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Post Series: Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy Web Site
Talk: National News Message Boards
Live Online Transcripts

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The Nature Conservancy:
Mixing With Business

With Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 6, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

The Arlington-based Nature Conservancy is the world's richest environmental group, with $3 billion in assets, ownership of two million preserved acres and a million members. Its public image is that of plentiful forests and country streams in TV ads narrated by actor Paul Newman. But less well-known is its alignment with corporate business which has created a special brand of environmentalism that promotes compromise between conservation and the business world. This strategy of aligning the two financially and philosophically has led to some strange bedfellows.

Read the Post Special Series: Nature Conservancy.

Washington Post staff writers Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway wrote the three-part special series. Stephens will be online Tuesday, May 6 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the investigation: "Inside the Nature Conservancy," "When Conservation and Business Fail to Mix" and "A House in the Woods."

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.

Chattanooga, Tenn.: Would it be fair to characterize the Conservancy
as an organization that has gone from a loose confederation of biologists concerned about preserving the environment for study to a mega-corporation headed by a lawyer and financed by the super rich?

Joe Stephens: As a reporter, I mostly like to let the facts speak for themselves. The series I wrote with David Ottaway describes how the Nature Conservancy grew from a small nonprofit operating out of shared offices in Washington, D.C., to become the richest environmental group in the world. Today it has $3.3 billion in assets.

Arlington, Va.: Who has been in charge at TNC that needs to go? Or is it a cultural thing that is so deep nothing can be done about it? It sounds like that is not the case -- there are good people at TNC helping you put together this series! At the same time, it sounds like there are too many lawyers, accountants and fundraisers at TNC, and not enough morally upright men and women doing oversight on the board and on staff. Who "green lights" deals for moral purity? Is it a bottom line equation, a PR equation, a science equation, or simply a tyranny of adhocracy with people pushing deals through in order to pump up their portfolio for the next review cycle?

A second question: Other than the TNC, what other options are there for land protection? If I have 2,000 acres on the Potomac River, who else should I give it to?

Finally: the Nature Conservancy has been a "greenhouse" and training camp for a raft of top executives at other organizations which have gone on to use "TNC practices" to build or strengthen competing organizations through similar in-kinds gifts, land swaps and partnerings. Have you looked at these other organizations to see if the questionable legal tactics of TNC are being employed elsewhere by these former TNC executives and board members? Are similar side-deals deals being done by corporate executives and foundation officials?

Joe Stephens: Your questions cover a lot of ground.

First, we chose to focus on the Nature Conservancy because it is the largest environmental group in terms of assets. It also is highly influential. A number of people have suggested we also write about other groups, and we may in the future.

There are many land banks in the U.S., many with Web sites. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's always wise to do your homework by reading up on various groups.

As for some of your other questions, they might be best addressed by the Conservancy itself. A Conservancy spokesman will be doing a live chat here later today.

Cincinnati, Ohio: Thank you for writing the series on The Nature Conservancy. For over 2 decades, I
have watched the destruction of a sensitive habitat in one of TNC's oldest preserves that resulted from ATV use, rock climbing, beer parties, and other inappropriate use. Although a TNC preserve manager currently lives less than 30 minutes from this site, damage continues to this day despite pleas to TNC Ohio Chapter, and the national office. In fact, a national stewardship director pronounced this site the "most extreme" case of habitat degradation he had seen in his 15 years with TNC. A few months later, he was transferred out of stewardship after he lobbied for better management. Even so, although the habitat destruction is well known and documented, our local conservation "heavyweights" are routinely honored with awards for their tireless efforts to promote preservation.
The habitat destruction and hypocrisy is enough to make one sick.

Thank you again.

Joe Stephens: I am not aware of this particular situation. Once again, maybe the Conservancy can address your concerns in the following on-line chat.

Washington, D.C.: What was the biggest challenge in writing the series?

Joe Stephens: Well, the Conservancy is a huge group, operating in every state and around the world. It has 3,200 employees and more than 500 offices. That's a lot of ground to cover. We were lucky enough to have time for four interviews with the president, Steven McCormick. We also conducted hundreds of interviews with current and former TNC employees, and others with knowledge of the group's programs. We also spent a lot of time coming up with documents: property records, internal memos, science reports, tax returns and so on. After a while, it was a challenge just to keep track of all those documents and interview notes. We also visited a number of Conservancy sites and preserves.

Washington, D.C.: Is this just the tip of the iceberg? What about Conservation International? Other large conservation organizations? Have corporations and the very rich effectively co-opted or bought off these organizations, too?

Joe Stephens: We limited our research in this case to the Conservancy, so I'm not qualified to comment on other organizations. Each group is different. Maybe in the future we will be writing about other environmental groups. We welcome any ideas or suggestions.

Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that fundamental and sustainable environmental protection can be achieved without the involvement of business? It might go against the "absolute" mantra of other environmental organizations, but isn't working with business and achieving some conservation successes better than achieving none? I believe the Conservancy is innovative in their approach to being inclusive vs. exclusive and confrontational.

Joe Stephens: There are many people who agree with you. There are also environmental groups that want no involvement at all with for-profit businesses, especially those whose activities may affect the environment. Still other groups take a middle-ground approach. Some in the green movement say there is room for everyone, that each group fills its own niche.

