Nature Conservancy CEO McCormick explores new land protection efforts abroad

After preserving more than 117 million acres in the United States and other countries, members of the Nature Conservancy are moving beyond traditional land acquisition efforts. Steve McCormick, president and chief executive officer of the group, explains the path ahead for protecting a wide range of ecosystem types through the use of conservation easements and partnerships with private landowners. McCormick also discusses the group's involvement in the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct. Plus, a look at TNC's position on Endangered Species Act reform in Congress, potential conservation tax changes, and a 2003 Washington Post series critical of the group's tactics.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Steve McCormick. He's the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Steve thanks up for being here today.

Steve McCormick: Nice to be here.

Brian Stempeck: I want to start off with a real broad question. A lot of the environmental group leaders we've had on the show talked about what their priorities are going to be for the next few years. Whether that's going to be climate change, they're talking about international conservation or basically becoming more involved politically. You're the president and CEO of one of the biggest environmental groups in the world. And I want to see where the Nature Conservancy is headed in the next few years.

Steve McCormick: Where we're heading in the next few years is really an extension of where we've been throughout our 50 year history. We're a very place based conservation organization. We try to identify the places that have the best examples of natural diversity. And then seek some approach that will ensure that they're permanently protected. We're probably best known for buying land because we've been in the United States for most of our history and we can do that in United States. So in the next 10 years we're actually creating a very focused goal around major habitat types, worldwide, because our mission speaks to being a global organization. And focusing on those places we will sort of unify the decentralized structure of the organization around major forest types, major grassland types and major marine systems. And as we move into those global systems increasingly we're going to be engaging in new strategies. So not only will we be global in our orientation, but we're going to be edging out into things beyond land acquisition, because frankly outside of the United States we can't secure everything by buying it.

Brian Stempeck: So what are the alternatives if you can't acquire these lands outside the United States? What are these alternatives you're talking about?

Steve McCormick: Interestingly, and again, this place off of where we've been inside the United States where we focused on private lands, conservation. And even in the U.S. we've done more than just land acquisition. We've worked with private landowners on things like conservation easements that enable them to keep their private ownership but maintain land uses that are compatible with the diversity that we're interested in. So we're doing that kind of thing more and more outside the United States. And frankly in many developing countries, where are lots of these major habitat type priorities occur, the concept of conventional protected areas is very off putting. It sounds as though you're protecting it from people. You're pushing them out of areas that they've traditionally used. So increasingly we are working with private landowners, local communities, indigenous peoples to ensure that their livelihood and economic future is maintained, again, in a way that's compatible for the natural futures that we're interested in securing.

Brian Stempeck: Give us an example of some of the places you're talking about with this goal of preserving 10 percent of the major habitat types. I know we were talking before the show that you just got back from Africa. That was one of the major trips you recently took.

Steve McCormick: Yes.

Brian Stempeck: What's the kind of work that you'd be doing there along these kinds of lines?

Steve McCormick: We have not yet moved into Africa and we're taking a very hard and strategic look at what value we might add to the conservation work that's already being done in Africa. The better example would be a place we've been for a while, in a location in the eastern part of the island of Borneo for example, which is called East Kalimantan. It has some of the best remaining tropical rain forests anywhere in the world and certainly in Asia. It's been rapidly logged, mostly by illegal logging. And yet there are pockets of local villages that have done a very good job at harvesting, in a selective fashion, some of those valuable trees. And which is quite compatible with the maintenance of the natural integrity of those forest systems. So we've engaged with those local communities and we've been trying to secure, now this is again where our expertise in doing negotiating and acquisition can be very advantageous. We've negotiated the purchase of logging concessions from the provincial and national governments and then working with local communities to have those concessions continue, but in a way that doesn't obliterate the rain forest.

Brian Stempeck: Now is that a tougher sell when it comes to getting donations from the people who support the Nature Conservancy? I mean it seems like a lot of the work that you've done is in all 50 states in the United States, where people can see the land that's being set aside, the land that's being preserved. See it in their own backyard essentially. Is it a tougher sell when you talk about doing this international action where people don't have kind of the bird's eye view of what's going on?

Steve McCormick: What people find appealing about the Nature Conservancy and supporting us is that we get tangible lasting conservation results. Now again, in the United States, as you observed, we've done that principally by buying land. That's tangible and it's lasting. But even as we've moved into other countries as long as we are getting an outcome in the form of a place that is of global significance, that someone may not even have seen in their lifetime but they know that it will be conserved. And more and more people in this country are appreciative of the need to conserve habitat around the world. Getting that tangible lasting result albeit from a somewhat unconventional approach is very appealing to our donors. Not necessarily all of them, but we're actually finding new donors who didn't have so much interest in the United States and had a commitment to conserving land and waters outside the United States. So they are very attracted to that. So it's a challenge, but it hasn't been one that has been in any way hard for us to overcome.

Brian Stempeck: Now looking back domestically. Last summer the big event that your group was involved in was the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. This is a bird that was long thought to be extinct. Give us a sense of how the Nature Conservancy was involved on that.

