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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 8

The Wildlands Project: The Nature Conservancy’s Land Acquisition Program

by: Judy Keeler

When I began researching the environmental movement, one of the first books I read was a thick, 640 page treatise, entitled, “Trashing the Economy: How Runaway Environmentalism is Wrecking America”. Written by Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb. Published in 1994, it is a virtual encyclopedia on the various environmental organizations operating in the U.S. (I consider it invaluable when researching how, why and who is involved in “rewilding” America.)

Incorporated in 1951, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), began small. Funded by its members, consisting mainly of botanists and zoologists, TNC used their donations to purchase small tracts of land for preservation and collecting scientific specimens. From its inception in 1951 until the 1970’s TNC was “as American as motherhood and apple pie”.

As with all small, well-intentioned beginnings, the group expanded its horizons when Patrick Noonan began serving as director of operations in 1970. During this time, TNC used a foundational grant to buy up three barrier islands off the Virginia coast.

Soon, Noonan began a secretive, “whirlwind acquisition” campaign to buy up the remaining islands "with the intent to develop them into upscale vacation homes". Using a “bogus front group”, TNC managed to purchase 14 of the 18 barrier islands. “With its purchase TNC destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic growth and thousands of jobs – not just with those three, but with what followed.” 

The land acquisition campaign cost TNC dissention among its ranks and several of its long-standing members. Under pressure Noonan resigned his position as both executive director and director of operations in 1980. Assuming “the presidency of the Conservation Fund”, he remained, however, a consultant to TNC.

Even without Noonan at the helm, the Virginia island land acquisition campaign continued into the 1980’s. TNC spent most of their capital, about 25 million dollars, acquiring 14 of the 18 barrier islands. These acquisitions “effectively stopped all economic development – except for the Conservancy’s”.

A new mission had begun, as a result, a new perception of the organization emerged. “The people of the Virginia Shore generally hated The Nature Conservancy. They felt the organization was tying up lands which could have otherwise been developed for the Shore’s economic benefit. They were also irritated by the intrusion of outsiders – ‘come-heres’ in local parlance – and the Nature Conservancy were consistently outsiders of the worst sort, arrogant, we-know-better-than-you-how-to-care-for-this-land, secretive, rich and openly hostile. The county commissioners deeply resented the tax-exempt status of TNC’s land, something the poor counties could ill afford. Everyone was annoyed when the Conservancy curbed the locals from hunting, fishing, camping, and joy riding on the islands”.

A pattern soon emerged with the acquisition of the Virginia barrier islands: “Create an exclusive private nature preserve as a magnet for profitable upscale adjacent residential and commercial development then use the profits to finance still more nature acquisition.” Learning from past experience, in the future TNC would “do it quietly.”

The new pattern would also include:

* “Striking deals” with developers whereby the builders would donated as “charitable gifts” parcels of the land in the planned development to TNC. In exchange, the builder made promises of “compatible development”.  As the result of one such “exchange”, TNC got the Fish and Wildlife Foundation to accept title to the tidal wetlands (donated by the developer) which were then turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a refuge.  The builder was then “able to advertise the rest of the holdings as ‘being adjacent to a federal wildlife refuge’”.

* Reselling parcels of land to federal agencies. "On June 30, 1990 TNC showed it held $53.5 million in land 'for resale' to the government. By 1992, TNC ledgers showed the organization had received $90,693,000 for sale of land to government agencies".

“Patrick Noonan – hiding behind TNC’s early reputation – not only shifted the Conservancy from small-is-beautiful to huge lands deals, from local control to rule from the top, but most significantly, he also shifted the Conservancy from its original keep-it-and-mange-it policy to getting the federal government to buy TNC land and pay them a tidy profit – never asking whether public ownership of land was in the best interest of either the public or the environment. It was ecologist Garrett Hardin, recall, who said, ‘The tragedy of the commons is averted by private property’.”

“William Weeks, who came on staff in 1982, was quoted by the late columnist Warren Brookes as saying, ‘We buy these (lands) when they need to be bought, so that at some point we can become the ‘willing seller’ (to the government).” Although Weeks strongly denied he said it, the document still stands today.

Another time, it was reported Mr. Weeks announced TNC had become “an arm of the federal government”, participants in the scheme of buying up private property for resale to the federal government.

Today, the Nature Conservancy has moved beyond buying and selling land. During the tenure of John Sawhill, former TNC executive director, and under Steve McCormick’s directorship today, the organization is moving forward with a new agenda at a remarkable speed.

Next Week: The Nature Conservancy’s - Strategy for 1990’s

* All quotes from Ron Arnold’s book “Trashing the Economy”

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