boards. There also are academics, scientists other non-profit leaders and people from other backgrounds on our boards.
Finally, the Conservancy believes that any lasting conservation solution must involve all sectors of society, including the business community. The business community commands significant resources and has a global reach and impact and, consequently, we believe businesses can be important and effective conservation partners.
For example, much of northern Maine's forest land is controlled by very large corporations or other land-holding concerns. We believe that if we are to accomplish any conservation there we have to work with the people and entities that control the land.
Arlington, Va.: I wish the article had done more to highlight the Nature Conservancy's good work and impact. And I wish it explained why the Nature Conservancy laid off a large percentage of its marketing staff when its executives make so much money!
Jim Petterson: I too wish the Post series had provided a broader context of the Conservancy's work. With 1,400 nature preserves in the U.S. and more than 116 million acres protected around the world, there are plenty of positive achievements that warrant a deeper discussion.
With regard to recent layoffs, the Conservancy, like the rest of the non-profit sector, is experiencing some lean times. The current national economic condition has forced the organization to make some tough decisions, including having to layoff staff.
Washington, D.C.: Do you anticipate that the Conservancy will change any of its practices regarding the development of purchased land as a result of the Post's articles?
Jim Petterson: The Conservancy is constantly evaluating its practices, procedures and policies to ensure it is living up to our organizational value of integrity beyond reproach.
The Post series highlighted some projects that certainly warrant scrutiny. For example, in the case of our experiment with sustainable development businesses on Virginia's Easter Shore, we learned some hard lessons. Rather than stick our heads in the sand when those businesses failed to produce, we audited our operation, acknowledged the failure, learned the experience and took steps to ensure those mistakes are not repeated.
Reston, Va.: Does TNC anticipate any significant grassroots outrage and membership decline as a result of this series?
Jim Petterson: We have heard from a number of members and supporters over the course of the last three days. Many, if not most, of those comments have been negative. In these cases, we have tried hard to put the Post's criticism in the proper context of our long history of results and our continued commitment to protecting lands and waters. Once the other side of the story has been heard, most of our members express that they remain proud supporters of the Conservancy.
We have, also received a number of supportive letters, e-mails and phone calls from other conservation organizations, from individuals in the Maryland/Virginia area, from Capitol Hill and from our many other supporters.
Washington, D.C.: Is the Conservancy involved in protecting grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 states?
Jim Petterson: Yes. The Conservancy has done an impressive amount of conservation work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In fact, we recently announced a 7,000-acre conservation easement in a prime grizzly denning area in Montana.
Dayton, Ohio: Mr. Petterson:
I've contributed to The Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations over the years. I've researched the filings of the various non-profits and I have to admit that The Nature Conservancy is one of the few environmental organizations that actually has measurable accomplishments. It seems as if the other groups -- NRDC, Sierra Club, etc. -- focus more on litigation, lobbying and negative communications instead of hands-on environmental improvement. Nothing I read in the Post's series has changed my viewpoint. In fact, because of the series, I'm dropping contributions to the other organizations and consolidating my money into one contribution to TNC.
My question: How much of an impetus for this series do you think jealousy by other environmental organizations played? TNC has more members and access to more funds than just about all the other groups combined.
Jim Petterson: Thanks for your supportive comments. I would urge you not to drop your support of other conservation groups, however. The diverse members of the conservation community all have an important role to play in the protection of our natural heritage. The Conservancy has its niche -- direct action to protect the most important wildlife habitat. We certainly don't have all the answers, but our contributions to land and water conservation are arguably unmatched.
I do not think jealousy from other organizations was the impetus for the Post series. Rather, I see the Post's examination of the Conservancy as a product of our prominent role in the conservation world. We are the 10th largest non-profit in the country. We expect-- and we welcome -- scrutiny from the media. However, I am disappointed the Post failed to talk about the Consevancy's accomplishments.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Despite the spin on the story, I found the Conservancy's strategy for leveraging private dollars to preserve land and/or limit its development to be an exciting plan for protecting natural resources. As described in the Post, the plan sounds fair and reasonable to me. The land's development potential is restricted, the Conservancy's cost is limited to the cost of floating the funds for the initial purchase and the end buyer is compensated for the restrictions on future development by means of a tax deduction. Sounds like a reasonable public policy as long as the Conservancy maintains standards about the lands that are protected to ensure that they are lands that truly need such protection.
Jim Petterson: The Conservancy carefully chooses the places it works, using a rigorous scientific process to identify the most ecologically important places to be conserved.
