Few natural wonders can compare to those boasted by Downeast, Maine. The region, which juts like a bent elbow into the Atlantic, is home to pristine woodlands, nearly five dozen lakes, hundreds of miles of river and stream shorelines, and a range of creatures great and small, including 180 varieties of birds.
For years, this haven has proved a wonderland for conservationist and outdoorsman alike. But of the region’s some 1.6 million acres, only about 200,000 are preserved by local, state, and federal agencies, with Acadia National Park’s 47,000 acres being perhaps best known. Much of the remaining land is in the hands of private landowners who hold easements that give them the right to develop the land or sell it for timber. In recent years, these easements have started coming up for sale.
“In the past 6 years,” explains Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, “more than 30 percent of Maine’s privately owned forestland or 6.8 million acres in the North Woods region changed hands,” a commercial phenomenon which has left conservationists and state officials scrambling to snatch up as much of the rapidly dwindling woodlands as possible, especially in Downeast.
As is often the case, the conservation groups were fighting a losing battle. That is, until an unexpected comrade-in-conservation was enlisted in the struggle: Wal-Mart.
The global retail behemoth, renowned for its signature blue stores and highly competitive pricing, announced in April that it had joined the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to conserve over the next decade at least one acre of natural habitat for every acre developed for company use, with the easement on Downeast being one of the first and largest slated for preservation. The ambitious project, dubbed “Acres for America” and already the subject of much to-do in the world of environmental philanthropy, commits the two groups to a ten-year collaboration worth a handsome $35 million, all directly from the Wal-Mart coffers rather than its customary foundational pockets.
With a $6 million grant from Acres for America, NFWF is going to purchase some 312,000 acres of forestlands surrounding Downeast that are currently owned by Typhoon LLC, a lumber company. The 312,000 acres marked for preservation are especially valuable because they lie between the preserved lands in Downeast and 600,000 acres of preserved forest land in New Brunswick, Canada. Once secured, a continuous stretch of some 1.2 million acres of woodland will be preserved.
The novelty of this venture lies in the principle that informs it—so-called “cooperative conservation,” which has aroused much curiosity, and also some skepticism.
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, who joined the NFWF and Wal-Mart at the unveiling ceremony, extolled both groups, and especially Wal-Mart, for erecting “a standard for corporate stewardship,” one which “demonstrates the power of cooperative conservation and partnership” and sets forth a model for conservation which the Bush administration, long a proponent of such cooperative endeavors, hopes others will soon emulate. That model, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Sarah Clarke, “helps demonstrate that economic growth and development can go hand in hand with conservation.”
The idea is that environmental conservation ultimately rests with every citizen, an allusion to what Aldo Leopold, a leading twentieth-century conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac, envisioned as a “nation of citizen stewards.” “Cooperative conservation,” Secretary Norton stresses, “is rooted in the idea that effective conservation is not born in a government office building. It is born in the hearts of a people who live on, work on, and love the land and its wildlife.” The most useful efforts at conservation, according to this vision, are those which combine the public interest with the vigor of private industry, whose financial might can be harnessed to achieve what has too long been regarded as only the work of government. “We must engage all sectors of society,” urges Selzer, “including leading companies.”
And indeed, much of the enthusiasm swirling around the “Acres for America” project seems to stem from the fact that this venture may prove the first considerable accomplishment borne out of this school of environmental thought. As Selzer observes, even though such groups as the Conservation Fund have long received corporate contributions similar in dollar size to that given by Wal-Mart in its breadth and magnitude, “the Acres for America program is a first-of-its-kind initiative,” one without any precedent in kind or quantity.
With this appraisal, many heartily concur, including Max Chapman Jr., chairman of the NFWF. “Wal-Mart is the first corporation,” he says, “to commit to offsetting its entire developed land use for conservation.” “Wal-Mart’s leadership is raising the bar in conservation,” he adds, and lands such as Downeast, long menaced by the encroachments of commercial development, may yet be saved by some of America’s largest developers.
While the size of the Downeast purchase is impressive, Acres for America also demonstrates you don’t have to purchase 300,000-plus acres to make a significant impact. The program is investing in four other areas of the country, and while the land purchases aren’t nearly as large, the effect will prove no less great.
Grand Canyon National Park borders a number of other preserved lands, including Kaibib National Forest to the south, and Hualapai Indian Reservation and Marble Canyon to the north, to name but three. All together, some 800,000 acres of land are protected. But along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are two private ranches that, if allowed to develop, could harm the surrounding preserved lands.
Acres for America is providing the Conservation Fund with the grant money necessary to purchase the two ranches. As the new owner, the fund will work with federal land managers and local citizens to manage the grazing that occurs there and ensure it does not disrupt the region’s scenic and ecological integrity. Thus, a small purchase of just 1,200 acres will secure the future of 800,000 acres.
Still another example of this strategy is seen in Arkansas, where with funds from NFWF and Wal-Mart, The Nature Conservancy will purchase roughly 1,200 acres along the headwaters of Buffalo National River. Long a favorite of hunters, hikers, and canoeists, this area is home to Sherfield Cave, the largest hibernation site for the Indiana Bat, an endangered species. But in addition to protecting the bat, the purchase will connect six other forest conservation areas in Newton County, Arkansas. All told, the purchase of these 1,200 acres creates a preserved area of more than 24,500 acres.
Controversy Lingers Still
But Wal-Mart’s generosity has not impressed all quarters of the conservation community. To some the collaboration seems improbable, if not downright peculiar. The enterprise, some claim, smacks of opportunism. Why would the largest chain of American retail stores bother to muster so hefty a sum for conservation?
A possible motive suggested by some of Wal-Mart’s critics is simply publicity. Only a week prior to the announcement of the Acres for America project, an alliance forged between 50 environmental, community, and labor organizations formally declared their intention to mount a nationwide effort to attack Wal-Mart and its policies, decrying them as adverse both to the welfare of workers and health of the environment. Some suspect that amid the fusillade of recent allegations and heightened public scrutiny, Wal-Mart sought some means by which to burnish its public image.
“There’s more to Wal-Mart’s record than just the conservation of habitats—issues of increased traffic, taking the life out of downtowns, the saturation of big-box stores,” says Eric Olson, a representative of the Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl campaign. While his organization remains supportive of such conservation efforts, Olson warns that “expensive public-relations campaigns can’t change the fact that the company needs to get serious about listening to local communities. Clearly the cost of having a big-box store in the neighborhood has environmental consequences,” those which Wal-Mart has long failed to address, Olson claims.
But Wal-Mart vigorously disputes these accusations. The company record reflects a long-standing, serious commitment to environmental stewardship, says Tara Stewart, a spokesman for Wal-Mart who cites as evidence the company’s eco-friendly participation in the Smartway Transport Partnership, a program aimed at decreasing air pollution and increasing energy efficiency in its fleet of transport vehicles. Moreover, the genesis of the project lay not with Wal-Mart but NFWF, which had proposed the concept to the company more than a year ago, well before the cadre of critics had gathered together their alliance and the public controversy had begun to froth as hotly as at present.
The slings and arrows notwithstanding, the collaboration between the blue giant of retail and the NFWF may well signify an important shift in the tides of environmental thinking. At the very least, says Stewart, Wal-Mart hopes its efforts will spur others to take up the challenge of “cooperative conservation.” After all, concludes Mike Duke, executive vice president and president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores USA, “protecting our environment is simply the right thing to do,” not only for the sake of generations present, but for “our kids, our grandkids and others [who] will have a chance to enjoy these national treasures for years to come.”
Jady Hsin is a student at Georgetown University interning with The Philanthropy Roundtable.