How The Nature Conservancy Works

A honey bee hovering over a flower.
Nature has to be preserved for the future. Vincent Pommeyrol / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The Nature Conservancy, since 1951, has protected over 11 million acres in the U.S. and over 60 million acres globally, focusing on preserving ecologically important lands and waters.
  • Primarily funded by private donations, the Conservancy adopts a nonconfrontational, market-based approach, working with willing sellers and emphasizing scientific research to guide its conservation efforts.
  • With a membership exceeding 1 million, the Conservancy manages the world's largest system of private nature sanctuaries, offering educational and recreational opportunities to the public while involving volunteers in land management and restoration projects.

We've all known the pleasure of staring into the sky at flocks of birds winging their way toward warmer locales. Did you know that of the 9,700 species of birds in the world, almost half of them -- about 4,500 -- breed in the Americas? And that 25 percent of those birds are at risk, because their habitats are being threatened?

It's not just our world's creatures: Our favorite beaches, prairies and cool forests are also at risk. Is there anything we can do to ensure that these special natural places survive all the hazards -- both natural and manmade -- they face?


The Nature Conservancy says there are definitely things that can be done, and the private, international nonprofit organization is tackling those issues head-on. According to Conservancy leaders, since the organization's inception in 1951, it and its members (today more than 1 million) have helped protect 11 million acres of ecologically important land in the United States and more than 60 million acres in Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific region. The Conservancy, a favorite charity of the late philanthropist and environmentalist Doris Duke, currently manages 1,340 preserves, which make up the largest system of private nature sanctuaries in the world.

In this edition of How Stuff Works, we'll look at how this organization, which is primarily funded by private donations, operates by examining some specific projects of the North Carolina Chapter of the Conservancy. (For a better understanding of all this, be sure to read How Philanthropy Works.)

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to "protect animals, plants and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive." William Stolzenburg, science editor for The Nature Conservancy Magazine, describes the approach this way: "The scale of biological conservation has spread, from saving disjointed pockets of rare species to encompassing entire working systems of nature. The new map of the Conservancy's targets is now delineated not by political lines or national borders, but by realms of climate and geology, fire and flood, and their corresponding cover of signature plants and animals."

As is often the case, a small group of concerned citizens formed what has become a huge charitable foundation. Some members of the Ecological Society of America joined forces in 1951 to organize private efforts to stop the loss of natural areas and to protect habitats for rare and endangered species. According to Conservancy historians, the organization focused from the beginning on using the best available scientific information to accomplish its goals -- a philosophy that remains at the center of its work today.

The Conservancy's first nature preserve, acquired in 1954, was 60 acres of land along the Mianus River Gorge in Westchester County, N.Y. Funds donated by members and others they recruited to the cause were supplemented by loans and life-insurance policies. This was an innovative approach for the time -- one that became the model for the way the Conservancy funds its projects today.

In the early 1970s, the Conservancy began biological inventories on a state-by-state basis and later also started compiling data in Latin America, Canada and the Caribbean. This data has proven to be invaluable to the Conservancy in setting its conservation priorities and allocating funds to these projects.

State chapters were organized during the '70s, and the International Program was launched in 1982. Today, the Pacific program, headquartered in Hawaii, is working to protect threatened areas in Indonesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. And in Latin America, the Conservancy has forged alliances with more than 40 partners in 20-plus countries to provide a variety of services (community development, professional training, long-term funding) for areas that are legally protected but seriously underfunded.

After years of concentrating on acquiring land and establishing preserves, the Conservancy's focus began to change in the late 1980s. Instead of purchasing specific critical sites, the group began to target large landscapes and ecological environs and to pursue more extensive collaborations with private and public landowners and local residents. The group's goals were stretching geographically and getting more ambitious; at the same time, the Conservancy relied more and more on grass-roots efforts on the local level to shore up restoration and preservation activities.

Generally, the most ecologically critical natural areas are those targeted for Conservancy projects. State Natural Heritage Inventory Programs (usually administered by a state agency) identify a state's unusual or important natural traits and the locations of these resources. The scientific data in these inventories indicate the "relative rarity" of animal and plant species and plant and aquatic areas and report on the level of existing protection -- if any.

Once species are located and ranked, the Conservancy targets the areas that are home to endangered or critically threatened species for specific projects or as preserves.


How Nature Conservancy Projects are Paid For

The Green Swamp Preserve is North Carolina's largest preserve and boasts many rare plants and animals.
Photo courtesy of Cecil Frost

Conservancy officials like to describe the group's operating methods as "nonconfrontational, market-based economic solutions." This means that they work only with willing sellers and donors -- often people who have worked, lived and played on the land for years -- and that they support their work through gifts, exchanges, conservation easements, management agreements, purchases from the Conservancy's revolving Land Preservation Fund, debt-for-nature swaps and management partnerships.

Almost half the Conservancy's donations come from individual gifts with the remainder from bequests, foundations and corporate gifts. The Nature Conservancy uses 86 percent of its funds for conservation programs; experts say at least 60 percent of donations received by a charity should go directly to carrying out its purpose -- not to administrative costs. (In 1996, Money magazine's "10 Most Efficient Nonprofits" list included The Nature Conservancy, the only conservation organization to make the list.)


Preserves are managed by the Conservancy's volunteers and land management staff through restoration techniques such as reforestation and prescribed burning. Many Conservancy preserves are open to the public for educational purposes as well as some recreational activities, such as hiking, bird watching and photography. (Check with your state's Conservancy office to find out if preserves in your area are open.)

