Nature Conservancy Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nature Conservancy was established to preserve Earth’s plants and animals by protecting their habitats. Into the twenty-first century, it has become the largest and most successful private environmental organization in the world.

Summary of Event

On October 22, 1951, the Nature Conservancy, under the leadership of its first president, Richard H. Pough, was incorporated in Washington, D.C., as a nonprofit independent organization and was accorded tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Service codes. Its origins are traceable to the Ecological Society of America Ecological Society of America Environmental organizations;Ecological Society of America , an organization established in 1915 by natural scientists devoted to the study of biological diversity in North America. The Ecological Society undertook projects whose ambitious goals were to identify all remaining wilderness areas within the nation and to study their flora and fauna. In time, some members began to believe that scientific study was inadequate, because the loss of habitat through development was posing a threat to the survival of many species. Nature Conservancy Environmental organizations;Nature Conservancy [kw]Nature Conservancy Is Founded (Oct. 22, 1951) [kw]Conservancy Is Founded, Nature (Oct. 22, 1951) Nature Conservancy Environmental organizations;Nature Conservancy [g]North America;Oct. 22, 1951: Nature Conservancy Is Founded[03620] [g]United States;Oct. 22, 1951: Nature Conservancy Is Founded[03620] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 22, 1951: Nature Conservancy Is Founded[03620] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 22, 1951: Nature Conservancy Is Founded[03620] Shelford, Victor E. Pough, Richard H.

In 1917, this group formed a committee within the society known as the Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions. A division later erupted between those who wished to pursue scientific study and those who wished to protect the environment by preserving biodiversity. In 1946, the latter group, under the leadership of Victor E. Shelford, formed a separate organization, the Ecologists Union, with 158 charter members. Their goal was to set aside preserves in order to protect endangered species.

By 1950, similar views concerning nature preservation became evident in government, although they were not widely accepted. In the House of Representatives, Congressman Charles Edward Bennett Bennett, Charles Edward proposed a bill to establish a nature conservancy modeled on the quasigovernmental British Nature Conservancy. After Bennett’s bill died in the House, the Ecologists Union changed its name to the Nature Conservancy on September 11, 1950. Members of the Ecologists Union had themselves made contacts with the British organization and at least some influential members had concluded that, in the United States, an independent organization might prove to be more effective. Through incorporation as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization in 1951, the organization achieved the goal of placing the environment among the other major categories of charitable and philanthropic donations: religion, education, and the arts.

From the beginning, the organization evinced a pragmatism and practicality that contributed to its success. Its objectives were threefold: to identify parcels of land desirable as wildlife preserves Wildlife sanctuaries , to obtain ownership of these tracts through either purchase or donation, and to manage the land for the benefit of its flora and fauna. Its guiding principles made it nonconfrontational, welcoming willing donors and givers from all walks of life, and from the outset it embraced a market-based approach in purchasing tracts of land. Although it began with modest goals, it later set truly ambitious objectives. Heavily dependent upon volunteers, it established a blended staff of scientists, primarily biologists and ecologists, to identify desirable tracts, and others with business and legal backgrounds to solicit support and to negotiate deals.

The scientists continued the kind of study championed by the Ecological Society, developing in time a comprehensive national database of biodiversity. A natural heritage database, later to become the largest of its kind in the world, was established in 1974 for South Carolina. Spreading to every state in the union, it identifies plant and animal species and keeps accounts of population increases and declines of more than fifty thousand species. The database functions to alert scientists when a species has reached dangerously low levels, so that priorities for preservation can be set.

In its quest for support, the conservancy has encouraged all types of assistance, including outright land grants to the foundation, corporate and individual monetary donations, and volunteer service. In the beginning, cash for conservation was difficult to secure, despite some early support from the co-owner of the Reader’s Digest, and from the Old Dominion Foundation, sponsored by the Mellon family. At one point, members mortgaged their homes to raise capital to buy property. The president received no salary until 1965, when a generous Ford Foundation Ford Foundation grant provided funds for staff salaries. In time, the organization embarked on a national membership drive that proved highly successful. Much later it extended its operations to all fifty states, to Latin America, and to the Pacific region west of Hawaii.

In its acquisition of desirable tracts, the organization developed flexible and ingenious strategies. Although it was established as an independent organization, the conservancy developed close working relationships with state and federal government agencies. One early technique was the rollover, whereby the organization obtained a tract, sometimes making only a down payment, and later sold it to the state or federal government as a park, wildlife preserve, or wilderness area. This arrangement enabled the organization to recover its capital quickly and invest it in another desirable tract. Similarly, foundation grants, on a loan basis, were used to purchase property and upon repayment were often renewed by the foundation for additional purchases. For many years, following another generous Ford Foundation grant of six million dollars in the early 1970’s, the conservancy bought lands identified by the federal government as desirable sites for parks or preserves, with the understanding that as soon as funds became available the government itself would buy the property, a technique which enabled private funds to protect land from development until public funding was approved.

So long as the principle of protection was met, the conservancy allowed other specified uses of the land. Some private donors, for example, continued to live on the property after its donation. Most properties of the Nature Conservancy are open to the public for educational and recreational purposes. Many are desirable and even famous locations for hiking, bird-watching, nature study, and photography. Although it is against general policy, some preserves are, through provisions in the original purchase agreement, open to hunting. On a few preserves, limited commercial operations are permitted in accordance with their terms of acquisition. Further, the conservancy has adopted ingenious methods that allow some preserves to pay their own management costs. For example, one Montana preserve designed to protect grizzly bears operates a dude ranch for a portion of the year. Such activities help defray the cost of stewardship.

