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Big Green Blues (washingtonpost.com)

Big Green Blues

Monday, May 12, 2003; Page A18

IN ITS 52 YEARS, the Nature Conservancy has been a force for good in protecting the global environment. With its "bucks and acres" program to buy land and thereby promote biodiversity, the Conservancy -- with $3 billion in assets the world's richest environmental group -- has acquired millions of acres, and it manages millions more. Those good works notwithstanding, a series last week by Post reporters David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens revealed a number of disturbing aspects about the Arlington-based group's operations.

One is the tricky position the organization has put itself in by taking contributions from corporations, many of which have sorry environmental records at best. The Conservancy's corporate donations, which include donations from The Washington Post Co., have soared in the past decade, and that money comes with a price: the opening of the Conservancy to accusations that corporate polluters are using its name to "greenwash" their activities and that it remains largely silent on issues such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and global warming to avoid antagonizing corporate sponsors.

That appearance is only heightened by the presence on the Conservancy's governing board of executives from companies such as American Electric Power Co. (named top air polluter among U.S. power companies by the Natural Resources Defense Council) and General Motors (named "Global Warmer Number One" by Environmental Defense). The Nature Conservancy argues that it occupies a particular niche in the ecosystem of environmental organizations -- that is, preserving biodiversity -- that keeps it pretty well out of the policy arena and therefore dissipates the potential conflicts it faces. What's more, it contends, corporate money that would not otherwise go to the environmental movement is used toward a worthy end. Whether that tradeoff is worth the cost and whether the Conservancy has drawn the line in the right place is a matter best left to the group's members.

The more troubling issues raised in the series concern questions of corporate governance similar to those that have faced for-profit corporations in recent years. To its credit, the Conservancy says it is taking steps to address some of these matters. For example, it will no longer make loans to officials; the group's president had obtained a $1.55 million home loan. It's taking another look at whether it will again engage in "resource extraction" activities on its land; the group was criticized when, practicing its theory of "compatible development," it simultaneously sought to protect the endangered Attwater's prairie chicken and drill for oil under its nesting grounds. The Conservancy is also reexamining its "conservation buyers" program (in which it buys ecologically sensitive parcels, puts on development restrictions and sells the land at a discount) and the insider nature of some of its transactions with Conservancy trustees. That's fine. If, as the Conservancy asserts, its goal is simply to "find a suitable buyer," there are better ways to structure that process than one in which charity insiders appear to get the first shot at pristine parcels on which to build their vacation homes.


2003 The Washington Post Company


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