TEXAS CITY, Texas — On a swath of grassland, tucked among belching refineries, a power plant and a busy highway, sits the last known breeding ground on Earth for one of North America's most endangered birds. There are fewer than 40 of the ungainly Attwater's prairie chickens left in the wild, half of them here at the Nature Conservancy's Texas City Prairie Preserve.
Yet when the Nature Conservancy, the world's wealthiest environmental organization, was given this 2,263-acre oil field by Mobil Oil Corp. in 1995 because of low production levels, the nonprofit organization did not shut off the petroleum spigots.
Instead, it drilled new natural gas wells, and kept cattle grazing too. The conservancy--the 10th largest charity of any kind in the United States--has reaped $5.2 million in royalties from the preserve so far.
Conservancy officials insisted that, under their careful management, neither gas lines nor cattle hoofs will harm the endangered bird. The conservancy called its prairie chicken preserve cum petroleum patch a "working" landscape, a harmonious mixture of commerce and conservation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 310 words Type of Material: Correction
Nature Conservancy--Tuesday's Column One about the Nature Conservancy incorrectly stated that royalties from petroleum, timber and farming made up the bulk of the $7.6-million budget of the group's Texas chapter in 2001. Those activities accounted for about a third of the chapter's $17-million budget last year.
Long noted for its low-key, apolitical philosophy of acquiring land from willing sellers or donors, the conservancy under a new boss is forging closer ties with industries that other environmentalists often think of as the enemy.
"Maybe it's time we all took a walk in the oilman's shoes," said Niki McDaniel, spokesman for the Texas Nature Conservancy. "We believe the opportunity we have in Texas City to raise significant sums of money for conservation is one we cannot pass up, provided we are convinced we can do this drilling without harming the prairie chickens and their habitat. And we are convinced."
Others disagreed, saying that, even if there has not been a pipeline blowout, for instance, it is impossible to eliminate all risk. They said that development, including oil and gas refineries, is what devastated the bird's habitat to begin with.
"Let me be generous," said Clait E. Braun, president of the Wildlife Society, and one of the nation's leading experts on prairie chickens and other grouse. "There are no data to indicate that the Attwater's prairie chicken can coexist with oil and gas drilling. All the evidence indicates clearly that what you get is a fragmentary population straggling toward extinction."
Nearly half of the 7 million acres that the conservancy said it is protecting in the United States is now being grazed, logged, farmed, drilled or put to work in some fashion. The money earned from such activities--about $7 million this year--is less than 1% of the group's $732 million in annual revenues.
The Nature Conservancy, which turned 50 last year, was founded by New York state residents who bought a small piece of land near the Hudson River to keep it from being developed. That "bucks for acres" concept caught on, spawning other national land trusts, open space initiatives and preservation efforts. The conservancy distinguished itself by focusing on acquiring biologically significant lands.
The organization has long prided itself on collaboration, rather than confrontation. That has paid off handsomely in corporate donations and government contracts, from the world's largest oil, paper, automobile and software companies and the U.S. military.
A list of donors to its recent $1-billion Campaign for Conservation is a who's who of American industry--in the $20 million or more category are General Motors and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation of Silicon Valley fame. In the $10-million to $20-million category are mega-developer Donald Bren and American Electric Power. Chevron Texaco Corp. pitched in $5 million to $10 million, and Centex Homes, Georgia Pacific timber and paper company, Arrow Last & Livestock Inc. and Public Service Co. of New Mexico each gave between $2.5 million and $5 million. The organization also has nearly 1 million individual members, who pitched in more than $200 million last year.
In the last several years, under the leadership of John Sawhill, the organization adopted new fund-raising and conservation tactics, from licensing its name to granola bar and coffee bean companies to doing research funded by General Motors on climate change. GM could win mitigation credits for greenhouse gas emissions it causes as a result of the research, according to a footnote in the conservancy's latest tax filings.
"Land acquisition will always be an important tool, but not necessarily the major tool" of the organization, said its national spokesman, Jordan Peavey.
A key in-house architect of the changes was Steve McCormick, 50, longtime head of the California Nature Conservancy, who became executive director of the entire organization last year, after Sawhill died.