Nature Conservancy's Corporate Ties Spark Criticism

The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group based in Arlington, Virginia, best known for purchasing wilderness land to protect it from development, may have compromised its mission by working too closely with corporations, the Washington Post reports.

Founded in 1951, the Conservancy has grown from $58 million in revenue and seventy-seven employees in 1980 to nearly $1 billion in revenue and 3,200 staff members in all fifty states and thirty countries today. Part of that growth stems from its 1,900 corporate sponsors, which contributed $225 million to the Conservancy last year. The group has cultivated relationships with businesses as part of a strategy of encouraging environmentally friendly practices rather than insisting on pristine land preservation. "There are trade-offs in conservation," said Conservancy president Steven J. McCormick. "We make a judgment that less than 100 percent is acceptable. By working with corporations, which control a lot of land, which are very influential, we think we make a big difference."

But critics argue that that strategy has put the organization in some compromising situations. The group's governing board and leadership council include executives and directors from oil companies, chemical producers, auto manufacturers, mining concerns, logging operations, and electric utilities. And while many of those industries have been criticed by other environmental groups and faced scrutiny from government regulators, the Conservancy avoids criticizing the environmental records of its board members. Moreover, the Conservancy is usually silent on major environmental policy issues that prove contentious among its council members and corporate donors — the Bush administration's plan to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example — while other environmental groups do battle. In the case of ANWR, legislation to allow drilling is supported by Conservancy leadership council members BP and ExxonMobil, as well as by Phillips Alaska, Inc., which has donated at least $1 million to the group.

"It was the wrong decision to get so close to industry," says David Morine, who headed the Conservancy's land acquisition program for fifteen years and helped pioneer the group's corporate efforts. "Business got in under the tent, and we are the ones who invited them in. These corporate executives are carnivorous. You bring them in, and they just take over."

Joe Stephens. "Nonprofit Land Bank Amasses Billions." Washington Post 05/04/2003.