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Nature Conservancy Now Protecting Urban Jungles

RP Siegel | Monday February 20th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Last week, I wrote about a recent, somewhat controversial, collaboration between the Nature Conservancy and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. I would like to follow that story up with one describing another new Conservancy program focused on urban conservation. When combined, I think these two stories will put these recent efforts into the broader context of environmental organizations’ challenge of expanding their demographics, and in particular, focusing on younger, and increasingly urban, audiences in hopes of attracting tomorrow’s supporters.

A few years ago, there was quite a bit of talk about the death of environmentalism based on a widely read paper by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus that chided the movement for its ineffectiveness in combating global warming. The authors blamed the movement for falling out of step with the times and becoming “just another special interest.” This entailed losing touch with Sierra Club founder John Muir’s seminal observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The environment is not a separate or even a separable thing from the human world anymore.

Environmental groups are indeed changing direction, and though there are bound to be missteps along the way, the changes are mostly positive. One thing that has surely changed and I would say, for the better, is the abandonment of the “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to dealing with business. Today, productive collaborations between big companies and environmental groups are too numerous to count. There may have been a few early marriages of convenience that were little more than a cash-strapped green group agreeing to lend their name to a dirty company looking to bolster its reputation in exchange for a boost to its own bottom line, but not many. For the most part there has been genuine good coming out of these partnerships.

So far, so good. But when an organization like the Nature Conservancy looks at the demographics of their current supporters, they find them to be white, college-educated, age 62, with an average annual income of $75,000. This begs the question of who will be supporting the organization 25 years from now.

This could explain the Sports Illustrated collaboration. It also might explain the group’s decision to open up a new frontier in the battle for environmental protection—urban habitat. According to Bill Ulfelder, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York State, “There are 22,000 acres of roof space in the [NY] city. It’s essentially equivalent to another borough. There’s a lot of talk about rooftop gardens and storm-water catchment. But this is also a great opportunity to put habitat back in the city. Don’t just plant sedum. Let’s think about habitat for pollinators and birds.”

The Conservancy’s task basically breaks down into a simple input-output equation. Find worthwhile properties to protect on the output side and find a way to raise the money to protect them with on the input side.

Last year, the group raised close to $1 billion. Roughly 25 percent of that was donated land and land sales, the rest, cash. The money seems to have been put to good use, protecting thousands of acres of critical habitat in all 50 states and in 30 countries including $100 million for a conservation easement in the Everglades and contributing to the protection of 178 million acres of Canadian boreal forest.

So why the sudden interest in cities? Carrie Denning, an urban-planning and transportation consultant, and Jon Christensen, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, argued in Science Chronicles that if the Conservancy wants to remain relevant in a rapidly-urbanizing world, it needs to make “a fundamental shift in how it observes the world — by starting from the viewpoint of the city dweller and looking outwards.”

Principles of modern marketing, like “know thy customer,” are finally catching up to the environmental movement. So, it seems that while the group continues to make its best effort to keep the most precious portions of the natural world from changing, they must acknowledge the fact that the human society, from which they draw their support, is indeed changing dramatically, which means they have to change to keep up with it.

[Image credit: afagen: Flick Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

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