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The Nature Conservancy:
privatization of policymaking

Eagle Roost
Courtesy of Tom Dunstan

Cedar Glen Eagle Roost

Thirty years ago ecologist Max Hutchison got lost in a forest. Today that 4,500 acres of oak, hickory, cypress and tupelo in southern Illinois' Cache River basin is corn and soybean fields. But the organization that Max works for, The Nature Conservancy, plans to put the forest back.

Restoring natural habitats is a goal of The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization that has deep roots in Illinois and does "business" differently from other environmental organizations. The Nature Conservancy takes a businesslike approach to preserving nature. It also taps the talents of people from diverse backgrounds to work for its one and only cause protecting biodiversity. The term biodiversity is defined within The Nature Conservancy's mission: to preserve plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and water they need to survive.

The Nature Conservancy as an organization has survived to celebrate its 40th anniversary and has protected 6.3 million acres of natural habitat in the United States (33,000 acres in Illinois), with millions more acres protected in Latin America and the Caribbean. It boasts 620,000 members (24,000 in Illinois). The Nature Conservancy's Volunteer Stewardship Network, a program initiated in Illinois and linked to expanding membership, established a model for conservation volunteerism nationwide. In addition, The Nature Conservancy developed the Natural Heritage Program and Conservation Data Center Network, 82 data centers that contain the world's most comprehensive inventory of rare species and natural communities. The database is increasingly used by developers, government officials and natural resource managers to avoid disturbing sensitive natural areas.

The Nature Conservancy attributes its success to remaining focused on protecting biodiversity. The conservancy will use all legitimate "tools" at hand to protect an ecosystem identified by scientists as containing rare species of plants and/or animals from further infringement. The tools it uses set the organization apart from most environmental activists. Rather than lobby for laws to protect sensitive areas, the conservancy simply buys the land. After managing and often restoring the land, the conservancy turns it over to government entities that share its conservation views. The Nature Conservancy's approach is non-adversarial and businesslike; its attitude is determined, conciliatory and patient, yet with a strong, ever-present sense of urgency.

The times demand urgency. Even with the success The Nature Conservancy can claim, species are vanishing at alarming rates. According to The Nature Conservancy, the planet is losing 50 species every day. In the tropics alone, where much of the Earth's diversity lies, more than 70,000 acres of forest are believed to be disappearing daily. Ron Panzer, a biologist who manages the Indian Boundary Prairie in Markham, Illinois, brings the message closer to home: "By the year 2000 there will be no wild areas in Illinois left to protect. They will either be under protection or lost to development."

Scientists have recognized the need to protect wild areas since early in this century. One of the earliest ecology activists is an Illinoisan, Rockford's George Fell. In the late 1940s, Fell was a member of the Ecologists Union, a 300-member national organization of professional ecologists (whose roots trace to faculty at the University of Illinois). The union was formed for the purpose of campaigning to preserve natural areas. In 1951 the Ecologists Union changed its name to The Nature Conservancy and named Fell its executive director. The conservancy credits Fell for turning it into a membership organization and setting the direction of protecting land through purchase. Fell also envisioned the strength that comes from using talents of people from various backgrounds to achieve the organization's objectives.

Fell formulated and administered the Illinois program for dedicating nature preserves and shepherding natural areas into the hands of state government. The Department of Conservation defines a nature preserve as an area of land or water in public or private ownership that is formally dedicated to being maintained in its natural condition. Most of Illinois' 209 nature preserves are open to the public for nature study and hiking; any other activity like hunting, camping and picnicking is prohibited. Vehicles are not allowed. A few preserves like Bystricky Prairie in McHenry County and Harper's Woods in Stark County are privately

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owned, and entrance is by permission only. (For descriptions and accessibility, see A Directory of Illinois Nature Preserves published by the Illinois Department of Conservation.)

The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act is a model for other states. Written by Fell and passed in 1963, it established the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The commission has nine members appointed by the governor. It approves new nature preserves in Illinois and provides policy for the care and maintenance of those preserves. Fell, appointed by Gov. Otto Kerner, served on the first Nature Preserves Commission. Under the plan initiated by Fell, The Nature Conservancy has sold or donated more than 10,500 acres to the Department of Conservation.

Much of the conservancy's current land acquisition for conservation in the state is taking place in southern Illinois. The Cache River Bioreserve, generally defined as the Cache River watershed (an area of 472,800 acres in Union, Johnson, Alexander, Pulaski and Massac counties), contains 100 plant and animal species listed by the state as endangered or threatened and four species listed by the federal government (another species is a candidate for listing). A proposed 60,000-acre national wildlife refuge in the Cache River basin will protect the habitats of a majority of the listed species. As of April public and private purchases totaled over 30,000 acres.

The Cache River project began in the early 1970s when the Nature Preserves Commission recommended that the Department of Conservation buy the Little Black Slough in Johnson County. The 2,515-acre tract adjoins the Heron Pond Nature Preserve and contains true southern swamp with some of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi River (some bald cypress are known to be in excess of 1,000 years old and believed to be up to 1,700 years old). The Department of Conservation agreed with the commission that the tract should be purchased but had no funds available. Instead, the land was sold to Westvaco Corporation, but that did not mean the land was lost to conservation.

