John Sawhill wasn't planning to stick around as president of The Nature Conservancy for much longer. As he told some associates, 10 years is a long time for one of those high-powered jobs, and as a 63-year-old diabetic, Sawhill was starting to think about a life with fewer plane trips and less tension.


Maybe he would teach at Harvard, where he was lecturing part-time. What better way to round out a distinguished career in government, academia, the corporate world and conservation?


He wasn't planning to leave yet, probably not before September 2001, when he could preside over the Conservancy's 50th anniversary celebration, accepting praise as the man who took over a merely significant institution and made it preeminent.


What he was not planning to do was to die. But he did, on May 18 at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, of complications from diabetes, and his death briefly put The Nature Conservancy in the spotlight, where it is slightly uncomfortable, even when it is looking good.


Thanks to Sawhill, The Nature Conservancy is far and away the nation's largest conservation organization, with 1.1 million members and annual revenues of $780 million. Measured by the amount of private contributions it gets, it is the 14th largest nonprofit institution of any kind in the country, as well as one of the biggest landowners, holding 1.3 million acres of the American earth.


TNC's influence transcends itself. Its success has spawned imitators: the Trust for Public Land, created in 1972; the Conservation Fund, started in 1982 by Patrick Noonan, a former Conservancy president who presided over its first period of major growth; the 1,200 or so local land trusts.


Like all advocacy groups, the Conservancy likes to brag. Without prompting, it will announce that through ownership, conservation easements, and reselling land to public agencies, it has preserved 11.6 million acres in the United States. Only when asked will it concede that a third of that acreage was public land before TNC took control of it. Nor does "protection" in these cases mean pristine preservation; grazing and logging continue under TNC's control.


But unlike many advocacy groups, TNC does not like to call attention to its political power; it prefers to ... well, not to deny it, exactly, but to change the subject, as a well-bred rich man changes the subject when someone mentions his wealth.


For the same two reasons: Because not discussing one's wealth or power is good manners; because not discussing it helps sustain it.


And because for all its wealth, power and respectability, The Nature Conservancy is torn in two directions, perhaps to the point of institutional schizophrenia. John Sawhill, for all his strengths, did not alleviate TNC's split personality. He embodied it.


Sawhill was one of those rare men who could contemplate the significance of ecosystems in the morning and then pop off to lunch with a corporate CEO or bank president at a Wall Street restaurant. He could move with money people because he was one, with a most establishment résumé - cum laude graduate of Princeton, Ph.D. in economics from NYU, dean of its business school, director of several corporations and CEO of one, a stint on Princeton's board of trustees, and high-level positions under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter.


Running with the rich

Being at ease with the wealthy is a prerequisite for running the Conservancy, which has always depended on, and been run by, folks with money. The chairman of the board is Samuel Johnson, whose family started a wax company back in the 19th century. It did well. Because TNC's raison d'etre is to buy land (or easements), it needs lots of money, so it has to go to people and corporations who have it.


But Sawhill was also a committed conservationist, and nothing he did at the Conservancy was more important than his decision in the mid-1990s to embrace the findings of the evolutionary biologists who insist that saving small pieces of land, however valuable and appealing they may be, won't do anything for the cause of biodiversity; for that, you have to preserve big chunks.


Sawhill tapped Steve McCormick, then the Conservancy's state director in California, to chair a special conservation committee that came up with a new set of standards for deciding which land should be protected. "The Nature Conservancy's mission says nothing about rare and endangered species," McCormick said. "The mission is biodiversity. We launched a process of mapping out, using a science-based approach to identify places. If you preserve all those places, you will capture the biological diversity."


In taking this course, McCormick said, TNC was basing its future land-purchase decisions on the work of scientists such as Edward O. Wilson, Reed Noss and Michael Soulé.


Now put this in political context for a moment: The organization caters to the upper crust, giving, for instance, its annual "conservation leadership award" to Shell Oil Co. in 1999, three years after Shell agreed to give it $500,000 - when the corporation needed good PR after the execution of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa for his opposition to Shell's activities in his homeland. At the same time TNC is following the lead of gurus of "deep ecology." This pillar of the establishment has made common cause with folks who can legitimately be called radicals, people who call North America "Turtle Island," oppose commercial logging and grazing on public land, and propose the "re-wilding" of much of the West.


