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Autumn 2003 - Act•ionLine

by Lesli Bisgould | Autumn 2003

The Nature Conservancy: What Have We Learned?

For almost two years, Friends of Animals has been investigating and reporting on concerns about whether The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is really the kind of friend of animals that most people expect it to be. It seems reasonable to presume that an organization that purports to conserve nature is one that protects the animals who live there. But reason is not always the best guide when it comes to animal exploitation and the money that can be made from it.

Readers of Act•ion Line will recall that since 2001, FoA has been looking into practices that can only be considered an affront to nature and the individuals - both human and nonhuman - who try to live in harmony with it. Among the activities that we uncovered were widespread hunting, in addition to fishing, snaring and ranching, on land under TNC’s “protection.” Rather than merely conserving nature for nature’s sake, TNC actually invites people to visit animals at home and kill them.

Hunting is bad enough when it is done on private property or government controlled land, but the offense is even greater when it is permitted by a non-profit whose very mandate is to protect nature, and which banks on the public trust, enjoying important tax and other financial benefits intended to support its mission.

We first told you about a deer hunt that TNC authorized in Devil’s Den Preserve in Connecticut. The hunt was organized secretly, but when FoA learned of it, we sent two teams to conduct a non-violent protest. They could not stop the hunt but they did manage to delay it. In the preserve’s 35-year history, deer-hunting had never been permitted and the deer who lived there had become accustomed to the presence of peaceful human hikers. As we said then, it must have been like shooting puppies in a pet shop.

Once word got out about the hunt, TNC tried to defend itself in the way such acts are often defended: they blamed the victims, alleging that the deer were overpopulated and destroying vegetation. The many fallacies of these claims were described in our article.

As we carried on with our investigation, we found numerous other locations where hunting is encouraged among the (now) near 7 million acres controlled by TNC in the U.S. and Canada. While this was a clear abuse of the trust that many of its members extended to TNC, in anticipation that it would protect animals on their own land, it was not the only abuse. In the same article, we cited a series of shady financial deals in which TNC was implicated, including land swap that brought them significant public monies.

In a later two-part expose, we described the permissive, if inconsistent, approach taken to hunting, fishing and ranching by many TNC state chapters and subsidiaries. Consumptive activities were found to be permitted, to varying degrees, for different reasons, in many of them. The mere variety of justifications brings those justifications themselves into question, for it comes to seem that almost any excuse will do.

The “worldwide organization” policy sent to us by several state chapters listed conditions under which hunting would be permitted on its lands - including the encouragement of respect for human practices, and the facilitation of land-transfers to benefit conservation. Oregon’s chapter gave hunting permits as rewards to hunters who fulfill a volunteer-work requirement on a TNC preserve. A spokesperson for North Carolina’s chapter was quoted saying that TNC positively encourages hunting as a management technique.

And there was more. We reported on TNC’s involvement in projects that promote hunting to young people. It also helped to develop an exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo, including the portions on hunting and ranching. TNC is a full partner in the Conservation Beef Company.

Recently, the Washington Post found a host of other problems. In a series of nine articles that appeared between May 3 and 6, 2003, the Post found, for example, that:

  1. TNC’s focus has shifted from science to fundraising;
  2. TNC is a “whirring marketing machine that has poured millions into building and protecting the organization’s image;”
  3. The 2002 compensation and benefits package of TNC’s president totaled more than $400,000, even though TNC reported it as being significantly less;
  4. TNC has “logged forests, engineered a $64 million deal paving the way for opulent houses on fragile grasslands and drilled for natural gas under the last breeding ground of an endangered bird species;” and
  5. TNC’s governing board and advisory council now include executives and directors from oil companies, chemical producers, auto manufacturers, mining concerns, logging operations and coal-burning electric utilities.

Why do such things go on? How can a “conservation” organization engage in such notorious behaviour? Well, money talks. That phrase is a cliche for a reason - it is often true. Hunters pay to indulge the pleasure they get from killing others, whether by way of license fee or volunteer work exchange programs. Hunters wield significant power by way of their lobby groups and they have control, disproportionate to their numbers, over many state wildlife agencies. And the land deals speak for themselves.

That is perhaps an explanation of their problem, albeit simplistically described. But what is ours? How does a society let such an organization permit and profit from the deaths of the very animals it is supposed to be protecting?

One problem seems to be that it takes time before people really believe the situation could be as bad as critics claim. That must be part of the explanation for how many animal rights concerns are summarily dismissed as “fanatic” or “extreme”. It strikes most people as inconceivable that the iniquities we bring to the public realm for discussion could be real, or that the people society tends to view as its heroes - conservationists, farmers, medical researchers, Shriners - could actually be doing the hurtful things we ascribe to them. The problem is compounded by the fact that our society tends to keep its members so occupied with concerns about jobs and mortgage payments and affordable daycare that the time needed to reflect on important subjects, think critically about what those with power tell us to believe, and make informed decisions about right and wrong, becomes a luxury many people think they can’t afford.

The truth is that we - though disappointed and angry - should not be surprised by this discovery. Big money is usually good at hiding its dirty roots. And the Nature Conservancy is not the only organization to take advantage of the public trust that comes with words like “nature” and “conservation” - others, like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), do the same. WWF has recently been the subject of criticism by Friends of Animals and others for its support of the annual seal hunt in Canada.

That hunt, already the largest commercial hunt for wildlife in the world, is growing. This year, the Canadian government announced an increase in the “total allowable catch” for harp seals, up to 350,000 for 2003 and the following two years. If the number wasn’t staggering enough, we note that the seals don’t even live in Canada. They only pass by its eastern coast in the spring, in the course of their migration. They stop to rest on Canadian shores and ice floes for about six weeks, just long enough for mothers to deliver and nurse their babies, then mate before continuing their long journey north.

To send in an army of hunters to slaughter as many seals as possible at their most vulnerable time is disgraceful. Yet, WWF supports the “new management approach” for seals, focussing on abstract ideas about “sustainability” of the seal “population” while ignoring the individual seals who make up that population. Email complaints to the organization prompted it to respond that WWF’s focus is on conservation and not on animal welfare issues.

To make matters even more confusing, animal researchers are starting “animal welfare” groups (invoking the antiquated claim that animal use is necessary but should be done humanely, whatever that might mean) and hunters call their lobby groups “conservation organizations.” There can be no accident in their choice of words, the English language offers plenty of options. These organizations use words or terms that are vague enough to attract the attention of members of the public who care about animals, when in reality, they mean something quite different than what those words imply.

In an increasingly frantic society, where we are kept too busy to have much time for re-examining our own ideas and challenging corporate messaging, words like “nature” and “conserve,” “welfare” and “humane,” all have immediate appeal. But our job, as people who wish to liberate animals from human exploitation, is to be smarter than that. We must see through the tired, old rationalizations used by those who make money when animals are hurt; their arguments fall, like a blood-soaked house of cards, when caring people dare to question.

Lesli Bisgould

Act•ionLine Autumn 2003

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