Steve McCormick: Well, you know again that's a really good example of staying focused on both mission and I would say tactic or strategy. The Nature Conservancy has been securing land in that bottomland hardwood forest area of the Mississippi for the better part of 30 years. We had always hoped that the ivory-billed woodpecker was still there, but our motivation for securing it was not in anticipation of rediscovery of the woodpecker, but trying to maintain the overall value of that entire natural system and the way it functions. So it's not just buying little bits and pieces of land here and there, but having a fully functioning natural river system in the adjacent forest and dry lands. So we've been securing land. We've been working with the Fish and Wildlife Services as they've established refuges there. We've been working with the Army Corps of Engineers as they managed the water in that system to make sure that their flood control and water releases more or less emulate natural cycles. So we are confident that over time we had accumulated a significant amount of land and all the processes that maintain that forest system there. So it was sort of an affirmation or a validation of the focus on a habitat that the bird, that was an emblematic species within that habitat, kind of reappeared. And I can't say how reassuring that has been to have that bird reappear. And yet, again, the purpose of the project wasn't just for the bird. It was for everything within that system.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time does it concern you that you have this big success story when it comes to species that was thought to be extinct and at the same time you have members of Congress working on some major changes to the Endangered Species Act that many environmental groups oppose? Does that concern you that kind of ...

Steve McCormick: It does. And the timing is fortunate in some ways, in addition to being fortuitous. We have worked with the Endangered Species Act since its inception. And in our engagement with local communities and land owners and decision makers and the federal and state agencies we've seen that there are both great benefits of the act and there are deficiencies in it, in the way that it is applied. We have offered, in this current legislation, we've actually come out on record opposing the Pombo bill. But more than opposing it we've said we recognize that the act needs to be refined and enhanced. We offered to do that and we have direct experience that we think enables us to make those kinds of changes without eviscerating or diluting the purpose of the act, which is to ensure that species don't go extinct. And more than that, to bring them back to full recovery.

Brian Stempeck: Also in Congress right now, basically earlier this year the Senate Finance Committee was working on some changes, basically tax reform. Talking about changes to the way that land easements are valued and how much can be deducted from one's taxes. It has a major impact on groups like the Nature Conservancy and other land conservation groups. So it's been kind of put on the back burner for now with the hurricanes and other major events going on, but as the Finance Committee takes that up over the coming year what do you expect them to do?

Steve McCormick: The finance committee legitimately identified three major areas of concern. One is public benefit. Our conservation easements, which, again, are these permanent restrictions on private land for the purpose of ensuring either conservation of habitat or open space or even view sheds. There are now thousands of land trusts doing conservation easements, large and small land trusts. There are public agencies that do conservation easements from Fish and Wildlife Service right down to a local county park agency. So there are tens of thousands of easements. And the Congress wants to know are they all really in the public benefit, because the landowner gets some tax benefits. So if the land owner's getting benefits it should be legitimate in giving some public benefit to the easement. The second area of concern is valuation. Are those easements properly rigorously valued so that, again, the public is ensuring that they aren't in some fashion being compromised? And the third area is are they being properly monitored? And if there are activities that are inconsistent with the easement are they being enforced? Those are all very legitimate. Again, we've offered, from our own experience, some ideas on legislation to address each one of those issues. It's hard to know, as you say, with so many other things now coming to the attention of the Senate Finance Committee when and how they will get to that legislation. But we concur that there do need to be some reforms. And we're eager to help.

Brian Stempeck: At least part of the reason that the committee basically took up this issue is because of The Washington Post series dealing with the Conservancy. Basically it took a hard look at some of the easements that you're doing and some basically controversial practices that were going on at the time. The series came out in 2003. Since then there was a Senate Finance Committee investigation. The IRS has also looked at this. What has changed at the Conservancy since that Washington Post series?

Steve McCormick: We took that series of articles really seriously. And although we really also took issue with the way Conservancy was portrayed and still do, we felt it was an opportunity for us to sort of step back and examine all of our practices with respect to land transactions. And particularly those that involve sizable tax benefits. And therefore look at the relationships that we had with the landowners there we're dealing with. And even in cases where the, and they were all perfectly legal transactions, even in those cases, there can be at least an appearance of a relationship between the Nature Conservancy and a volunteer at the local level that would potentially compromise or call into question the integrity of the agreement, of the transaction. So we decided to err well within the boundaries of any kind of appearance of impropriety. So we made a number of changes in our policies, our practices and our procedures. And then we established a staffed compliance office to oversee all of our land transactions and to supplement the already existing internal audit function we had. So we made pretty significant changes in the Nature Conservancy to make sure that even one wouldn't taint the rest of our work.

Brian Stempeck: Now as you're looking, you were talking before about the more international action that the Conservancy is doing. Getting back to basically the first question I asked. A lot of environment groups basically say that there's kind of a need for the entire environmental movement to reassert its political power, that there's been some sense that these issues aren't playing as well in the elections. They aren't coming up as much. Just looking broadly in terms of how the Conservancy works with other environmental groups and looks ahead in the future, how do you see the resurgence of the movement coming back? Do you think there's a way to become more politically relevant?

Steve McCormick: I think that the environment, I think it's always been relevant actually. It has, in any poll conducted where voters are asked how they feel about certain issues, the environment always comes up high. Now candidly, it tends to fall and lag behind other issues that are seen as more immediate to voters. So the good news is the environment has always been something that people feel is important. What I think the environment movement has to do, and probably from a distance the environment groups look more like a block or movement than they really are. There's lots of different outlooks and perspectives and approaches within the so called movement. But I think one of the things that can be done is greater recognition of the importance of the environment broadly understood, whether it's air, water or land and human well being. This is not about luxury. It's not about something we do when everything else is taking care of. It is integral to our survival. We need to make that case without sounding alarmist. We need to do it in a way that recognizes the legitimacy of land use and people living on land and using resources. That's not to suggest that we should overly compromise, but I think it's a way of being realistic and finding a common ground where the environment can be accommodated and people can as well.

Brian Stempeck: All right Steve. We're out of time. We're going to stop there. Thanks a lot for coming on the show.

Steve McCormick: Thank you very much.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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