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The brunt of the joke seemed rightfully on Range as Geoff Pampush, director of The Nature Conservancy for Idaho, told Custer County commissioners that the reported swap of TNC-owned land in Nebraska for millions of acres of Brazilian rainforest was an old hoax that fooled the magazine as well as some landholders in the West. The 24-page report on “Nature’s Landlord” in the magazine, he said, is “not credible,” and “represents the wildest attack on TNC we as an organization have ever experienced.”

Aside from its acknowledged one-paragraph blunder in repeating the Brazilian hoax, Pampush did not elaborate on how “wild” the Range piece was. The former head of Oregon Water Trust and Oregon Trout was sent in to do damage control over commissioners wavering on TNC’s “land package” offer to help save Custer county’s tax base in the face of legislation that would create a new wilderness area in the Boulder-White Clouds region.

TNC’s values are “very much rooted in respect of private property,” Pampush said, and what the organization was offering Custer County by negotiating the return of some federal property into private ownership, “could well serve as a model for the rest of the West.”

Skeptically impressed, Commissioner Lin Hintze asked Pampush for future clarification of some other details in the magazine report and for some help in reaching Democratic senators and representatives in Washington to impress upon them the damage to the county from the loss of federal PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) funds.

TNC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, Pampush emphasized, but he said he would try.

Somewhere, one imagines, there is a group of very wealthy people in a very well-appointed library room where Range might seem out of place amid the gently swirling brandy snifters of the amused guests. These would be some of the kingpins of contemporary American industry—not the oil moguls or the steel barons or the railroad giants of another era, but the money managers of our time, creators of such hollow institutions as Enron and World Com, executive officers of corporations hardly known at all beyond their own circles; and trading among them all, such major management and consultant firms as the Wicks Group and McKinsey & Co.

They are not fresh-from-college faces promising to do their best, but they are The Nature Conservancy.

Some of its most informed critics, in fact, suggest that since 1990 when John Sawhill brought his experience as a former McKinsey vice president into the Conservancy’s top job, the world’s richest and most powerful conservation organization has evolved into “McTNC.”

Sawhill died unexpectedly in 2000 after a 10-year reign as TNC’s chief executive. Under his leadership, the organization made astonishing progress in the accumulation of land, assets, and influence that brought it from a modestly potent 26th place among American nonprofits to 10th in the hierarchy of tax-free organizations—ahead of Catholic Charities and not far behind the endowments of such institutions as Stanford and Sawhill’s own Princeton University.

Not even Sawhill himself could claim that such success came from the dollars-and-dimes checks of TNC’s one million members, who are really only contributors without votes. The big dough, and the big power, was built by management and manipulation in realms where average good-hearted greenies seldom get to go, but where Sawhill was perfectly at home.

From the Skull and Bones fraternal secrecy of his alma mater to the incredible success he enjoyed in building up endowments while president of New York University, and especially from what Business Week once called “The Alumni Club to End All Alumni Clubs” at McKinsey & Co., Sawhill knew how to network his power to its best advantage.

McKinsey & Co. is no more likely to be a topic of discussion in a country county commission room than would be Range in that imaginary eastern library, but it holds a position of enormous influence over American business and foreign trade just the same. According to its own brochure, three of the world’s five largest companies rely on McKinsey for management advice and at least two-thirds of Fortune magazine’s top 1,000 companies are McKinsey clients.

“The Firm,” as McKinsey is reverently regarded on Wall Street, is generally considered to have been the ultimate “brains” behind the scandalous failure of Enron Corporation last year. So far, however, that hasn’t wilted the reputation of McKinsey experience as a barometer of success. A good word passed along about doing it “the McKinsey way” can mean an important new office and, conversely, not meeting McKinsey standards can mean the end of a career.

“McKinsey people are connected,” said one business observer. “If they’re dealing, for example, with an industry that has lots of talent and ability, but limited access to raw materials, they know where to look among their own alumni to clear the way.”

Sawhill certainly regarded himself as a dedicated environmentalist, but he also regarded the mission of TNC as well beyond any dreamy-eyed notions of the organization’s founders to simply set aside choice natural regions for scientific study.

“Bucks and acres didn’t adequately measure the progress of the organization to achieve its mission,” Sawhill wrote in the Mc-Kinsey Quarterly in 1999. “The Conservancy’s goal, after all, isn’t to buy land or raise money; it is to preserve the diversity of life on Earth.”

