Founded in 1951 and based in Arlington, Virginia, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the largest and wealthiest environmentalist organization in the United States. Its membership consists of more than one million people, and it has 528 branch offices (staffed by some 3,200 employees) in all 50 states and 30 countries. In 2004, TNC boasted revenues totaling $732 million, with total assets exceeding $3 billion. That year, the organization’s President and CEO, Steven J. McCormick, earned a salary of $360,000.
TNC sees its mission as “conserving plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.” To accomplish this goal, TNC purchases private lands and thereafter either maintains ownership of the property or sells it, usually at greatly inflated rates, to the federal government or a state government. TNC claims that as of September 2003 it had “protected,” in this manner, 15 million acres in the United States and an additional 102 million acres worldwide. Typical was TNC’s approach to 14,200 acres of swampland in Georgia. After acquiring the land, valued at around $7 million, in 2002, TNC proceeded to sell it to the state of Georgia for $20 million. This modus operandi has prompted TNC to dub itself “Nature’s real estate agent.” Its ultimate objective is to decrease private property ownership and maximize the nationalization of property.
The Nature Conservancy does maintain ownership of some of its purchased land. Today TNC manages the world’s largest private nature preserve system, consisting of some 1,177,000 acres on 1,340 preserves that TNC owns or has under conservation easement.
In November 2004, TNC joined forces with the Sierra Club to oppose an Oregon ballot measure that would have provided compensation to property owners whose land was devalued by regulations prohibiting development—regulations endorsed by TNC. In August 2005 TNC President Steven McCormick acknowledged, in an interview with The Boston Globe, that his organization saw a greatly expanded role for the federal government as essential to its cause. “Regulation and buying land alone probably won’t be sufficient for conservation to take hold on a really large scale,” said McCormick.
TNC has identified 5 major “conservation initiatives” on its agenda:
(a) The Global Marine Initiative “links innovative land and sea conservation strategies to improve survival of our coasts and oceans.”
(b) The Sustainable Waters Program “helps protect freshwater ecosystems by advancing water policies and conservation approaches so that human needs for water can be met while sustaining healthy freshwater ecosystems.”
(c) The Global Climate Change Initiative seeks to develop “achievable solutions to slow the rate of global warming and finding viable options for the Earth’s natural diversity, human communities and economic investments to survive its inevitable impacts.”
(d) The Global Fire Initiative “develops solutions that allow fire to play a role in places where it benefits nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive.”
(e) The Invasive Species Initiative “aims to abate the threat to Earth’s diversity posed by invasive non-native plants, animals, and diseases through a combination of prevention, early detection, eradication, restoration, research and outreach.”
TNC warns that global warming — which it views largely as a consequence of industrial activity in capitalist countries like the United States — presents a major threat to the environment and to the survival of human and animal life. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005, TNC lamented the purportedly “growing number of severe weather events linked to global change.” TNC now lobbies on behalf of the Climate Stewardship Act, a slightly diluted version of the Kyoto Treaty, proposed by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman.
TNC has long demanded that the U.S. military establish “buffer zones” around those of its bases that are surrounded by “critical wildlife habitat.” “Encroaching development … reduces habitat for key species,” TNC explains.
Between 2001 and 2004, TNC received more than 1,200 grants from scores of charitable foundations, including the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Blue Moon Fund, the ChevronTexaco Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Ford Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Simons Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Additional TNC revenues are derived from the organization’s annual membership fees, which range from $25 to $50 per person. TNC is also a popular destination for the contributions of affluent donors—64 percent of its funding comes from individuals—including celebrities like David Letterman and actor/activist Paul Newman.
Whereas in 1999 TNC collected just over $19 million from federal agencies like the EPA and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, and Transportation, in 2004 its share of the federal dole under the hated Bush administration had spiked to nearly $39 million.
Corporations, too, have given generously to TNC. In 2002, the Capital Research Center named TNC as one of the top ten nonprofit recipients of corporate contributions, taking in nearly $1.5 million in corporate donations. As of 2003, TNC had more than 1,900 corporate sponsors.
In the summer of 2003, the Washington Post ran a series of investigative articles spotlighting one particular TNC fundraising program. “Under the program,” explained the Post, “the charity buys raw land, attaches some development restrictions and then resells the properties to supporters at greatly reduced prices. Buyers give the Conservancy cash payments for roughly the amount of the discount, a sum that is then written off the buyers’ federal income taxes.” In one of several cases detailed by the Post, TNC helped a trustee purchase a 146-acre parcel of land in Kentucky for the purpose of building a horse farm and two houses. TNC acquired the property, valued at $368,000, under a conservation easement prohibiting industrial development, and then resold the land to the trustee for $252,000, who then made up the remaining cost with a charitable donation to TNC—a $130,000 tax-deduction. In response to the revelations, the IRS conduct an exhaustive audit of TNC in 2004 and ruled to disallow inappropriate tax deductible donations to charitable organizations in exchange for real estate.
The Post further noted that TNC had sold its logo to be used for consumer items manufactured by corporations whose directors, including executives from General Motors and other companies traditionally impugned as polluters by TNC, sat on TNC’s advisory governing board and leadership council. The paper also reported that TNC had extended a $1.55 million home loan to its President, Steven McCormick, at a discounted interest rate, which it misreported. (McCormick repaid the loan in full following the disclosure.)
Perhaps most damagingly for TNC’s reputation, the Post reported that the organization, even as it professed its commitment to “saving the last great places on Earth,” had drilled for oil and natural gas on a wildlife preserve in Texas City, Texas, a breeding ground for an endangered species of grouse. TNC had been awarded the land from the Mobil oil company with the understanding that it would safeguard the property. Following the embarrassing disclosure, TNC hastily announced its suspension of what it called “resource extraction activities.”
As Michael James Barton, director for energy at ARTIS Research, wrote in September 2014:
“More than a few environmental groups have dipped their hand into the fossil-fuel till, far from view of their donors and the public…. In one notable scandal, the Nature Conservancy raised millions from well-intentioned donors to buy land to help protect a threatened species, the Attwater’s prairie chicken, from extinction. But after the purchase, it approved oil drilling there. The endangered birds are no longer on the land, but the group continues to grow rich off of oil profits. After a two-year Senate investigation and exposure by the Los Angeles Times, the Nature Conservancy promised to cease new oil drilling on its lands. But it apparently decided it likes cash more than endangered species, and expanded fossil-fuel extraction on the land despite its promise.”