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Saving the Scenery : Nature Conservancy Uses Its Pocketbook, Not the Courts, to Protect Environment

Associated Press

Once they bought out a New York real estate company. Once they pretended to be developers in Virginia. As the folks at the Nature Conservancy have shown time and again, there’s more than one way to preserve wild lands.

While environmental groups have been fighting government and development interests during the 25 years of the Wilderness Act, a little-known private group has quietly put aside nearly 4 million acres of ecologically important lands.

In its 38 years, the Nature Conservancy has saved threatened lands ranging from 343 square miles of rare New Mexican desert grassland to a heron feeding ground on nine-tenths of an acre of Connecticut marsh.

And, with a well-endowed war chest and a proven track record, the nonprofit Arlington, Va.-based group now saves land at an average of 1,000 acres a day.

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Doesn’t Get Into Fights

The Conservancy’s success is due in part to an organizational credo. It will not fight developers in court or seek a public forum to save private land. It remains neutral in skirmishes involving government, environmentalists and business interests, using a checkbook and persuasion rather than lawyers and protests.

“We used to describe ourselves as the real estate arm of the conservation movement,” Bill Weeks, the Conservancy’s chief operating officer, said. “That role has been changing, but we still will look to market-based solutions rather than regulatory solutions.”

The Conservancy’s proven techniques and changing role are evident here in the Carrizo Plain, 180,000 acres of beautifully empty grasslands 150 miles north of Los Angeles.

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The Carrizo, home to such endangered species as the kit fox and blunt-nosed lizard, was purchased after the Conservancy put together such unlikely partners as state and federal agencies, the oil industry, ranching interests and conservation groups.

The Conservancy is involved in an ambitious new project to reintroduce native grasses, elk and antelope, pushed out in the past by farming and cattle grazing.

Native Grass Sprouting

“Grazing ended this April, and the native grass is already coming up,” preserve manager Chuck Warner said, standing in an emerald green island of native rye grass surrounded by the dusty brown, lunar landscape.

The Nature Conservancy has acquired nearly half of its land through standard real estate deals. Although much, including the Carrizo, is turned over to state or federal stewardship, the Conservancy owns and manages the world’s largest private nature preserve system, with nearly 1,000 preserves.

Other land targeted by the Conservancy is protected through conservation easements and other agreements with landowners around the country.

“They have done a superb job over the years,” said Charles Miller, a National Wildlife Federation spokesman. “There is sometimes a lot of controversy within the conservation community over which way to proceed in an issue, but the Nature Conservancy just goes in its own direction and does something that is a fantastic service.”

The organization began in 1946, when a special committee of the Ecological Society of America split off to form the Ecologist’s Union, renamed the Nature Conservancy in 1951.

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In the early days, the group’s main goal was to take undisturbed lands out of circulation. Its first purchases were financed by mortgages on the homes of members.

Since then, the group has parlayed donations, grants and business acumen into an $85-million fund and a national organization with 540,000 members staffed by more than 1,000 part- and full-time organizers and naturalists.

The Conservancy finds land to protect through its Natural Heritage Program, a joint venture with state governments to inventory and save the habitats of endangered plants and animals.

“We look for habitats or ecosystems that are particularly threatened,” said Steve McCormick, director of the California Nature Conservancy. “If you wait until a species is on the endangered list, that usually means its habitat is gone.”

Bought Entire Company

Deals can be complicated. To save a Long Island osprey nesting ground, the New York chapter had to purchase an entire real estate company, complete with Manhattan brownstones and Florida warehouses.

When the owner of a Virginia barrier island wanted his land developed instead of conserved, the Conservancy purchased it through a dummy development company.

“It created some public relations problems with the people here because they felt we were sneaky,” said Barry Truitt, manager of the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Preserve. “We didn’t use any tactics that aren’t used by developers, but I guess, because we’re conservationists, they expect our standards to be higher.”

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Some land is donated. Bob Butler, a Kennebunk, Me., furniture store owner, gave the Conservancy a 12-acre parcel along the Kennebunk River.

“I didn’t want it ever to be developed, but then someone offered me a deal I could barely refuse,” he said. “I gave it up so I wouldn’t be tempted again.”

Butler was so impressed with the Conservancy that he went on to serve as chairman of its Maine board of trustees.

Will Make Land Swaps

The Conservancy offers other deals. It will take land in exchange for other properties and lifetime annuities. It will pay for conservation easements to keep land out of development.

In addition, it sponsors a program to tell people how to protect endangered species on their property.

“Landowners usually are surprised and delighted that they have something rare on their land, and they become advocates,” McCormick said.

The Conservancy’s non-confrontational stance has put it increasingly in the role of mediator, as when local officials and developers fought conservationists and government agencies over the habitat of the Coachella fringe-toed lizard, a tiny reptile that survives only in the special sands of the Coachella Valley in the hot real estate market around Palm Springs.

Set Up Lizard Preserve

After months of negotiations and $2 million in Conservancy seed money, the parties agreed to a 13,000-acre preserve. Developers will pay a $600 mitigation fee for each acre of lizard habitat that is developed outside the preserve.

Paul Selzer, a attorney for some developers, said the Conservancy was able to show that setting the land aside served everyone’s interest.

“Another environmental group in the process could have made it more difficult,” he said.

McCormick said that the bitter controversy was eased when developers saw that their holdings would be enhanced by the preserve.

“Attitudes change,” he said. “The developers thought of environmentalists as people with a weird interest in a strange animal. Now they see it as a question of quality of life.”

Invading Plants Removed

In addition to the role as mediator, the Conservancy has become more involved in restoration. At its Blowing Rocks Preserve on Florida’s Jupiter Island, “exotics,” non-native trees like the Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, have been cut to halt their encroachment on indigenous species and the fragile dune ecology.

“It’s become clearer that not only species but whole biological systems are threatened,” Weeks said.

The Conservancy is taking greater steps to protect those systems through agreements that limit the use of adjacent lands. At the Virginia Coast Preserve, the Conservancy has negotiated with neighboring landowners to control development pressures on the fringes of the preserve.

“We once thought we were going to be establishing nature preserves that would exist apart from society,” Weeks said. “Now, we’ve come to feel the integration of these nature preserves with the fabric of the society around them is critical.”


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