Since 1996, he said, TNC had put aside “bucks and acres” as a measurement of its success, striving instead to establish a “culture of accountability” in developing “micro level goals” to achieve its mission. Not just a parcel of land, but other lands around it; not just the preservation of a single species, but of entire biodiversities, should be TNC’s goal, Sawhill concluded.

And the means to that end didn’t necessarily require buying land at all, provided other management techniques could be made to work. Put a bunkhouse way, Sawhill wanted wheelers and dealers, not just real estate agents, and he already knew how to patch in to possibly the best of them on the planet. Men and women with McKinsey in their resumes occupy board seats and executive offices all the way from the mysterious Trilateral Commission to local public utilities.

First among them at TNC was the former McKinsey director himself and a fellow Princeton grad, Carter F. Bales. Bales still held a position on the advisory council for McKinsey, but in 1989 had formed his own investment company, Wicks Group, LLC. He dealt in development of rapidly expanding information technology and communication systems. Bales would join the Board of Governors of TNC and become its vice chairman and head of its International Committee. At the same time, he was also helping to set up and take a board seat as vice chairman at another TNC offshoot, Grand Canyon Trust.

Bales was no sooner aboard at TNC than he followed his practiced instincts to remanage the whole operation. He convinced his former associates at McKinsey to conduct a pro-bono study of TNC’s organization. Predictably,

What hat will Chelsea Clinton earn on her new job, fresh from school with no experience? A former McKinsey recruiter told Newsweek that new associates earn between $115,000 and $120,000 a year with a signing bonus of $10,000. And what will she do to earn more than the combined yearly salaries of all of the staff of Range? “It’s very secretive,” says the former recruiter.

it came up with the conclusion that executive management and staff weren’t entirely in communication on the new goals of “Nature’s Landlord.” It needed the guidance only The Firm could give.

By the mid-1990s, critics said, so many McKinsey-trained M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s had landed significant jobs or regional board positions with TNC that, “it began to look like a rite of passage for them.”

ØSo heavily ensconced was this element of the “eastern establishment,” that observers thought TNC’s California director and western whiz kid, Steve McCormick, would turn the job down after Sawhill’s death in 2000.

McCormick, and probably the TNC board as well, did hesitate in making the selection, but in the end it was clear there could be found no clone for Sawhill. McCormick finally took the job, stepping down from a post he briefly held at San Francisco’s Resource Law Group. It was a firm established only that year with a little help from former McKinsey consultant Jean Driscoll.

Sawhill left a legacy of incredible success in his 10 years as TNC’s president and CEO. Assets were reported as high as nearly $3 billion, land holdings in excess of 100 million acres, including 14 million in the U.S. alone, and there was claimed membership of over one million whose only real participation amounted to sending in their checks.

Even McCormick, however, seemed a little uncomfortable with the numbers. Some of that land, after all, had been public to begin with, and some of those assets were based on what seemed exaggerated values. A Berkeley graduate, McCormick didn’t carry all the ivy league allegiances and old school ties common among Sawhill’s staff. He was more hesitant to tout the wealth of TNC in land and donations alone, preferring to get back to TNC’s “grass roots” reputation, even if that bore little resemblance to the real procedures by then ingrained in McTNC.

What can that all possibly mean to Custer County, Idaho, Commissioner Lin Hintze? What difference can it make in his request to talk to someone in Washington about PILT payments?

Geoff Pampush, who moved over from more radical climes to become the state director of TNC, may not know himself. But he surely must have learned how to follow back on the management line and accomplish so simple a task. The commissioner will undoubtedly be grateful, and TNC can surely demonstrate again how well it works with local communities, though Pampush will avoid admitting some of those “communities” have also been in the greater Amazon.

Said Sawhill himself in an address to a National Business Council forum in 1998, “We can’t just parachute in from outside these communities and say, ‘Hey, protect that river, good-bye.’ We’ve got to be there going to the PTA meetings and the church socials, serving on the school boards and having people feel we’re part of that community.”

Two years ago, when TNC hosted a Boise party to announce, “the largest conservation effort in Idaho’s history,” the group promised to invest $20 million in the effort.

“To achieve long-term conservation of our state’s biodiversity, we must work on entire functional landscapes,” Pampush said at the time.

It’s almost straight out of the management handbook.

Summer 2003 Contents | Git Home!

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