Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Power of Transparency

Gary Jones at Crumb Trail has some thoughts on an article rattling around the internet that is highly critical of the motives and methods of The Nature Conservancy. The source is from the Triple A Livestock Report which is a publication for New Mexico livestock operators, via The Westerner. The gist of the article is that TNC is intent on gobbling up all the land in the U.S. That it's a trojan horse for the government to take over property. That it's in bed with big corporations. And that it's using the "new tool" of conservation easements to take over the country without having to actually own the land. It's a variation on the conspiracy theory that can be pinned to just about any large organization, from the U.N. to the Vatican to ExxonMobil. And like every good conspiracy theory, there's just enough truth to the story to make it believable.
First, some clarification.
The article makes it seems as though TNC's President Steve McCormick has just said many of the things attributed to him, as he spells out his plan for world domination. But if you'll read the original article, you'll see the quotes are taken out of context and comes from an interview that's 3 1/2 years old. Some of the other charges are just silly. Is TNC bad because it gets money from large charitable foundations? Name a big non-profit that doesn't. Unfortunately, many of the other shots come straight from the Washington Post series, you know, the one that started the whole Senate Investigation thing. There's no doubt that many of the lingering wounds for TNC are self inflicted.
What's too big?
I've written about the dangers of these conspiracy theories to TNC in particular, and to the land trust movement in general. Get too big and people naturally get suspicious. Screw up a few things, and all your motives are thrown into question. But there are some advantages to being big. I've been following land trusts deals since last November, and no single organization seems to do as many deals or as many big deals as TNC. And keep in mind, the people who sold the land or the easements to the Conservancy and its partners did so willingly. And TNC is very upfront about thinking big. McCormick has talked publicly about the need to preserve entire ecosystems, not just scattered patches of land. TNC's very size allows it to make things happen that smaller trusts could only dream about.
Just as there are advantages, there are disadvantages beyond just being a big target. Bureaucracy, pressure to show results, pressure to do more, because there always will be more to do. Gary makes the point that local people do a better job managing the places around them. I think that's generally true. Local land trusts exist because local people care about the land around them. And if you know the land trust director from the Rotary club, or your kids share a classroom, or you know that person from church, you're less likely to think he or she is part of a conspiracy plotting to take over your land.
Get Transparent
So, what should TNC do? Honestly, I don't think the folks in Arlington really care what I think, but it's my blog and I'll suggest if I want to. It can be summed up by one word. Transparency. Let everyone see how much money you're taking in, and how you're spending it. The LTA has been pushing their members to get more transparent, and the entire reason the Senate is investigating (beyond the obvious reason of money) is that TNC and others have not been totally upfront about finances. TNC has a big PR staff using national and state websites to publicize the good things it does. It has a very slick (and I mean that in a nice way) quarterly magazine. It has the ways and means to spell out its "ways and means".
So Steve McCormick, take the pledge now. Spell out, in language everyone can understand, how much you're taking in, what the sources are, how much you get from each source and how you're spending the money. Nationally, internationally and state by state. Show how much your top executives are making. How much the top staff in every state makes. How much money goes for land acquisition and how much goes to conserving the land you already have. Go above and beyond the LTA standards, above and beyond what any other conservancy is doing. I understand the need for confidentiality on real estate deals in progress, but there's no need to be quiet about what you've already done. Stop the conspiracy theorists in their tracks (or would it be tracts?). There is mistrust building out there in places you want to work, and among people you'll want to work with. If you aren't completely upfront about what you're trying to do and how you spend and get your money, your job is only going to get harder.


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