Conserving these lands and waters is very expensive. In many places, such as Martha's Vineyard and Long Island -- places the Post highlighted in today's articles, land is extraordinarily expensive. Even with our resources, we cannot buy it all. We have to look for opportunities to stretch the dollars we have so we can do the most good for the least cost.
Palo Alto, Calif.: Would it not be better if the leadership and the board would resign and the Nature Conservancy repopulate itself with a less tainted, independent board and leadership?
Jim Petterson: No. The Conservancy is a very well managed organization. Among its 3,000 employees and on its boards are many, many talented people dedicated to our mission of preserving the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.
The Conservancy's volunteer boards are made up of folks from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Plainfield, N.J.: I have been extremely shocked and dismayed as I have been reading the Washington Post articles concerning The Nature Conservancy.
I did not know that The Nature Conservancy has participated in ANY drilling operations let alone oil and gas drilling on land that was to be preserved for an endangered species !
How can TNC possible justify these actions, especially in light of the continued decline in the number of prairie chickens?
I’m very concerned that the actions of TNC have not only endangered future contributions to the Conservancy but have cast a pall on all environmental groups.
I know that not a penny of my money will be given to The Nature Conservancy in the future. I will also investigate and re-evaluate all of the environmental groups on my donor list to ensure that ONLY those that truly protect the environment will received my hard earned dollars.
Jim Petterson: The plight of the Attwater's prairie chicken is cause for great concern. However, the species survival is not affected by natural gas operations at the Conservancy's Texas City Prairie Preserve. Independent academic and government experts have looked at our operation there and concluded that the protection of the birds have not been compromised by our decisions regarding oil and gas activity.
The health and survival is and always was the Conservancy's first priority.
The sad news is the Texas City Prairie Preserve is surrounded by development. The birds need far more habitat to survive for the long term We are working hard to identify and restore other habitat in which the birds can be reintroduced.
I strongly urge you to take another look at the work of the Conservancy. Again, the Post provided a very one-sided view of the Conservancy.
I would put the Conservancy conservation record up against that of any other organization.
Tallahassee, Fla.: The activities described in the Post's articles don't seem to me to be illegal. But isn't it possible that the Conservancy has erred in how far it is willing to go to accommodate corporate interests which are not in sync with the Conservancy's mission? It seems that it hasn't been able to say "No" as often as it should have to corporate contributions which apparently have strings attached. I'm a member of the Conservancy and remain a strong supporter of its goals -- but legality is only the weakest standard by which activities should be judged.
Jim Petterson: Our relationship with the business community does not stop the Conservancy from taking positions or actions that are necessary to achieve our mission.
Interestingly, with regard to contributions from the business community, the Post provided a great detail about from where the dollars went, but very, very little on how the Conservancy spent those dollars. For example, General Motors gave the Conservancy $10 million dollars. That money was used to buy and restore 50,000 acres of Atlantic rainforest in Brazil -- one of the most threatened types of forest in all of South America (only seven percent of that forest type remains).
Washington, D.C.: How accurate is the Washington Post's assessment that the Nature Conservancy has held off on taking certain positions, specifically including taking a position on climate change, because of corporate connections and/or concerns about corporate reactions to such positions?
Jim Petterson: See the beginning of the last question.
Arlington, Va.: What kind of thoughts go through your mind when you learn that the Post is going to do a 3-part series on TNC? Did the Post warn you ahead of time?
Jim Petterson: The Conservancy cooperated fully with the Post, providing literally thousands of pages of requested documents and offering up dozens of staff, partners and other experts for interviews, including four separate interviews with Steve McCormick.
Our warning was a call from the Post two years ago.
At first we were excited about having the Post do a series on the Conservancy -- we are proud of our accomplishments, our record and our approach to conservation. As it became clear their focus would not be complete, my reaction was one of frustration.
Jackson, Miss.: As a long-term member of the Conservancy, The Post’s articles have inspired me to increase my annual donation. Any news reporting that relies as heavily on sources that are opposition groups and disgruntled current and former employees makes me question its veracity and motivation. I’m thinking nothing sells like good dirt.
Jim Petterson: You said it, not me.
Jim Petterson: Looks like we are out of time. Thanks, everyone, for your questions. To those whose questions I couldn't get to, I apologize.
For those with further questions arising from the Post series, please log on to The Nature Conservancy Web site for more information related to the Post's inquiry.
Have a great day.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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