The Nature Conservancy became involved and used one of its more successful "tools" business contacts to seal the deal for conserving the land. Gaylord Donnelley, a long-time supporter of the environment and The Nature Conservancy, had bought paper for his publishing company from Westvaco for many years. He was a personal friend to the Luke family, who owned Westvaco. In the end, Westvaco sold the Little Black Slough tract to The Nature Conservancy for less than appraised value (making the land affordable while receiving a tax deduction). About 1,200 acres of the Little Black Slough tract were sold to the Department of Conservation in December 1975, and the remaining 1,300 acres were donated to it.

The relationship between Westvaco and The Nature Conservancy is still being exploited in the name of conservation. The conservancy bought 1,300 acres of land in Kentucky land that an ecological assessment confirmed contained no rare species of plants or animals and that fit in with Westvaco operations. The conservancy simply traded it for Westvaco land inside the Cache River Wetlands project that does contain threatened and endangered species.

The Little Black Slough purchase began a cooperative private-public venture that, when completed, will see an entire ecosystem protected and under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The Nature Conservancy tends to act as facilitator with the other partners: Ducks Unlimited, another private nonprofit organization; the Illinois Department of Conservation; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Brent Manning, director of the Department of Conservation, says that with the state's fiscal condition, it is more important than ever for the Department of Conservation to work with the private sector to preserve Illinois' natural resources. "[T]he Cache River project ... proved that teamwork, cooperation and determination can get things done."

Indian Boundary Prairie
Courtesy of Ron Panzer

Blazing stars and flowering spurge bloom at Indian Boundary Prairie in Cook County.

A willingness to work issues out to everyone's satisfaction marks the philosophy of The Nature Conservancy. The Cache River Wetlands project exemplifies cooperative effort on behalf of conservation. "Part of what we're trying to demonstrate in a place like the Cache River ... is that this kind of conservation work and ecosystem protection is a healthy, economically viable thing to do with the landscape," explains Paul Dye, assistant director of The Nature Conservancy's Illinois Field Office in Chicago and coordinator of the Cache River project.

One irony deserves note. The southern Illinois timberlands were cut down to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Today the

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Cypress trees
Courtesy of Ralph Brown

Cypress trees in Little Black Slough.

Nature Conservancy draws money and people from Chicago to support reforestation of the Cache River basin. Ecologists estimate that as many as 15,000 acres of native trees oak, sweet gum, hickory, cypress and tupelo among others may have to be replanted in the Cache River area. Such an immense task would take all the trees that the two state nurseries could produce, but neither is located in the watershed nor is either raising seedlings native to the area.

Where corn and soybeans replaced bottomland forests, corn and soybean technology tinkered with a bit is putting the trees back. The Nature Conservancy uses a direct seeding program, putting the seeds in the ground with machinery used to plant corn or soybeans. Planting is done with a modified soybean drill pulled by a tractor (a smaller version is pulled by an off-road vehicle) and broadcast seeding followed by discing. Planting is not done in rows or monoculturally so that what the reforesters end up with is a mixture of species that will someday look like a natural forest.

Regardless of its scientific or technical expertise, The Nature Conservancy demonstrates one characteristic, the attention paid to the interests of people, that may set it apart from other environmental organizations. Paul Dye explains their philosophy: "It's not just endangered species that people support us for; it's what we are doing for people. We're giving them a place to go, giving them an environment that is beautiful and rich and providing opportunities for them to participate in nature, which is something that a lot of our society has lost."

In smaller Illinois transactions, the conservancy has quietly bought a piece of land from a willing seller. When a public agency has the funds, the conservancy sells the land, generally for the price paid, to the agency to continue restoration and management. The same policy held true in southern Illinois in the early 1970s. The conservancy only bought swamps from people wanting to sell them. It soon became obvious though, explains Dye, that sediment from the cleared timberlands was choking the wetlands (at one place the river bottom has risen nine feet in 20 years from silt running off farmland). To save the wetlands the project would have to be expanded. In order to eventually purchase, along with the other three partners, the 60,000 acres within the project boundaries, the conservancy knew it would need public support.

The Nature Conservancy recognized that the Cache River project would affect many people, perhaps some adversely. The conservancy published in the local newspapers its plans for buying land and restoring it to wetlands. That act, says Dye, is almost unprecedented in Illinois unless a federal agency is involved because the state is under no obligation to inform the public before purchasing land for conservation purposes. The community appreciated the openness and candor of the conservancy about what needed to be done, claims Dye, and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the project, it found a lot of public support for its role.

Area concerns for the economic impact of taking farmland out of production and returning it to forest and wetlands led The Nature Conservancy to commission a study by the faculty of the School of Agribusiness Economics of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The study, which the conservancy expected to show negative impact, concluded that the Cache River project should have positive economic benefits.

