Environment, Inc.: Leader steers Conservancy in a radical


Mar 11, 2001
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Environment, Inc.: Leader steers Conservancy in a radical new direction.

By Tom Knudson -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer.

Published 12:07 p.m. PST Saturday, Dec. 29, 2001.

One morning last month, the leader of the world's largest environmental group sprang to his feet in a duck blind in California's Central Valley, lifted a 20-gauge shotgun to the sky -- and fired.

Overhead, a mallard crumpled its wings and plummeted to earth. Steve McCormick, president of the Nature Conservancy, was ecstatic.

"God, I love this," he said. "This is just a thrill."

Hunting is not a pastime one sees much among environmentalists. But McCormick is no ordinary environmentalist. In a movement known for passion and protest, he is quiet and nonconfrontational. A lawyer, McCormick specializes not in litigation but in land transactions. Earlier this year, he attended a July Fourth fireworks display on the Capitol Mall in Washington with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whose policies have drawn outrage from environmental groups.

Ten months into his job, McCormick is taking his independent streak to a new level. He is calling for reform of the Nature Conservancy itself, an overhaul he calls "transformational."

With 3,000 employees and annual contributions ($445 million last year) that dwarf all other environmental groups, the Conservancy has long been the subject of kudos and criticism. To devotees, it is the epitome of innovation and success. But to detractors, it is an elite, arrogant, corporate- and government-funded nature club unwilling to tackle tough issues.

"The environmental movement is about values beyond price. Steve has abandoned or never understood (that)," said Huey Johnson, a veteran environmentalist and former western regional director of the Conservancy. "He has made (the Conservancy) a tool of government and companies with questionable environmental records."

From the start, the Conservancy has been ambitious. Formed a half-century ago, it pioneered a new style of conservation: buying land. It owns or leases about 5 million acres in the United States and has protected millions more.

In the 1970s and '80s, when other groups were honing their advocacy, the Conservancy expanded its scientific expertise. In the '90s, its membership doubled and revenues quintupled. Today, it is the nation's 10th largest nonprofit institution.

Most incoming executives would be delighted, but not McCormick. "We've raised a lot of money. Well, that, in itself, is not a measure of success," he said. "We've been growing a lot. That is not a measure of success."

Even the Conservancy's impressive real estate portfolio is not triumph enough for McCormick. The reason, he explained recently, is that in an era of wide-scale ecological threats -- such as population pressure and the spread of non-native species -- nature preserves are not sufficient to heal an ailing planet.

"Our mission speaks to preserving biological diversity, not creating nature preserves," he said. "Land acquisition alone will not enable us to work at the scale we have to work at."

McCormick's solution is a tsunami of change, much of which crashes against Conservancy, and conservation, tradition. McCormick plans to:

* Work with, not against, other environmental groups.

* Expand international conservation.

* Shrink the Conservancy's bureaucracy and freeze its budget.

* Reduce junk-mail fund raising and focus on personal appeals to high-end donors.

* Shift its emphasis from buying land to protecting ecological regions.

The Conservancy "has never been forced to change because it's always been able to grow," McCormick said. "It's gotten kind of happy and sassy. Nobody has said, 'Are we fulfilling our mission?' "

Reaction has varied widely.

"It's really a takeover of an existing organization with great integrity. I feel he needs to be slowed up," said Johnson.

But Ed Hastey, former head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in California, said McCormick is on the right track.

"Steve is trying to re-energize the organization and say, 'Hey, we can do more.' It's good constructive criticism," said Hastey, now a trustee of the Conservancy's California chapter.

At the national level, there is both excitement and angst.

"Steve has a very compelling vision for conservation. He doesn't just want to look successful. He really wants to make it work," said Peter Kareiva, who recently stepped down from the Conservancy's board to become McCormick's science adviser.

"The worry is by reaching too far, too fast, he'll fall and ruin what was a pretty good thing," Kareiva said.

McCormick, 6-foot-6 and thin as a post, is not afraid of taking risks. In fact, he encourages it, even if it means occasional failure.

He has told Conservancy managers that "if you succeed at everything, either you're lying or you're not trying hard enough," said one Conservancy executive.

A native Californian, McCormick draws inspiration from many sources, including his family -- a wife and two daughters, ages 13 and 10 -- nature, well-run companies and history. Figures he admires include Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Civil War Gen. Joshua Chamberlain. Like them, McCormick seems to relish challenge.

"Steve is a person who is determined to get results," said Michael Mantell, a lawyer with Resources Law Group in Sacramento, "He has that incredible ability to constantly grow."

