Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is indisputably
the wealthiest organization in the environmental movement with
an budget approaching $300 million per year. The group's mission
is to save environmentally valuable land through private acquisition.
This private sector approach has earned The Conservancy praise
from liberals and free market advocates alike. But The Nature
Conservancy's approach to the environment is not as free market
and mainstream as the group would have its supporters believe.
Over the years, TNC has developed cozy relationships with conservation
agencies at all levels of government. Not only have these relationships
allowed The Conservancy to finance many of its supposed "private-sector"
land purchases with taxpayer money, but, according to numerous
accounts, it has allowed the group to profit handsomely from such
deals. According to a June 12, 1992 Washington Times report, U.S.
Fish and Wildlife officials paid The Nature Conservancy $4.5 million
in 1988 and 1989 for land in the Little River National Wildlife
Refuge in Oklahoma, $1 million more than the land's appraised
value. In 1989, the Bureau of Land Management gave The Conservancy
$1.4 million for land the group had purchased for just $1.26 million
in a simultaneous transaction. Washington Times author Ken Smith
noted, "Up to the point of the transaction, The Conservancy
had forked over exactly $100 for a purchase option agreement on
the land. Wall Street investors in jail for insider trading never
got a $140,000 return on a $100 investment." No doubt the
deal was lucrative enough to make even Hillary Clinton, who turned
a $1,000 investment in cattle futures into $100,000, green with
Revelations that land trust groups such as The Nature Conservancy had made big profits off government land deals led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Interior's Inspector General in 1992. The investigation found that the department had spent $7.1 million more than necessary on 64 land deals between 1986 and 1991.
There have been other government reports critical of Nature Conservancy land deals as well. In 1991, the Missouri state auditor found that the state "paid $500,000 more than necessary on six land purchases from the Conservancy," according to a June 19, 1994 Newhouse News Service report. "The auditor claimed there was a conspiracy to jack up the sales price on these tracts to help the organization regain $400,000 in losses claimed on two state park deals that went sour. That was a violation of state financial regulations..."
The Nature Conservancy's favorable land deals may be more than mere coincidence. William Moran, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife whistle-blower reported to Congress that his superior continued to handle land deals with The Nature Conservancy while applying for a job with the organization. In another apparent case of conflict of interest, a director for a state office of the Bureau of Land Management presided over complex land deals involving The Conservancy while serving a member of the Conservancy's state board of directors.
The Conservancy has other ways of tapping into taxpayer funds as well -- and for purposes that have nothing to do with land acquisition. In 1993, for example, the group received a $44,100 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary outreach program. This "outreach" included developing and directing a "plan to counter opposition's push for county-wide referendum against the establishment of the sanctuary" and recruiting "local residents to speak out against the referendum at two Board of County Commissioners hearings." In other words, The Conservancy used taxpayer dollars to lobby. So much for the group's moderate reputation.
But government land deals and grants aren't the only controversies surrounding The Nature Conservancy. The group has frequently been accused of using intimidation tactics to force private landowners to sell their land. In one of the most flagrant cases of intimidation, a state director for The Conservancy threatened to have the government condemn a landowner's property if he refused to sell it for annexation to the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. "If your land is not acquired through voluntary negotiation, we will recommend its acquisition through condemnation," wrote The Conservancy's Albert Pyott in 1993 to the landowner, Professor Dieter Kuhn, a resident of Marburg, Germany.
Perhaps the greatest controversy involving The Conservancy occurred in 1994 when the group was found guilty by a federal judge of undue influence over a dying man. The man, Dr. Frederic Gibbs, a medical researcher who developed the electroencephalograph and conducted research in epilepsy, willed a 95-acre farm to The Nature Conservancy. Officials with The Conservancy apparently assisted Gibbs in changing his will after he had become mentally incompetent.
Despite its much-vaunted concern for preserving the environment, The Nature Conservancy nonetheless accepts contributions from such environmentally-harmful businesses as oil companies. The group is not particularly a friend of America's most disadvantaged Americans -- minorities. In 1990, it teamed up with the National Audubon Society to oppose a sheep grazing program by poor Chicanos in New Mexico even though the grazing was essential for an economic development project.
Selected Nature Conservancy Quotes
A Nature Conservancy official explaining how The Conservancy helps government agencies circumvent democracy....
"We do work closely with USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). We buy these properties when they need to be bought, so that at some point we can become the willing seller (to government). This helps the government get around the problem of local opposition." -The Nature Conservancy's William Weeks quoted by syndicated columnist Warren T. Brookes, January 23, 1991
The Nature Conservancy making a German landowner feel at home -- in Nazi-era Germany, that is...
"If your land is not acquired through voluntary negotiation, we will recommend its acquisition through condemnation." -Albert Pyott, former Illinois state director of The Nature Conservancy, threatening Dieter Kuhn of Marburg, Germany, quoted in The New Orleans Times Picayune, June 19, 1994
Version Date: March 29, 1996
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