Green is Good: Science-Based Conservation in the 21st Century

May 5, 2014

Jaymee Marty's team looks into buckets of water collected from the vernal pools on the Howard Ranch near Sacramento for research into the effects of cattle grazing on California's delicate vernal pool habitats. Photo by Ian Shive.

More than 60 years ago, scientists began The Nature Conservancy (TNC) with an idea — to protect a piece of nature by purchasing it and setting it aside.

The Nature Conservancy has grown since then. But we’ve remained consistent about our dedication to science, to practical solutions, and most of all, to finding the best ideas to meet the challenges nature faces.

That inclusive approach is why TNC embraces a wide variety of ways of doing conservation — and reasons for supporting it. Those reasons range from having access to abundant hunting and fishing to the philosophy that every species has a right to exist. From the need to sit alone in quiet contemplation of a beautiful landscape to the needs of hundreds of millions whose livelihoods depend on healthy fisheries or grasslands.

Some might think all these motivations are incompatible. At TNC, we see them as part of our big tent.

But you might be surprised to learn that science is a crucial part of what allows us to be so ecumenical. How is that possible? Doesn’t science rule out much more than it allows?

On the contrary. Science asks questions, challenges conventional wisdom, applies the latest technologies, and leaves no stone unturned. A science-based organization is by definition always restless, experimenting and casting a wide net for better solutions whose worth is proven by evidence.

And conservation today needs that attitude. The challenges the world faces — from climate change to land conversion for agriculture to the growing footprint of our energy appetites — are immense and expanding exponentially.

The challenges the world faces — from climate change to land conversion for agriculture to the growing footprint of our energy appetites — are immense and expanding exponentially.

The story journalists report about conservation today — like the New Yorker piece just published on The Nature Conservancy — sometimes emphasize tensions between “new” and “traditional” approaches. We understand how tension and conflict makes for a good story. But we do not see things as new versus old.

We also do not see conservation as choosing between protected areas and biodiversity or working with corporations and smart development. We think and have shown you can get both. We have worked with Rio Tinto in Mongolia to mitigate mining impacts and gotten an additional 400,000 hectares of land protected where mining is prohibited

To be clear: The Nature Conservancy continues to embrace “traditional” strategies. We still buy land, we arrange for easements with ranchers and logging companies, we help nations establish marine protected areas.

But we also know that securing those “last great places” (as our old motto had it) will be to no avail if climate change renders them obsolete. If overgrazing and poor farming practices lead to large-scale dust storms that sweep across continents. If dry and brittle forests burn up in record-setting wildfires. If overfishing empties our oceans.

Our newer tactics — working directly with people on strategies that can benefit them as well as nature — acknowledge that conservation today cannot succeed without the support of those who depend directly on resources for their livelihoods. The science and our desire to be better conservationists drive us to adopt and test these tactics. We see them as much as “conservation” as any big land deal.

That desire is why TNC collaborates with corporations to further the work of conservation. For all its flaws, capitalism has been an engine of innovation and improvement in the quality of life in many nations — and corporations are major drivers and shapers of today’s civilization. Here again, we are science-based in our approach. Even though we have written extensively about why nature is a good business investment, we also must produce evidence to show that the approach is making a difference.

It is often written that companies have motives and goals contrary to conservation and that when a corporation’s objectives run counter to conservation, the notion of working with business will fall apart. We think business and nature are aligned in their interests more than most realize, and that the environmental values of business leaders and their employees can also play a huge role.

Our approach — to try, to test, to justify through evidence, and to revise in the face of evidence before replicating — will always be a hallmark of TNC. It has and will continue to allow us to explore questions from a conservation standpoint.

For instance: Is the U.S. push for corn biofuel really good for nature? Our research showed that corn biofuels reap too little and too delayed a greenhouse-gas reduction benefit—and could be using up land that would be better devoted to food or conservation.

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, what does it mean to do conservation in cities and for cities?

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, what does it mean to do conservation in cities and for cities?

Might genetically modified organisms be part of the solution to growing more food on less land — again, thus sparing massive habitat conversion?

Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report warning we have only a decade to halt the worst ravages of climate change on nature and the natural systems people depend on, should nuclear power be off the table as an energy option?

Can we afford to ignore population growth, particularly in areas where resources and species are under heightened pressure? In Tanzania, TNC now works with partners to support family planning in the same communities where we also develop fishing and grazing methods that bring food to the table without destroying wildlife and ecosystems.

Finally, as the New Yorker article details, we are working with Dow Chemical Company, in search of natural solutions to engineering, regulatory and operational challenges they face—solutions that benefit both nature and the company’s bottom line. The work can be difficult, with occasional misunderstandings — we have had to learn how to communicate across different cultures and lexicons.

But difficulty isn’t going to deflect us from finding out whether conservation can make the case for its relevance to a corporation’s systemic business planning. Imagine the gains if we can do so. We submit our results in papers to peer-reviewed journals for publication, to share the knowledge we generate from this collaboration to all.

Since much of this “new” work is an experiment, it doesn’t all work out. For instance, many years ago we tried to set up an aquaculture operation in Indonesia as a means of providing alternative livelihoods so local communities would not damage or over-fish coral reef systems. The enterprise was an economic failure and had to be shut down.

But the lesson was not to pull back from working with people; it was that we had a lot to learn about conservation that benefitted both biodiversity and people in that situation.

We are even incorporating new disciplines into our science portfolio, and new collaborations that bring together our scientists with engineers, practitioners, policymakers and others. Our NatureNet Science Fellows program, for instance, is supporting some young scientists to explore nanotechnology for both cleaning water, and for creating a more efficient solar-energy driven battery. Our Science for Nature and People collaboration is delving into whether fracking can be done without compromising water quantity and quality for nature and people.

None of this fits the profile of traditional conservation, or conservation science. But all of it fits squarely within our mission to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends, not to mention the heritage of intellectual curiosity and pragmatism that mark TNC.

Part of science, too, is asking hard questions — of new ideas and old ones. We owe our supporters nothing less as we seek to give them maximum conservation return for their investments in our work. Those small parcels of land TNC bought in the 1960s and 70s are sometimes surrounded by a sea of degradation, and require relentless management. We know it was worth spending millions of dollars to rid Santa Cruz Island of non-native pigs. But we are pretty sure it would not be worth spending what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to rid California of non-native Eucalyptus trees (which also happen to harbor wildlife and monarch butterflies). As the world changes, our ideas have to respond to what science tells us, and how we can best make the biggest impact for nature.

In the end, those of us who do and who support conservation don’t have the time to get caught up in debates over “traditional” vs. “new.” We have to focus on what works — discovering it, testing it, replicating it and amplifying it. That is the genius of science, and of The Nature Conservancy. We work with people and organizations that can help us move the conservation agenda forward, and help it to garner the support of as many people as possible. It’s time to get back to work.

Join the Discussion

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  1. I’m glad you recognize that those traditional strategies are still important. If it were not for those 2,000 acre to 10,000 acre protected core-habitat areas that TNC purchased in Midwest states (and in many other areas) during the 1990’s, there would be sensitive species lacking any home today.

  2. Well, I support your evolution. Have been meaning to sign up and donate and today I kicked in some of my tax return for TNC.

    In fact, I’ve been continually impressed over the last couple of years with the sane things I have heard from you on GMOs, working with businesses and farmers, getting kids aware of environmental issues in ways that really reach them, and even on nuclear now. It seems so constructive rather than reactionary.

    So I’m in.

  3. If a “science-based” approach is so important to TNC, then why did almost all of the conservation scientists working for the Washington program get laid off last year? I think the Conservancy has a great history of doing effective conservation work, but TNC’s mission is becoming too diluted and corporatized.

  4. Of course science and facts are important. However, by having so many corporate players on your board – and now at your helm – your organization has a growing preference towards “developing” the earth for human needs instead of true conservation. There is a critical need for setting aside untrammeled habitat so that people can have places to experience nature’s work and nature can work undisturbed (it seems to have done better without us). As Chief Sealth said “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.” There are other organizations that are working on climate change. Few have been as effective at setting aside land as TNC.

