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Are People Still Contributing to the Nature Conservancy?

One gets to wonder if those who donate to the numerous special interest, ultra-green, liberal, extremely well-heeled environmental groups have any idea how and where their money is actually being spent. All organizations of this nature are well versed in playing on unsuspecting people's emotions and have become masters of deception. Possibly, many contributors do not want to hear the true story, since they would hate to have their acquired warm feeling dissipate.

A case in point involves the activities of the wealthiest player, The Nature Conservancy. Although many of their dealings have been suspect for years, they have managed to maintain their good guy image. That is, until recent investigations by the prestigious United States Senate Finance Committee headed up by Senator Charles Grassley. The November 11, 2003 edition of the Washington Post carried an article entitled "Senate Panel Intensifies Its Conservancy Probe," which did a splendid job of summarizing this group's pursuit of internal audits and property records which they had been seeking since last summer and presentation of findings.

The article states that the Committee's inquiries have raised new questions in a wide range of areas. Additional information is being sought, including internal Conservancy audits, Conservancy land sales to government agencies, a $64 million land deal on Martha's Vineyard involving talk show host David Letterman, and details of sales, donations or purchases with certain private individuals and companies. The Conservancy stated that eleven of its land transactions were covered by confidentiality agreements.

The Washington Post independently obtained the audit of a project on Virginia's Eastern Shore, and found widespread accounting problems and violations of Internal Revenue Service regulations. The audit also stated that managers helped a contractor hide personal income. This so-called Reserve was the highlight of one of the Conservancy's recent fund-raising letters which incidentally was loaded with misrepresentations and distortions, including the status of the featured black-crowned night heron and the claim that it is the last intact, fully functioning barrier island ecosystem on the Atlantic coast. And, of course, the usual "one of the world's Last Great Places," which has all the earmarks of a brainwashing effort designed to convince potential contributors that there are only a few left.

Reportedly, the Senate inquiry began after a Post series in May of 2003 reported on a wide range of questionable Nature Conservancy practices, including selling properties to its trustees, who reaped large tax breaks; engagement in multi-million dollar business deals with companies and their executives while they sat on the governing board advisory council; the aforementioned Martha's Vineyard deal where they acquired 215 acres, and immediately resold half in a complicated chain of transactions, resulting in Letterman acquiring several ocean-side tracts to be used as luxury home sites; and the generating of $32 million in potential tax breaks for the Boston developers and their families, who happen to be major Conservancy donors; the gift of certain development rights on 11,000 acres of rugged canyon land near Los Angeles, which allowed the donor to write off the value as a tax-exempt donation; and additional widespread problems with the Virginia Coast Reserve, including the ownership of numerous real properties and capital assets that were never properly recorded, several million dollars worth of land costs that could not be identified either in the files or from county tax records, the provision of free housing and car use to some employees (an IRS violation), and allowing a farmer who oversaw property leases to negotiate and manage six farm leases with his own father. Obviously, in all of the above activities the Conservancy donors' money was wisely spent and the overriding concern was the welfare and wise use for the resident wildlife species and their habitat and, or course, saving the last great places.

According to the Senate Committee, the charity earlier offered to release additional records they sought in exchange for confidentiality protections "modeled after the agreement entered into between the Finance Committee and Enron Corporation." Very interesting. Obviously Enron had set a fine example. Wisely, the Senators balked, saying that the Enron deal was narrowly tailored to allow them to access Enron data protected under IRS regulations.

The Post article stated that a number of whistle blowers had approached the Committee. They, in turn, asked the Conservancy to make a written public statement saying that they would not take any action against cooperating former or current employees. Hopefully, the whistle blowers will be heeded.

Interestingly, back in June 2003 the Post reported that The Nature Conservancy, responding to congressional and media criticism, decided to terminate several of its controversial practices, including the lending of money to its executives and selling land to trustees. This obviously represents an admission of their guilt. Why did it take an investigation by the United States Congress to encourage them to start cleaning up their act? Undoubtedly, they were aware that they had been abusing the trust of their loyal contributors. They realized that the jig was up.

The Conservancy said that, while an external review had found no legal problems with the transactions, the board decided to remove even the perception of conflict of interest or impropriety. Just who conducted this external review and was it done in an impartial and objective manner? Hopefully, the Senate Committee will continue its efforts to get at the truth, rather than indulging in the hand-slapping that is all too common. Conservancy spokesman Jim Petterson was quoted as saying that these changes will better equip the organization to address the world's conservation challenges. Who in the devil assigned these people such responsibilities? As often happens, the arrogance of this and other members of the ultra-liberal, green consortium comes to light. They truly are the self-appointed saviors of the Planet Earth. Really now.

While on the subject of the Nature Conservancy's wheeling and dealings, some responsible body should look into their infiltration into state conservation agencies throughout the country. It all started back in the early 1990's with their inception of the Natural Heritage program. What sounded like a noble undertaking, with the goal being to better catalog information on the distribution of native flora and fauna, turned into a horrible exercise of power, which enabled the Conservancy to have a dramatic influence on program direction. What started as a two-year contract, obviously was designed in such a way as to insure permanency. Nature Conservancy people somehow or other became permanent agency employees, and the questions of whether any violations of civil service regulations took place especially in respect to competitive positions, never seem to have been addressed. Then there are the extremely cozy relationships between the Conservancy and governmental officials on up to the governor level, especially in respect to real estate dealings and regulations that tread on people's rights. Indeed, investigations are sorely needed.

Hopefully, the Senate Finance Committee will faithfully do its duty and insure that justice is served. One never can tell; The Nature Conservancy might once again become a noble organization, having a positive influence on the common-sensical protection and management of the bountiful natural resources that bless this country.

In the meantime, those contributors to the Conservancy or those contemplating future donations should give a lot more thought to the matter. The same applies to all the noble-sounding environmental organizations and to any charity, for that matter. People do not take full advantage of the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment ever devised namely the human brain and all too quickly buy into things that give them a warm feeling. Incidentally, the implications of such apply to voting for political candidates or any decision a human being has to make.

Nate Dickinson
February 25, 2004

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