McCormick was born in San Francisco and graduated from the University of California Hastings School of Law in 1976. Almost immediately, he joined the Conservancy's California chapter, where he was named executive director in 1984.

In California, his legacy includes working with state and federal governments to protect key parcels of land and developing a strategic blueprint -- "Conservation By Design" -- to identify lands across the nation most in need of protection. He also became known as a reformer.

"He shook up a very successful organization in California -- transformed it from owning lots of preserves to focusing on conservation by design and looking at large landscapes," said Mantell.

For a major conservation leader, McCormick is remarkably modest.

"I'm not that smart," he said over a bowl of soup after last month's hunt near Marysville. "I sometimes think people in the nonprofit community are almost too smart. They see so much detail, they miss the big picture."

There is nothing humble about his attire, though. In the office, McCormick, who is colorblind, dresses like a toucan, wearing electric blue, orange and red shirts with colorful, eye-popping ties. In the buttoned-down Ivy League East, he is a rare bird.

Nor is he shy about his passion for hunting, citing its roots in the history of conservation. "I find it immensely thrilling. Hunters and anglers have done incredibly important things for conservation. In many ways, they are more genuinely naturalists than armchair environmentalists."

As he settled into his job in February, McCormick took aim at a new target: bureaucracy. He met with staff, donors and board members. He traveled to China, Central America and Conservancy projects across the United States. What he found concerned him.

"There was no connectivity," McCormick said. "The international division and the U.S. division were so separate they might as well have been two different organizations."

As McCormick peered deeper, he found fat and inefficiency. There was a senior management team, for example, with 120 people. "It was swollen," he said. He trimmed it by a third.

Thirty to forty percent of the Conservancy's U.S. spending was going not to saving species but to property maintenance. "That's not strategic," he said.

There were programs that didn't fit. "Rather than thinking, 'Are we doing things that are obsolete?' we instead said, 'Add this new thing. We'll just raise more money for it.' So we just kept adding."

From 1990 to 2000, administrative overhead at the Conservancy jumped from $14.8 million to $40.2 million -- up 170 percent. Its fund-raising bill, which includes membership solicitations, went from $8.8 million to $45.7 million, up 420 percent.

That caught McCormick's attention, too. "We say the membership is really powerful," he said. "Frankly, most politicians don't pay any attention to it because 1.2 million people are not that many."

Rather than troll for members with costly direct mail, McCormick plans to increase personal appeals to high-end contributors. "It's just a greater return."

Despite growing pains, the Conservancy gets high marks from charity watchdog groups. The American Institute of Philanthropy awarded it an A-, noting it allocates just 10 percent to fund raising. Many groups do worse, including Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association and Greenpeace, all of which receive D ratings.

If McCormick's focus on efficiency and results sounds provocative, his ideas for achieving them are even more so.

For starters, he sees too much competition among environmental groups.

"It's gotten to the point where organizations have tried not just to distinguish themselves but belittle others. There's no room for that. I'd like to see a sort of collaborative competition where we compete for results, not for turf or market share."

And he's planning on dramatically expanding the Conservancy's international programs. "Currently, 80 percent of our resources go to a geography, principally the United States, that constitutes less than 20 percent of the world's biodiversity," he said, referring to the tapestry of plant and animal species that make up life on Earth.

To pay for that, he plans to cut costs at home by selling, or giving away, land. "Custodial maintenance is an Achilles' heel for us," he said.

Johnson -- who served as secretary of resources under Gov. Jerry Brown -- is wary. "The organization has serious obligations to now-deceased people who gave land to the Conservancy to be saved forever," he said.

McCormick also has jolted the organization by freezing its budget this year and next. "I don't want to just keep growing for the sake of growing. For every dollar we spend, I want to see more conservation done."

He wants new yardsticks for success based not on money raised or acres protected but on biological diversity saved.

Not surprisingly, many employees are shell-shocked. And although there have been no formal layoffs, some are expected.

The transition "is painful and stressful. Many worry about what they will be doing next year. They worry about losing their jobs," said Kareiva, the science adviser.

McCormick feels the stress, too, but is determined to move ahead.

"People have said to me: 'How can you change an organization that is so successful?'

"And I say: 'Tell me why it's so successful?'

"And they tell me about how many acres we protect.

"And I say, 'OK, but how does that translate into the preservation of biological diversity? How does it accomplish our mission?'

"And they can't tell me."

About the Writer

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or tknudson@sacbee.com .
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