Money's Green, Too

The Nature Conservancy & Big Bidness Makes Cents

by Andrea Barnett

If you were watching closely last week, you might have caught The Nature Conservancy President and CEO John Sawhill hawking GM trucks on television. But Sawhill is no hired hack. In fact, General Motors Corporation and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have a close relationship. TNC Director John Smale is also chair of GM's Board of Directors, and GM recently gave the Nature Conservancy in each state a 4-wheel drive truck. During the TNC's most recent big fundraising campaign (dubbed "Last Great Places"), GM pledged $5 million of the Conservancy's $300 million draw.

It is precisely this sort of green/corporate relationship that the TNC hoped to foster this year when it began soliciting corporate members for its newly formed International Leadership Council. Since February, at least 30 companies have paid their $25,000 in annual dues and signed on: Timber magnates Weyerhauser, Champion, and Georgia-Pacific; chemical giants like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical; BP America, AT&T, Eastman-Kodak, and 3M, just to name a few. In return, the Conservancy agrees to publicize the Council members' activities, affording them the kind of green PR that, until recently, money couldn't buy.

The mission of the non-profit TNC, and its local chapters like the TNC of Texas (TNCT), is to help governmental entities purchase land for conservation of green space and endangered species. Like the Trust for Public Lands, the TNC can sometimes work as a land escrow agent, purchasing land until the municipality or state can afford to obtain it. The TNC has come under criticism from environmentalists who charge that the group works not for the benefit of the community or endangered species, but for the benefit of developers.

For instance, TNCT acted as mediator and escrow agent for the City of Austin to preserve the Uplands, an ecologically sensitive tract of land above the Barton Springs Contributing Zone owned by FM Properties. By the time the fog lifted on the negotiations, TNCT owned the Uplands, and FM Properties was able to count the tract as habitat and obtain their federal 10(A) permit to develop habitat land adjacent to the Uplands -- Freeport's infamous Barton Creek PUD. TNCT also supported the failed Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), which would have set aside more than 40,000 acres in the Austin area obtensibly for habitat conservation, but would also have opened the door to development of many of those acres.

TNC reps and the corporate suits all came to Austin's Four Seasons Hotel last week for the International Leadership Council's first meeting, to discuss such topics as the Endangered Species Act and "Changing Attitudes About the Environment: the mood and priorities of today's consumers." While the conference was closed to the public and press, a few officials took time out from lunch to talk to the Chronicle.

The International Leadership Council's emphasis on cooperation isn't an entirely new approach. A couple years ago, the Keystone Center in Colorado pulled together the National Commission on Superfund, a group of industry, government, and environmental representatives, to hammer out a proposal for reauthorizing Superfund legislation. The resulting document was touted by Vice President Al Gore, and some of its proposals were incorporated into a final -- though ultimately unsuccessful -- reauthorization bill for Congress.

"The National Commission on Superfund is an important example of people coming together and supporting change," says Dennis Minano, GM rep to the TNC's Council. "One of my most important experiences was to sit down before a congressional committee with a rep from the [Natural Resources Defense Council] and testify together. That's what participation in the process does. It doesn't happen all the time, but it can happen."

But Minano's presence at the TNC conference is a good example of the troubling questions that can arise from such industry/eco alliances. Here in Texas, the automobile giant has come under criticism for allegedly dumping toxins directly into the water supply along the border with Mexico. In a well-publicized 1991 report on water pollution in the maquiladora manufacturing plants area of northern Mexico, the National Toxic Campaign Fund (NTCF) highlighted GM's Rimir plant, which manufactures plastic parts for automobiles. The NTCF labs found, among other things, xylene, a solvent which causes respiratory irritation, brain hemorrhage, lung, liver, and kidney damage, as well as other internal bleeding. The water tested contained xylene at levels of 2.8 million parts per billion (ppb). The U.S. drinking water standard is 440 ppb. An anonymous employee at the plant allegedly told the TNC that employees regularly dumped the chemical straight into the drain.

But Minona doesn't believe it. "If you take the opportunity to go down there, each plant has a sophisticated wastewater treatment plant," he says.

The chair of the TNCT Board of Trustees doesn't believe it either. "GM is a tremendous partner with us," says Dick Bartlett, who is also Vice Chair of the Mary Kay Corporation. "They are a major contributor to our program." Bartlett claims he has never heard of the NTCF or its report, despite the fact that the report included a section on the threats to wildlife preserves in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the TNC has preserve land.

TNC's willingness to overlook allegations about its close corporate friend is not unique. While nearly every company on the Council spends hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying in Washington to dismantle or de-fang environmental regulations, Bartlett appears ready to take those companies' commitment to a green partnership with the TNC at face value -- and is willing to lend TNC's name to their efforts. "The level of commitment here is really heartening, hearing this caliber of executives sit at the table," he says. "Number one, they're here. Number two, they've donated money to be here."

That commitment can be seen right here in Austin, Bartlett insists, where corporations, governments, and environmental activists have cooperated to make this a good place to live. "It's one of the finest stories of America and maybe the world," he says. "We've achieved a quality of life that accomodates humans and their needs, and creatures as well."

The fact that companies like Freeport-McMoRan have been dragged kicking and screaming into Austin's better quality of life seems to have escaped Bartlett. "Everyone has a stake in this," he counters, "and most are tired of the confrontation and rhetoric." Freeport, while not a member of the Council, sent FM Properties' executive vice-president William Armstrong to give a speech for conferencees the evening before on "Case Study of Conservancy/Corporate Cooperation: The Barton Creek Habitat Preserve."

That green corporate commitment can be seen in Washington as well. Out of the 30 companies listed as Council members, 13 gave more than $4.9 million between 1989 and 1994 to so-called "Dirty Water" Political Action Committee (PAC) candidates, according to the Washington non-profit policy organization, Environmental Working Group. Freeport-McMoRan's Citizenship Committee gave nearly $410,000 alone. Four others -- GM, Eastman-Kodak, AT&T, and BP America -- signed on to support amendments to the Clean Water Act, which has engendered widespread opposition from conservationists for relaxing controls on water pollution.

But the Conservancy is heavily dependent upon its corporate friends. According to TNCT's 1994 annual report, more than 40% of its funds came from corporations. In the back, two pages of fine print list the donors for that year, a corporate-heavy list including ARCO, EXXON, Browning-Ferris Industries, and Chevron, plus notes on local TNC chapters singing praises to their corporate donors.

Also included in the report was news for Dollar Bill fans all over Austin: UT Chancellor and Freeport-McMoRan board member William Cunningham was recently nominated to TNCT's board of trustees. That cozy relationship and the corporate bonding going on between TNC and its sponsors over two days led to protests from local environmentalists. Three Earth First!ers were arrested on the first day, Thursday, October 26, for criminal trespass on Four Seasons Hotel property, and released the same day on their own recognizance.

To GM's Minano, what grassroots environmentalists see as the selling out of "being green," is really a positive, maturing relationship between corporations and groups like TNC. "Corporate America, historically, has not participated in debating certain policy issues," he says. "I think what is happening with the environment is our need to participate in the debate. [Environmental] groups that work with us, I believe, see that this is a proper exercise."

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