10 August 2007

15/15: Favorite Memories in Conservation

Today is my last day working for The Nature Conservancy after 15 years. Last night, some colleagues threw a send-off party for me at Caribbean Breeze in Arlington, VA. It was wonderful to see so many friends from my time at the Conservancy: old (or should I say, long-term), new, and treasured.

One dear friend, Karen Browning Gallardo, whom I've known for more than a decade, asked, "So what are your favorite TNC memories after 15 years?"

For me, the Conservancy has been about two things: the mission and the people. Who can argue with the mission: to preserve the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the places that represent that diversity -- and that are essential to human and economic well-being, by the way. "We get results you can walk around on," said our late CEO John Sawhill (more on him later). I'm often asked why I stayed so long at TNC. It's the people (I think I may have said that in my earlier post).

But when I think about favorite memories, the mission, places and people are linked, inextricably. My memories of work with TNC can be classified into three realms: places, people, and systems change.

I thought of 15, not necessarily one for every year and not necessarily in this order, but close. Thanks, Karen, for the idea, and for some great memories of working together.

Here goes, starting from my earliest years with TNC. (I'll probably break this into multiple posts.)

1. White Plains, New York: One of my early meetings with Texaco. Chapter director Olivia Millard and I met with their community relations director to talk about funding specific programs. They were having issues with Ecuador at the time, the result of some bad practices from 20 years previous. I realized they were serious about trying to do something different, something more environmentally and socially responsible (this before the triple bottom line was a meme). I asked if they had ever tried to speak with environmentalists in that country. No, they hadn't. What if I facilitated a meeting with Hugo Arnal, then our Ecuador country director? They were non-plussed. Could it happen? It did. A dialogue started. It wasn't always pretty, but we were building bridges. My oil biz in-laws and my greenie friends could both be proud (some of the latter were not, unfortunately).

2. Neversink River, New York: The Neversink River surfaced as a conservation priority and a team of us determined it should be a bioreserve, as it was then called: an integrated landscape protection effort comprised of a core area and buffer zones, and which considered and incorporated the surrounding human uses and impacts. We put together the financing for the initial purchase in short order, including funds from some well-healed fly fisherman. (I remember a long night of serious drinking after a day of serious fishing with Leigh Perkins, then chairman of Orvis and a TNC board member.) In a stroke of marketing hubris, I dubbed the place "The Birthplace of American Flyfishing," because Theodore Gordon developed many of the commonly used dry flies from that stream. People still call it that today (another meme).

3. Neversink River (again): Our big opening celebration of the Neversink Preserve and Bioreserve project, one of the Last Great Places. Then Conservancy president John Sawhill is there to cut the ribbon and glad hand with TNC members, do a speech and high-tail it home. "I have to be back for a cocktail party that Belle [his wife] is putting on. I can't be late," he said to me. I was his driver. It takes exactly one hour to get from the Neversink Preserve north of Deer Park, NY, to Newark Airport (okay, if you drive like me). After John's speech, I whisk him into the car and drive like hell. He's talking animatedly, asking me about my work, how things are going for me with TNC. Then he stops, drops off like a bad cell phone connection. I look over. His head is in his chest and he appears to be unconscious. (OMG, I thought, I've killed TNC's president!) I look at the clock. No time to stop. I look at the gas gauge, the light below "E" is flickering to life. No time to stop. I hold some paper up under John's nose, It flaps. (I didn't know he had diabetes and this was just low blood sugar moment.) I keep driving, get to the airport just in time. As I pull up to the curb, John bolts up, thanks me, and sprints from the car. "You'll go far in the Conservancy, son," says John.

4. Lower Talarik Creek, Alaska: My success with the Neversink led me to be recruited by Susan Ruddy, then state director in Alaska. At an annual meeting she cornered me and chatted me up about Alaska, a place that had always held an allure for me. I couldn't believe they were having trouble raising money for that world class flyfishing stream. At the corner of the bar sat Leigh Perkins (see above). I walked Susan over and introduced her to Leigh. We walked away with a $100K commitment. How'd you like to come to Alaska to finish this deal? "Would I?" I said, stammering like George Bailey.

5. LTC, Alaska (again): standing in the middle of the creek, flyfishing with some good ol' boys from Texas. My cell phone rings. "Hello?" "Scott, is that you? Where are you?" "I'm at work." "What are you doing?" "I'm standing in the middle of a flyfishing stream with a 9-weight rod and a prayer." "You have the best job in the world. Why can't I have your job?"

6. LTC (again): I've just spent the past two days flying in the back of mail planes from Iliamna to Port Alsworth and everywhere around and between, including one rough flight with a bush pilot who wanted to test my mettle (I passed), going from fishing lodge to fishing lodge promoting Lower Talairk Creek. We needed a final $50,000 to complete the deal. Before I left Anchorage I had sent our proposal to the head of a family foundation, at the request of one of the family members. At one of the lodges, I used their dial-up service to check my email. "You have a deal," he wrote. "A check for $50K is being cut today." I took the rest of the day off and went fishing. Thanks, Harry, wherever you are!

7. Central Park, New York City: My return to New York from Alaska came barely four months or so into my stay there. But this time I was part of the Alaska delegation at the "Second Great Party to Save the Last Great Places," an extravaganza put on by TNC and the Central Park Conservancy. Guests wandered from "ecosystem tent" to ecosystem tent, representing the Last Great Places, from Indonesia's Sulawesi to Brazil's Patanal; from the desert southwest to Alaska. It was a hot, late spring evening in New York and I worried about the troupe of Yup'ik Eskimo dancers we'd brought from up north. They weren't used to the heat, or the heights: we took them to the top of the Empire State building. Others worried about the sled dogs posing with Colonel Norman Vaughn; the dogs came from Long Island.

8. LTC (again): Flying into the creek from the Iliamna Lodge, 15 or 20 miles away. We circle the mouth of the creek, where the famous "rock" is found. 10-12 brown bears can be found in the pool, scarfing up the salmon heading up stream, followed by the trout, tremendous endemic rainbows that are HUGE. We land the float plane in the lagoon and all the bears disappear. Can't see one of them, although all around is just low brush and tundra. Where the F*%@ did they go?

Okay. That's enuff for now. Part two later...

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