Vienna, Va.: Would you donate to the Conservancy?

Joe Stephens: That's a very personal decision. As a reporter who must remain objective, I try to avoid any entanglement with an organization that I may write about in the future.

Washington, D.C.: Is it wrong for the TNC to look for ways to make the money go farther in saving properties? The scheme outlined in today's report could be a reasonable approach -- development is limited compared to what it could be if a large scale developer got hold of it, and the money goes farther.

Joe Stephens: I have heard others -- including Conservancy executives -- say the same thing. Some people disagree. We tried to present all the relevant facts in our stories, and let readers decide for themselves what would be the best approach.

Albuquerque, N.M.: The Conservancy has done a lot of good things too. Your series only focuses on negative things. Why didn't you balance it by showing some of the successes? I also know that the World Wildlife Fund has advertised on cereal boxes, why not cite that in the article? Yes, the Conservancy is a big organization but it seems that it does good things too or else it would not have grown to the size it is today.

Joe Stephens: We mention many of the Conservancy's programs around the world in our series, and point out that it has many supporters, including among scientists and academics. Our series also has a wealth of data on TNC's programs, including its 1,400 preserves, and a map showing how its work has spread across the nation.

This series was limited to looking at the Conservancy. We may examine other non-profit groups in future articles.

Europe: Hi, as a former TNC employee (under my maiden name), I was intrigued to see the three days of reporting. What is the reason that you both started this project? What was the response to your work from TNC? Are either of you members of any environmental organization?

Joe Stephens: I've covered our reasons for choosing TNC above. The Conservancy has taken issue with some of our reporting. Letters and memos explaining some of the group's responses are posted here along with the series. Other responses can be found on the group's web site, nature.org.

As a matter of course, I avoid joining organizations that I may write about.

Washington, D.C.: The issue is not just whether the actions of the Conservancy are proper and legal, but also whether they are aiding and abetting a tax avoidance scheme that makes a select group of people wealthy using tax dollars supplied by the rest of us.

Joe Stephens: In general, the Conservancy says that individual taxpayers decide what to say in their tax returns, and which deductions they will seek. The IRS must decide which deductions to allow and which to disallow, under tax regulations.

As for the broader question of which activities should get tax breaks, that is something to be decided by the public, through their elected representatives.

Alexandria, Va.: As someone who has contributed to the Nature Conservancy for years, I am upset about these sweetheart deals and mismanagement of resources. I send the Nature Conservancy money so that they can buy land before someone builds on it, not so they can help some fat cat get a tax deduction for his mansion complex in the country. In a way, I even prefer the double-wide trailers that the original owner in Kentucky mentioned. At least that is affordable housing for ordinary people.

The prospect of someone living on the land in return for a contribution of some sort doesn't bother me so much as the scale of the homes being built. I realize that someone with 1.6 million dollars might not be too happy with a log shack and an outhouse, but tennis courts? Swimming pools? Extensive lawns? A house big enough to be a hotel?

And did anyone bother to find out exactly why the endangered prairie chicken was endangered before they approved drilling for oil? Like, maybe the birds totally cannot endure human activity around their breeding grounds?

Thank you for your informative articles, even if they did tick me off!

Joe Stephens: Thanks for your comments.

20006: I heard that the Conservancy has been experiencing many lay-off's. If they have so much money as was stated in your article, why all the lay-off's? Based on everything you learned in your investigation, will the employee reduction continue?

Joe Stephens: It is my understanding that there have been some staff deductions recently, in connection to a downturn in revenue. Many non-profits have seen donations and investment income decline, along with the economy. I don't know if more reductions are planned.

Whitefish, Mont.: From reading your last article, it seems that TNC is operating on the taxpayer nickel. It and its members get a concentrated benefit in tax write-offs, while the hapless public subsidizes the transaction ... yet in many cases there's no public access for land the public is de facto paying for?

TNC and its allies might call it "creative," but what would YOU call it?

Joe Stephens: As a reporter, I try not to draw conclusions. The Conservancy says their Conservation Buyer deals are available to anyone, along with the tax benefits that accompany them.

Omaha, Neb.: As a former upper level manager for 12 years in The Nature Conservancy, I found your story both accurate and disheartening. I was there during the "boom" years of the late 1980's to see the mission of the organization drift into uncharted waters by the late 1990's. In your investigation, did you find reason to believe that the Conservancy is attempting to correct the problems you have pointed out?

Joe Stephens: The Conservancy says it is always striving to improve its programs and their effectiveness.

Sacramento, Calif.:

Hi Joe!

I enjoyed your series and found it extremely enlightening. You really did your homework.

I'm a professional conservation biologist. They (the Nature Conservancy) is NEVER around for the important endangered species issues here in California. I've wondered what the Nature Conservancy does -- they always tell you that they "avoid controversy" and work on "landscape conservation-level projects" (whatever that is). The local land trusts do a far better job than TNC in protecting sites under threat, and in general, they manage their land better, too.

Keep up the super work!

Joe Stephens: Thanks for your input.

Joe Stephens: Thanks, everyone, for the all the questions and comments.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company