Chapter 3: Mission for Life

When Robert E. Jenkins Jr. joined the Nature Conservancy in August 1970, he walked into an office with a simple motto stenciled on the door: "Land Preservation Through Private Action." On his first day at the 1800 North Kent Street high-rise in Arlington, Virginia, his boss, president Thomas W. Richards, gave him a simple job description to match the motto: improve the scientific significance of land-preservation projects.

Jenkins came well qualified to do Richards's bidding. The top candidate in a field of forty-seven applicants, Jenkins wielded an encyclopedic knowledge of biology, ecology, and natural history. He'd taken his Ph.D. at Harvard a year earlier, student of the celebrated evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and ecologist Edward O. Wilson. He had leadership skills to match. He'd helped found Zero Population Growth in Massachusetts, and on Earth Day in April 1970, he personally spoke out on population control-giving seven speeches in one day.

But Jenkins, a big, burly former Rutgers football player with a broad forehead and red beard, quickly found that Richards's charge was not so simple. He would soon learn the organization was guided by a mission that had drifted since the days when George Fell and Richard Goodwin presided. While the conservation ship once had orders to sail along a precise bearing, it now had the habit of sailing whichever way the winds of deal making blew.

Instilling a focused mission and the discipline to follow it would be Jenkins's work at the Conservancy. Whereas the crew members in 1970 had an unreliable and inconsistent sense of destination, they later had a crisp one. Whereas dealmakers initially closed transactions of questionable significance, they later moved to close only those of global significance. Whereas decisions at first were mainly opportunistic, they became steadily more systematic.

Soon after he started, Jenkins began to get hints of how much the crew had zigzagged toward an uncertain destination. When the staff attorney quit a month into Jenkins's tenure, he first treated Jenkins to a bit of bellyaching about the organization's direction.

After listening to a diatribe, Jenkins objected. He insisted that the organization did a lot of good.

The attorney replied that, well, it probably did, but it was an accident.

An accident! Jenkins couldn't grasp what that meant. But in the following weeks, he started to figure it out. Scores of project files crossed his desk-Sam's Woods in Connecticut, Lichen Glade in Missouri, Fairy Chasm in Wisconsin, Neahkahnie Beach in Oregon. Each appeared with a cover sheet printed with boxes for the ecology adviser and others to sign. But he had no idea how to assess any of them for significance. He knew his biology well enough. But the reports gave no organized ecological data for decision making, and they reached conclusions based on no criteria for quality.

The motto did seem simple: "Land Preservation Through Private Action." The question was, Preservation for what?

Jenkins became more concerned when he and his wife loaded their two kids into the car to look for preserves on the weekend. Jenkins wanted to get an on-the-ground feel for the properties the Conservancy protected. But as he crisscrossed Virginia and Maryland, he didn't find the exceptional jewels of nature he expected. Almost none were scenic, biological, recreational, or even open-space treasures.

Sometimes he couldn't find the preserves at all. When he searched for Hellen Creek Hemlock Preserve, the one acquired when Goodwin became president in 1956, he couldn't find it on the first trip. The plastic-wrapped signboard, on a tree trunk along the road, was eaten to pieces by termites. When he tried to call the volunteer caretaker of record, he found the man had died two years earlier.

The field trips didn't inspire confidence. They suggested the Conservancy spent a lot of time snapping up available opportunities, not snapping up choice biological treasures. When he queried the Conservancy's office manager about the organization's purpose, he got the quick response: "We're saving land; they're not making any more of it."

Again the question: Saving land for what?

What was the significance of Hellen Creek Preserve, the southernmost stand of hemlock on the Atlantic coast? What would be the significance of twenty-one similar acres in Ohio? Jenkins just couldn't say unless the Conservancy had more precise goals, more ecological data, and had a yardstick to measure how well the preserves met the goals. Without a decision-making structure, the best he could do was to apply his general knowledge and veto projects if something didn't ring true.

Jenkins wasn't sure anyone in the office knew why they were saving land. Without a crisper statement of the mission, he couldn't advise the staff on which way to proceed. He couldn't tell people whether their chosen projects were significant, let alone among the most significant. He had the sinking feeling that a lot of Conservancy acquisitions were no more than random acts of charity....

Copyright © 2005 by Bill Birchard