Nature Conservancy sets new goals for Eastern Shore

(Note: Somehow, I just cannot seem to dredge up any sympathy for the Nature Conservancy and its plea for more money. This is a global group with funds coming from all directions, including federal taxpayer dollars, and yet, it wants us to think that its North Carolina tentacle is broke? Yeah, right. "The group continues to wrestle with $18 million in debt. At the same time, it has launched a capital campaign seeking another $52 million for planned land purchases across Virginia." Be sure to send them your nickels and dimes, folks, they're soooo pore!)

January 20, 2003

By Scott Harper

757- 446-2340

Fax: 757-446-2051

The Virginian-Pilot

P.O. Box 449

Norfolk, VA 23501-0449

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

Faced with heavy debts and development pressures, The Nature Conservancy is shaking up its operations on Virginia's Eastern Shore, promising new leadership and new goals for preserving land and wildlife.

The international environmental group, which is the largest property owner on the Eastern Shore peninsula, plans to sell some of its seaside farms to generate money, buy more undeveloped property along the Chesapeake Bay, and possibly unload several landmarks acquired as business investments.

The changes stem from an internal audit that found excessive spending on several questionable projects and little oversight of local actions.

Since the audit was completed in August, the conservancy's longtime director on the Eastern Shore, John Hall, has resigned and moved away. The group continues to wrestle with $18 million in debt. At the same time, it has launched a capital campaign seeking another $52 million for planned land purchases across Virginia.

For 18 years, the conservancy, under Hall, bought and managed thousands of acres of pristine property, harbors, marshes and barrier islands, mostly along the Atlantic Ocean. In this way, he helped bring international attention to the conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve, and to the group's attempts at managing growth and shaping an alternative, eco-friendly economy on the rural peninsula.

The Virginia Coast Reserve is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, vital to hundreds of bird species that migrate each year from Canada to South America and back again.

Hall abruptly left the job Oct. 31, just days after learning that major operational changes were afoot, including tighter controls on spending and policy from state headquarters in Charlottesville.

Michael Lipford, the group's state director, said he does not believe Hall did anything wrong or illegal. Indeed, he applauded Hall for trying new methods for conserving land and protecting the environment.

But with bills piling up, including those from several unsuccessful experiments and investments, Lipford said, it was time to tighten the belt and refocus energies on the Eastern Shore.

The biggest shift in strategy, he said, will be a new attention to preserving the Chesapeake Bay and the southern tip of the peninsula in Northampton County.

The southern tip plays host to some of the highest concentrations of migratory birds and waterfowl in the Western Hemisphere. It looks and acts like the end of a funnel, a narrow and final resting spot at the bottom of the peninsula where birds flock for needed food and rest before continuing their international trek on the Atlantic flyway.

The region also is ripe for suburbia. Developers from Virginia Beach and other population centers in Hampton Roads view the area just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel as scenic, cheap and available.

Building permits in the lower part of Northampton County increased 20 percent last year, said County Administrator Lance Metzler, and an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course near Cape Charles is drawing more homeowners and businesses.

Given this trend, the conservancy has decided to redirect its money and skills toward acquiring Bayfront properties, beaches and bird habitats "as much as we possibly can,'' Lipford said.

"From an environmental-threat standpoint, that's clearly where we need to go,'' he said. "That's where things are at their critical mass.''

Last week, the conservancy announced its first donation on the Bay side of the peninsula since its priority shift took effect late last year -- a cluster of small islands and marshlands, just off Accomack County's shore near Guilford Creek.

The 600 acres were donated by the Justis family, which has owned the property for generations. The land will become a nature sanctuary for migratory birds, waterfowl and the federally protected tiger beetle, a threatened species.

The Bayside shift also breaks a 30-year-old trend for the conservancy. Since the early 1970s, the group has looked to the East, toward the ocean, in purchasing seaside farmland, wetlands and coastal islands.

The new focus westward and other local changes "are designed to encourage a whole new generation of effort to advance conservation in this globally significant area and beyond,'' according to the August audit that spurred the reforms.

Also last week, the conservancy announced a replacement for Hall. Ray Dueser, a former University of Virginia scientist and researcher, is expected to take over as executive director March 1, said Daniel White, a conservancy spokesman.

Dueser helped launch the "Long-term Ecological Research Program'' on the Eastern Shore, in which U.Va. scientists studied changes in the conservancy's barrier islands and coastal ecosystems.

The project continues today. And last year, U.Va. and Anheuser-Busch teamed up to buy 43 acres in Northampton County for the expansion of marine research efforts.

Several conservancy employees see the appointment of Dueser as a return to science-based conservation, as well as a rejection of the economic experimentation that typified Hall's tenure.

"I'm as happy as I've been in years,'' said Barry Truitt, a biologist who has worked on the Eastern Shore for the conservancy since the mid-1970s.

Truitt said he became frustrated in recent years with Hall's skimping on basic science to pay for alternative programs.

"He had some wild ideas,'' Truitt said. "Some worked, plenty of others didn't.''

Several friends and colleagues said they are not sure where Hall is or what he is doing these days.

Attempts to contact Hall were unsuccessful.

Former colleagues described him as a master fund-raiser and innovator, not afraid of spending money or taking business risks.

One experiment that went awry was the Virginia Eastern Shore Corp. The conservancy-led company was supposed to launch organic farming, eco-tourism and other environmentally friendly businesses. The idea was to bolster the struggling economies of Northampton and Accomack counties, two of the poorest per-capita regions in Virginia, and spread environmentalism.

With money from partners, including the Ford Foundation, the corporation began in 1995 with plans of turning a profit within four years. Instead, it went broke in that time, reporting $2.25 million in losses.

"The business might have done better with more duct tape and less gold-plated plumbing,'' William Weeks, a conservancy vice president, wrote in a 2001 report on the company's demise.

Hall wooed wealthy donors from Hampton Roads and Washington and felt that upscale facilities on the Eastern Shore were important to keeping the money tap open, co-workers said.

The conservancy built new, plush offices in Nassawadox, its Eastern Shore headquarters. And under Hall, the group invested in historic buildings and landmarks, thinking they would house donors, preserve history and make money as conference centers or gathering points for eco-tourists.

Now, however, several of the structures may be sold, according to the internal audit.

Facilities that might be unloaded or leased include the Cobb Island Station, a former Coast Guard facility moved to shore from a barrier island and renovated for $3 million; and the Volgenau Cottage, a historic outpost that offers visitors a slice of rustic splendor.

Hall himself moved into the Brownsville historic home, a grand old farmhouse in Nassawadox that was supposed to be kept up for overnight guests and gift-givers, several employees said.

Dueser, the new director, will not live at Brownsville.

Lipford said the conservancy has sold or is close to selling several of its seaside farms for about $13 million. That money, combined with other savings, will bring the debts down to about $3 million, he said.

The farms will only be sold to "responsible conservation buyers,'' Lipford said -- meaning, people willing to leave much of the land untouched. Still, limited residential and commercial development will be allowed, he added.

Paul Berge, executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which advises local government on policy issues, said the sales may actually help the conservancy's image in the eyes of a still-skeptical populace.

"It gets those properties back into the private sector, and people who continue to be suspicious of the conservancy will see that and like that,'' Berge said.

The issue of property rights remains a big local concern among some Eastern Shore residents and politicians, who have watched the conservancy buy land and profess controlled growth for decades.

"On the one hand, the conservancy is resented,'' Berge said. "But on the other, they're seen as leaders, bringing in resources and ideas that show us what the rest of the world is doing. Their presence is just huge here.''