Not everyone agrees. Dave Patton, manager of the Pulaski-Alexander Farm Bureau, has serious reservations about the findings of the initial economic impact study. He asserts that taking farmland out of production will hurt not only the agriculture-related businesses in the area, but it will also hurt the school systems, particularly in Pulaski County, where he claims one-third of the tillable land will be taken out of production when the refuge is completed. He does not believe the predicted growth in recreation-related businesses will make up for lost property taxes. Patton says he has no problem with protecting lands that the general population feels are environmentally important, but it isn't fair to ask one county to bear the burden of the cost.

Patton sees decline for Pulaski County, three-quarters of which is within the project border. Tenant families will leave as tillable acres are taken out of production. Investors attracted by the recreation industry will probably live in Johnson or Union counties, where infrastructures are better, according to Patton. He believes any economic gain will most likely be elsewhere.

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Working with the Conservancy under a Ford Foundation grant, Southern Illinois University is continuing to look at ways the environment of the watershed can be improved while increasing economic opportunity. SIU faculty member Roger Beck, who oversaw the first study, is conducting a second one. The Ford Foundation, according to Paul Dye, is interested in the Cache River project because many poor, rural communities in the United States have environmental problems. The overwhelming question becomes: Is the conservation work that solves those problems compatible with economic development?

The conservancy admits that there is some risk involved in monitoring the regional economy as the conservation project is fulfilled. "We're putting our claims on the line, and we're ready to back them up with some good scientific studies to show whether we're right or not," explains Dye. Becoming involved in economic development, community relations and "all the other things the conservancy's finding itself involved in" is an acceptance of the need to expand the tools to fulfill the conservancy's mission of protecting biological diversity. Dye claims that there have to be natural places left on the landscape for plants and animals to have a chance at survival. Dye says, "We know we can't buy everything. We know we can't just build a big fence around these areas and expect them to survive. People have to be involved. People have to understand the role of these places in their communities, and not only accept them but support them."

Actively involving people in restoration or the nurturing of nature is another tool the conservancy is finding increasingly useful. In fact, in the past few years it has had such a demand from people wanting to help that it has had to develop a whole new program: the Volunteer Stewardship Network. Started in 1983 in Illinois, the network is a model for volunteerism in conservation all over the nation. The Illinois chapter has more than 4,800 volunteers. Dye believes the new program "is just servicing a constituency that always existed ... but has been frustrated in not knowing where they can go to help or get more involved."

Boy Scouts
Courtesy of Ned Trovillion

Boy Scouts collecting nuts to reforest areas of Cache River basin.

Volunteerism has become part of The Nature Conservancy's success in protecting natural areas, particularly in northeastern Illinois. Cook County Forest Preserve District alone owns 67,000 acres that the conservancy wants to see properly cared for. According to Dye, most public agencies do not have the manpower or the budget or, in some cases, the awareness of what they have in terms of biodiversity values. That is where volunteers come in. Along with other "aerobic conservation" chores, volunteers trained by professional biologists and ecologists burn off and reseed prairies, root out exotic plants (not natural to an area) and build fences that encourage hikers and discourage vehicles.

Dye asserts the Volunteer Stewardship Network has made it financially feasible to manage these public properties, and it has brought a very visible, active and supportive constituency to those agencies. In turn. Dye says the agencies understand that the public wants to see these lands managed for biodiversity purposes as part of the natural landscape, which people can visit and see and participate in.

Volunteers also constitute an important component of the reforestation effort in southern Illinois. Particularly helpful are the Boy Scouts, who collect nuts and seeds from the indigenous trees. Last year they gathered enough seeds to plant 200 acres of timber. In three years they have collected over five tons of acorns, hickory nuts and other seeds. Dye sees both irony and synergy in having the Boy Scouts involved. "Even as Max Hutchison as a man stands at a place where there is no forest after he's watched it disappear, there's a young kid picking up a nut that could become a champion tree a thousand years from now."

Other seed collectors come as unusual, but nevertheless welcome, partners of the conservancy inmates from the correctional centers in southern Illinois. According to Rod Tally, warden at Vienna Correctional Center, "When they get out in the small communities, state parks and nature preserves, they see something productive from a day's work, and that's good for them and us and everyone involved."

The success of The Nature Conservancy in protecting threatened habitats appears to revolve around how they use people. People volunteer their talents because they believe in the mission. The money saved through volunteer work Illinois' chapter has only 16 paid staff members can translate into saving natural habitats. Funding for The Nature Conservancy comes mainly from individuals, 71.8 percent nationwide, with foundations and other organizations donating 16.2 percent and corporations giving 12 percent.

It's hard to argue with the success of The Nature Conservancy in protecting rapidly vanishing natural habitats in Illinois. It has remained focused on protecting biodiversity. Its members and others like them have worked with a sense of urgency, so that the Prairie State has prairie to visit, as well as swamps with thousand-year-old trees and forests big enough and wild enough to get lost in.

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