    My family has made provisions in our estate plan to leave a major gift to TNC. Your recent shift to the develop approach moves us to seriously reconsider our planned gift.

  5. Having now read the excellent article in The New Yorker (May 12) that prompted this blog post, I can see why TNC is feeling defensive about its directional change. When you have E.O. Wilson, Reed Noss, and Michael Soule, among others, criticizing your organization’s change, there’s something seriously wrong.
    Regarding Mr. Reed’s comments above, I sympathize, having removed TNC from my will a year ago for the same reason.
    As for the corporate collaborations that TNC prefers these days, they are not bad in themselves; but TNC’s demeaning of the traditional methods of conservation has been a pretty sorry mistake.

    1. Maybe it’s a sign that something is seriously right. Wilson, Soule, can continue their ad hominem attacks on younger scientists who report that many old assumptions about invasion biology don’t stand up to examination in the field. But “proof by intimidation” isn’t science. Biology marches on, and our understanding of what is “natural” will continue to improve. Appreciation is due to Nature Conservancy for looking forward, not backward, and for accepting that humans are now, and will continue to be, part of nature.

  6. You are a disgrace to the environmental movement and conservation-minded citizens everywhere. You are reversing the mission of an organization that many of us through the years have supported with cash donations because it TNC was devoted to “Protecting nature, Preserving life” — not simply to seeking the least environmentally destructive ways for corporations to make money. Forests and wildlife are defenseless in the face of the slash-and-burn business model Morgan Stanley and the other investment banks have foisted upon us. (You know what I mean, Mark Tercek, like one that made you a multimillionaire).

    You hide behind a smokescreen you call science, refuse to recognize the value of anything but the precious data that is somehow supposed to save us from the environmental depredations of Big Oil, strip mining, the Koch Brothers, Big Pharma, and fracking; and you proudly ply such corporate bad actors as DuPont, Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, WalMart, Cargill, and a long list of others — including (surprise) Morgan Stanley. All of these corporations generously contribute to your operations, and you, in turn, provide them with cover and legitimacy.

    Shame on you. I don’t have a lot of money, certainly not like the “people” (“corporations are people”) who finance the TNC these days, but I have a computer and access to the Internet. I’ll do everything in my power to oppose you guys.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Tercek and Mr. Kareiva, for defending TNC’s practical, scientific approach to conservation in the 21st century, an approach that is responsive to the realities of climate change. Speaking as one of the thousands of people who are trying to prevent the pointless eradication of eucalyptus trees in California, THANK YOU for stating TNC’s opposition to these projects. Here is an article about TNC’s constructive approach to conservation:

  8. Reading in the May 12 article that the Conservancy CEO’s reality about nature is defined by numbers and data supporting numbers, and the Chief Scientist believes that loss of species and habitat is irrelevant because new habitat and species will emerge, left me wondering if the Conservancy is now an arm of the global economy driven by capital markets with no ethical compass. The article also notes that Tercek “told Dow people that Nauture Conservancy staffers weren’t egghead conservationists not in touch with the real world.” That Tercek would denigrate others to elevate himself in the eyes of corporate funders is sophomoric, unprofessional, and unsettling.

  9. The recent trend within TNC is frightening to me. It is clear that corporate interests have invaded the ranks, especially when statements are made suggesting that extinction is normal and to be accepted. Isn’t TNC’s goal to preserve life? Dow Chemical produces vast amounts of toxic pollution. Instead of accepting this and simply trying to reduce the pollution somewhat, TNC should be leading the charge to abandon such industry and promote truly green technologies (which would help in preserving life). The problem is now very clear to me: the bureaucracy of TNC requires large amounts of funding to maintain, funding that is derived from the very system that is causing pollution and loss of open space. I’ve been involved in the data collection of past years that was involved in helping direct land purchases. It was real science then (not fuzzy science, as the New Yorker article indicates). Instead of attempting to find real solutions, TNC seems to have partnered with those who have no interest in preserving life. Very frightening indeed.