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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 9

The Wildlands Project: The Nature Conservancy – Strategy for the 1990’s

by: Judy Keeler

My research on The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began in 1989 when TNC bought the Gray Ranch with the intent of selling it to the federal government for a wildlife refuge. At that time, Larry Woodard was the New Mexico State Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He also served on the Board of Directors for the New Mexico State Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Mr. Woodward would later resign this position due to a conflict of interest, but only after a great deal of controversy had been created.

During this time a very questionable land exchange took place between TNC and the BLM in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was also during this time the BLM contracted with TNC to do a biological inventory of the federal lands in the southern portion of New Mexico under a "challenge cost-share agreement". Their "inventory" would serve as a basis for a new Resource Management Plan for the Mimbres Resource Area, now called the Las Cruces Resource Area. Thus began a very contentious process that had everyone frustrated and defensive by the time the plan was finalized in October of 1992.

Many of the public comments on the plan appeared to center around TNC's bias against the multiple use of the land, with grazing and recreational uses viewed very negatively in the report. Discussion of private stewardship, also appearing in several places, was considered to negatively impact the lands.

However, TNC's own reports would conclude that more endangered and special status species were found on private lands than on federal lands. They would also later conclude grazing could be a compatible use of the land. How and why did they change their course?

Upon closely examining TNC, I've concluded the organization is very astute. They tend to learn from past mistakes. They are also extremely resilient. Surrounding themselves with highly educated professions they incorporate their philosophies into their agenda, making the organization appear well-balanced and providing a great deal of flexibility.

Because TNC has tremendous financial resources, they can well afford to hire some of the outstanding biologists, conservationalists, environmental lawyers, and social ecologists of our day. This gives them access to some of the newest and most current information. They also have a close working relationship with our elected officials and federal land management agencies at a national level.

So close do they work with our federal agencies that they have become synonymous with land use planning. On the cutting edge of technology and conservation biology they promote their concepts with great dexterity.

By the early 90's, TNC had a new executive director, John Sawhill, which promised an even cozier relationship with big government. Sawhill took the helm proceeded by a whole host of successes. Former Secretary of Energy under the Carter administration, Sawhill also sat on the Board of Directors for several prestigious companies, including RCA, Pacific Gas and Electric, Consolidated Edison, Philip Morris, Crane Corporation, and General American Investors. He also served as trustee at Princeton University, Chairman of the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Massachusetts’ Institute of Technology, and the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust.

In TNC's "Conservation Strategy for the 1990's", John Sawhill stated that the Conservancy was going to change the way it was doing business. They would continue their nonconfrontational approach to government, and at the same time "increase resources" devoted to promoting government actions. Additionally, it was their intent to "increase the level of government funding" for conservation, "step up activities to influence the management of public lands," and "empower government agencies".

Mr. Sawhill soon found himself appointed, during the Clinton Administration, to the President's Council On Sustainable Development, as well as the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

According to TNC's new strategy, it was also their intent to establish more bioreserves and assemble regional and national Heritage data bases designed to strengthen the Endangered Species Act.

According to an article, published in the Albuquerque Journal, September 18th, 1995, "John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, had an idea, five years and $300 million ago, on how better to protect some of the nation's most precious ecosystems – 'the last great places', he called them."

"His vision has turned to reality as the conservation group marks the success today of its most ambitious environmental rescue mission ever, the preservation of 75 unique prairies, watersheds, streams, islands and forests…"

Long before federal agencies considered managing for ecosystems, wildfires and watersheds, TNC had already established itself as the "expert" on these subjects. Today, as our nation moves toward managing our lands, both private and public, for their intrinsic value to benefit endangered species, we find ourselves being guided by the principles and standards developed by The Nature Conservancy. Their plan is being implemented at an incredible pace.

Next week: The Heritage Data Base – The Rush for Technology

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