Although the organization articulated its goal for a system of preserves in 1952, progress in acquiring sanctuaries remained slow. Within its first decade, however, the organization was successful in its appeal to generous individual donors and foundations. In 1954, New York became the first state with a chapter and field office, and fittingly, the first tract of land reserved was partially in New York. In 1955, the organization obtained sixty acres on the Mianus River Gorge along the New York-Connecticut border, an eastern hardwood forest threatened by development.

As the science of ecology developed, the Nature Conservancy changed or refined its objectives concerning land acquisition. By the early 1970’s, it had become apparent that larger tracts were preferable to small ones, and the organization began to think in terms of thousands of acres rather than tens or hundreds. It reorganized into four regions across the United States and established field offices in every state. Also, it began targeting pristine areas like hardwood bottomlands in the South, wetlands, barrier islands off Virginia, Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, and large ranch-sized tracts in the Southwest. Among the more impressive acquisitions were a hardwood bottomland tract along the Pearl River in southern Mississippi (42,000 acres) and the Gray Ranch in southwestern New Mexico (321,000 acres). A history of success and steadily increasing membership permitted the conservancy to undertake very large purchases.


The Nature Conservancy has become the largest and most successful private conservation organization in the world. In the United States, it has entered into an agreement with the Defense Department to manage land no longer needed for military training. From its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters it publishes a bimonthly magazine, Nature Conservancy, which features articles about current projects and explains the progress of programs.

To a limited extent, it has expanded its protective role to include geologic formations and archaeological sites within the United States. Among these are cave sites and Indian pictographs in the Southwest. Following the lead of government programs and other conservation societies, it has also begun reintroduction of species into former ranges in an effort to increase breeding populations of endangered species. Among mammals thus protected has been the rare Red Wolf, reintroduced into its former range in Virginia.

The activities of the conservancy have been accorded almost universal praise. A testimony to its ability to find favor with all segments of the population can be found in the numerous articles devoted to it in business magazines such as Forbes and Nation’s Business. Its pragmatic policies of fairness, flexibility, nonconfrontation, and moderation have contributed to its extraordinary success. Carefully avoiding lawsuits, it has seldom been perceived as overly aggressive in its pursuit of habitat. An exception occurred when on one occasion a company refused to sell a tract very much desired by the conservancy. It took the unprecedented step of buying the company, selling off its assets separately, and retaining the property as a preserve.

The organization has not escaped controversy. It has accepted the principle that some species must be saved at the expense of others. Its managerial methods include controlled burning of areas where survival of rare plants depends upon fire for reproduction. With its goal of protecting native species it has not hesitated to eradicate introduced species when necessary.

While few people are troubled by the thought of removing plants, with animals it is somewhat different; yet from an ecological perspective the practice is even more compelling. Feral house cats, hogs, goats, and sheep, for example, wreak havoc with sensitive environments. When the conservancy acquired Santa Cruz Island, a large expanse of rare desert flora and fauna off the California coast, the land was overrun with sheep. The destructiveness of the species to desert and semidesert environments is almost incalculable, and to prevent this the conservancy eliminated the population through shooting. An even worse threat, feral hogs, overran one Hawaiian Island rain forest preserve on Maui, and here the organization instituted a program of snaring in order to protect wildlife and plants from their depredations. Such methods have seemed cruel to groups opposed to killing animals under almost any conditions and have aroused controversy. For the Maui program, the conservancy has encountered organized opposition from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. However, most conservationists grant the wisdom of continuing programs that serve the larger ecological interest. Nature Conservancy Environmental organizations;Nature Conservancy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birchard, Bill. Nature’s Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. A thorough analysis of the “business” of operating the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. What it lacks in historical overview it makes up for with an examination of the organization’s strategy for action.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brewer, Richard. Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2003. An examination of the land-use, land-trust, and conservation movements in the United States, with a chapter on the Nature Conservancy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grove, Noel. Earth’s Last Great Places: Exploring the Nature Conservancy Worldwide. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003. Offers an account of the Nature Conservancy’s history and accomplishments. Expands on the 1988 article cited below.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Quietly Conserving Nature.” National Geographic, December, 1988, 818-845. Discusses in detail numerous conservancy projects. Includes a map that pinpoints preserves operated by the conservancy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoose, Phillip M. Building an Ark: Tools for the Preservation of Natural Diversity Through Land Protection. Covelo, Calif.: Island Press, 1981. A guide for state conservation programs that explores the rationale for protecting land and outlines a long list of strategies for the protection of the environment, from outright purchase to private management agreements with owners. Includes numerous case studies of actual land protection agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavine, Carolyn S. “The Nature Conservancy Turns Forty.” The Conservationist 45 (July-August, 1990): 24-28. Reviews many of the achievements of the organization during its first four decades. Useful for its account of early acquisitions and projects in New York State.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lear, John. “A Dollar’s Worth of Wilderness.” Saturday Review 51 (December 7, 1968): 34. Lear reviews efforts of the conservancy to purchase lands. The article explains major sources for grants and lauds efforts of the conservancy to preserve tracts for the federal government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morine, David E. Good Dirt: Confessions of a Conservationist. Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1990. Morine provides an insider’s view of the conservancy’s workings, from its organization and goals to its methods of acquiring property. Humorous and anecdotal, the book is highly readable and informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Peter. “Business-Suited Saviors of Nation’s Vanishing Wilds.” Smithsonian 9 (December, 1978): 76-85. Wood gives an analysis of the history and work of the conservancy. He then illustrates its work by giving a firsthand account of his trips to preserves and his visits with land agents as they negotiate with owners for their property.

World Conservation Union Is Founded

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

World Wildlife Fund Is Established

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems

Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded

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