And they are among The Nature Conservancy's sharpest critics.


"When they buy land, they do a great job," Suckling said. "But they've worked hand in hand with developers and a lot of ranchers, and ultimately they have more in common with those developers." The ranchers, loggers and developers own a lot of the land TNC wants to buy, Suckling points out. "They want to wheel and deal with them."


To this charge, TNC executive vice president Bill Weeks, who is running the Conservancy while a search committee seeks a new president, happily pleads guilty.


"Our organizational ethic is pragmatic and solution-oriented," he said. "We want to work with every community of people who live in rural areas. The long-term conservation of areas depends on the people that live in and around them."


Divvying up the country

In 1997, TNC divided the entire continental United States into 66 "eco-regions," based on climate and vegetation data from the Forest Service as a guide. Within each region, the committee established a "portfolio" of the most important areas, whether or not they were immediately in danger of being developed.


Over the long haul, Weeks said, the Conservancy thinks some 30 percent of that land ought to have some degree of protection, roughly tripling the total amount of protected territory.


This new approach, which the Conservancy calls its "Last Great Places' campaign (less threatening than "re-wilding'), wasn't easy to sell internally. Obviously, 66 eco-regions do not equal 50 states. Just a few years earlier, Sawhill had enhanced the power of the state directors and trustees. This was part of his organizational genius, the stuff he learned in his corporate-nerd background as dean of a business school and with McKinsey and Company, one of those consulting firms that tell huge organizations how to reorganize themselves. Now he was threatening his own handiwork.


"There was a fair amount of apprehension within the Conservancy," said McCormick, now part of an environmental law partnership in Sacramento. "It had big implications for the organization." For the most part, though, Sawhill's collaborative managerial style seems to have eased most of the concerns.


The Last Great Places approach may be another reason why the Conservancy is reluctant to discuss its power. There is a touch of hubris in proposing to change the way 20 percent of America's land should be used. The organization's foes might start to ask just who elected these people to alter the landscape.


Nobody, of course, not even the members, who are not really members at all, but contributors. The Conservancy is not a membership organization. It is run by its board of directors, which fills its own vacancies. This is not uncommon, but not something an organization likes to highlight.


Nor is it uncommon for a tax-exempt institution to be reluctant to discuss its political clout, which by law must be restrained. Because contributions to the Conservancy are tax-deductible, its lobbying cannot be a "significant" proportion of its budget. It isn't. Maggie Coon, who runs the organization's legislative affairs department (and is an HCN board member), said the Conservancy spends about $3 million a year on lobbying. That's less than half a percent of its revenue.


But it ain't chicken feed, either. Besides, the Conservancy's real clout comes not from official lobbying but more informally and more quietly. Mr. Johnson of the wax company, a member of the national board, can no doubt get congressmen and state officials on the phone. So can, for example, Glen Janss, the outgoing chairman of the board of the Idaho chapter, and the widow of the man who owned the Sun Valley resort. So can their friends.


There is nothing improper or unusual about this. It is the way power is exerted in America, by everyone from advocates of more breast cancer research to friends of Israel.


In fact, in every state, city, or county where there is a conservation question before the Legislature or the electorate, it's a good bet that the Conservancy's phone tree is at work, with some of the final calls to the committee chairman or the newspaper editor not even coming from TNC members, but from their influential friends. Power without fingerprints.


It is the kind of thing John Sawhill was very good at, and The Nature Conservancy's next president will have to be good at it, too. But John Sawhill clones are hard to find; the Republican environmentalist could be on the endangered species list.


Fortunately for TNC's future, reports from within indicate that the search committee, under Johnson's chairmanship, is not looking for a Sawhill clone. Sawhill himself may have made that unnecessary. He left the organization so strong that his successor will only have to sustain its frontiers, not expand them.


He or she will still have to combine civility with intensity, an ability to schmooze with corporate executives with a commitment to preserve the natural world, a traditional bearing with a scientific vision, a collegial demeanor with a near-messianic fervor. Establishment revolutionaries are hard to find.


Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., for High Country News.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Margolis