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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nature Conservancy

Air Date: Week of

The largest and richest environmental group in the world, the Nature Conservancy has purchased 10 million acres in the US alone. Recently the group has conceded that human activity outside the preserves is affecting life within, and they've begun to change their tactics. Steve Curwood interviewed The Nature Conservancy's president, John Sawhill.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Since the 1950s The Nature Conservancy has been protecting plant and animal diversity around the world by buying land. Lots of land. The group has purchased about 10 million acres in the United States alone. It's the largest and richest environmental group in the world. But recently the Conservancy has had to concede that controlling land isn't enough to save species. Human activities outside its preserves are affecting the life within. And so, under John Sawhill's leadership, The Nature Conservancy has been thinking more about ecosystems that include human beings.

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SAWHILL: We realize that people live in and around the areas that we're trying to protect. That people have to extract value from the land. We just want that to be done in a way which is compatible with protecting the ecology in the area. So if we don't accommodate the needs of people, we're not going to provide for the needs of nature.

CURWOOD: So you say you work with the people in a community to get them involved in this, the economic aspect of ecological protection. How do you do this? Can you give me an example?

SAWHILL: Well, one of the things we've tried to do at our Virginia coast reserve, that is a 70-mile stretch of barrier islands off the east coast of Virginia that the Nature Conservancy owns, where we've tried to sit down with the community and go through what we call a visioning process. That is, we try to talk with them and understand what they feel their long-range goals and objectives for the area might be. And then we work with them to try to achieve those goals. And so we started a venture capital corporation.

CURWOOD: Venture capital, from Nature Conservancy?

SAWHILL: Venture capital. We raised several million dollars and we said these funds would be available to entrepreneurs who are trying to start new business ventures.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what's an ecological business you've got going?

SAWHILL: Well, let me give you a good example. That area probably represents the cleanest fishery on the eastern coast of the United States. So we decided maybe we ought to start a seafood packing plant. And we could brand the oysters and the clams and the other seafood coming from that area with a brand that would identify it as coming from the Virginia Coast Reserve, and maybe we could even get a little extra markup for that product.

CURWOOD: Well, okay the water's clean right now. But you guys only own the islands. That's an estuary.


CURWOOD: That's a broad bay there. Development continues there, it's going to be polluted as any other part of it.

SAWHILL: Well, no, it won't be, you see, because what we've done is we've bought up a lot of the farms on the mainland, and we've put conservation easements. That's a legally binding agreement not to subdivide the land on these farms. And then we've resold them. So more and more of that land is under conservation restrictions. So it will never experience high-density development.

CURWOOD: Did you feel really welcome in Virginia? I mean, The Nature Conservancy had this reputation that hey, once you guys bought the islands local folks couldn't go there and do some of the things they used to do, and you weren't too popular there.

SAWHILL: We weren't popular when we originally came into the area, and that's another reason why we felt that this community outreach is very important for us.

CURWOOD: Now, The Nature Conservancy is what? The largest environmental organization I think in this country.

SAWHILL: Yes. As a matter of fact, we're the fifteenth largest charity in the United States. The next environmental organization is about 160 on the list. So we're by far the largest environmental organization in the world, really.

CURWOOD: What is exactly The Nature Conservancy model? How does it work to such financial and territorial success?

SAWHILL: Well, I think the best way I can answer that question is to tell you the 3 guiding principles that drive our work. The first is, we believe in good science, and we use the science to tell us what areas to protect and how to take care of them once we get them protected. Secondly, we have what we call the non-confrontational approach, and that is we try to work with the business community to accomplish our objectives. And the third principle, I guess, is entrepreneurialism. We try to be very creative and so that the state directors of The Nature Conservancy have a lot of authority and responsibility because conditions are different in different places.

CURWOOD: In terms of being friendly with business, one issue we might look at is energy and energy extraction.


CURWOOD: Now, Nature Conservancy, you have lands that people would like to drill for oil on, right?

SAWHILL: Yes, we do.

CURWOOD: So do you let them drill for oil?

SAWHILL: Well, a few years ago we wanted to try to buy from Texaco 35,000 acres that they owned in southeastern Texas. Well, they weren't sure they wanted to sell it. So we came up with a deal where we bought the surface rights, they kept the drilling rights, we agreed on a drilling plan. So they're extracting oil, but their oil extraction does not interfere with the bird habitat we were trying to protect. So we got what we wanted, they kept what they wanted, everybody's happy.

CURWOOD: So, I'm wondering if you could extrapolate that to someplace like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Do you think it would be safe ecologically to drill for oil there? There's a big controversy over that.

SAWHILL: Well, there is a big controversy and I'm really not equipped to know the answer to that question. I do think that you can often, by sitting down and working with people, find out ways to accomplish both economic and environmental objectives. And that's the way The Nature Conservancy tries to work.

CURWOOD: So if we were to start drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the appropriate safeguards, you wouldn't be alarmed.

SAWHILL: Well, I just don't know the answer to that question. I mean, I can give you another example from another industry, and that is timber extraction. We worked with Georgia Pacific. We wanted to protect an area, and we went to Georgia Pacific and we said we'll buy it from you. Well, they didn't want to sell it. But they did agree to sit down with us and work out a plan for extracting that timber in a way that wouldn't harm the environment, and basically what they're doing is logging by helicopter rather than building roads into the area.

CURWOOD: So far today we've talked about rural, wild areas. Is there any way that your models can be applied to more urban areas, the urban edge where sprawl is such a problem, or the inner city itself?

SAWHILL: Well, you know, we're beginning to work on, in more urban areas. We have a project in Illinois, it's called the Chicago Wilderness. And what we're trying to do is link up the forest preserves around Chicago in a way that can really begin to restore that ecosystem.

CURWOOD: Now, is it worth your while to protect areas that may not be at all original? They may be second or seventeenth growth for all we know, but it is the green space, especially in a city.

SAWHILL: Well, that -- it's important for that to get done. I don't think that's The Nature Conservancy's niche. We establish our priorities by looking at those areas that are habitat for rare and threatened species. And, you know, our resources are so limited that we've got to really keep them focused on the most biologically diverse areas.

CURWOOD: All right. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. John Sawhill is president of The Nature Conservancy. Thank you, sir.

SAWHILL: Thank you.



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