How the North Carolina Chapter Works

To better understand how these conservation projects are conducted, let's look more closely at some of the work of the North Carolina Chapter of the Conservancy. According to communications director Ida Lynch, the Tar Heel state's diverse wildlands range from "rugged mountaintops cloaked in misty spruce-fir forests to dynamic, wind-scoured barrier islands." The variety of habitats within the state's 500-mile length include:

  • Mountain bogs
  • Brownwater and blackwater rivers
  • Piedmont "prairies"
  • Longleaf pine savannas
  • Carolina bays
  • Bottomland hardwood swamps
  • Maritime forests

According to Lynch, North Carolina's natural areas are threatened by human activities, such as development and pollution. A 1995 Defenders of Wildlife report identified some of the habitats found in North Carolina as among the country's most threatened ecosystems. This list included the southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest, the longleaf pine forest and savanna, eastern grasslands and coastal communities.


Due to air pollution, the destruction or alteration of habitats, and the suppression of fire, some of North Carolina's most colorful birds -- the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker -- are now extinct. Other species, including the gray wolf, the woodland bison and the elk, have been destroyed in North Carolina but still exist in other locales.

Despite these losses, North Carolina has many conservation success stories to tell, according to Lynch. Some of these are:

  • Since it began in 1977, the N.C. chapter has protected more than 460,000 acres of wildlands. Much of this land was acquired on behalf of state and federal conservation agencies and is now publicly owned.
  • The N.C. Chapter owns and/or manages more than 59,000 acres in its statewide system of nature preserves.
  • The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina works with The Timber Co. to manage 21,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Roanoke River floodplain.

The Conservancy recently helped the State of North Carolina acquire the 17,734-acre Buckridge Coastal Reserve and 9,750 acres of the Jocassee Gorges.


A North Carolina Preserve

Sundew is one of the 14 species of insectivorous plants found in the Green Swamp Preserve in North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of N.C. Chapter, The Nature Conservancy

The North Carolina Chapter, led by executive director Katherine Skinner, is supported entirely by dues from its 26,000 members, foundation grants and tax-deductible donations from individuals and corporations.

The N.C. Chapter works with the state-supported N.C Natural Heritage Program (located within the Division of State Parks) to identify and inventory unique natural areas and habitats. The chapter sets protection priorities based on information gathered by the Heritage Program.


Generally, Lynch said, Conservancy work falls into one of two categories -- preserves and projects. Most Nature Conservancy preserves are only open for visitation through a year-round, guided field trip program that is advertised in the membership publication, North Carolina Afield. Volunteers lead most of the trips so the schedule varies from season to season. Some Conservancy-managed preserves allow people to visit on their own. Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve and Grandfather Mountain are readily accessible to visitors and have self-guided trail systems and visitor centers. The Black River and Roanoke River and swamps may be explored on your own by boat.

North Carolina's largest preserve is the Green Swamp Preserve, a 15,907-acre site in Brunswick County. In 1977, soon after the N.C. chapter was formed, 13,850 acres of the Green Swamp, a National Natural Landmark (NNL), were donated to the Conservancy by the Federal Paper Board Co. (The company donated another 2,577 acres in the late 1980s and the Conservancy purchased even more later.)

Experts say the Green Swamp Preserve contains some of the nation's best examples of longleaf pine savannas. These open savannas are special because they have a diverse herb layer with many orchids and insectivorous plants (plants that rely on insects as food). However, almost 13,000 acres of the preserve consist of a thick evergreen shrub bog, or pocosin, that is dominated by gall berry, titi trees and sweetbay (an American magnolia).

The Green Swamp is said to contain at least 14 species of insectivorous plants, including large populations of Venus's-flytrap, sundew and four species of pitcher plants. The life cycles of many of the preserve's plants are tied to fire, scientists say. For example, pond pine cones burst and release seeds when they are exposed to extreme heat. And in order to germinate and grow, longleaf pine seeds require bare ground and plenty of sunlight -- typical traits, experts say, of plants that evolved in a landscape with frequent (often lightning-ignited) fires. (That's why the scientific re-introduction of fire into these areas through prescribed burning is important.) The grasses, orchids and insectivorous plants have roots that are protected from the hottest fires.

Among the rare animals making their homes in the preserve are the American alligator, the fox squirrel, Henslow's sparrow, Bachman's sparrow and Hessel's hairstreak butterfly. The (federally listed) endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (it takes its name from the male's tiny red spot behind the eye) is one of the rarest inhabitants of the swamp.

Interestingly, this bird nests in old-growth longleaf pines with red heart disease. Scientists say the woodpecker prefers this home because it can drill a nesting cavity in the softened core of the trees. The woodpecker's tree of choice is easily spotted because of the shiny, sticky resin around the cavity that keeps eggs and young safe from predators. It takes these birds from one to five years, returning to the same tree as long as sap continues to flow around the opening, to complete their nest. "Since they are so picky about their living quarters, protecting their habitat is critical to ensuring their survival," Lynch said.

Conservancy staff from the nearby Wilmington office manages conservation efforts at the preserve -- efforts that include installing red-cockaded woodpecker nest boxes, conducting prescribed burning and restoring pine plantations to longleaf pine savannas. (This management is supported by the estate of Harry Patrick Gold and Erma Green Gold.) Check the N.C. chapter's Web site for directions to the preserve.


A North Carolina Project

Protecting the Roanoke River floodplain is a major project of the N.C. Conservancy chapter.
Photo courtesy of N.C. Chapter, The Nature Conservancy

Nature Conservancy projects are areas that the Conservancy acquired and later transferred to state or federal agencies, such as the State of North Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. According to Lynch, most Conservancy projects in North Carolina are managed as parks, game lands and refuges.

An important project of the Conservancy in North Carolina is the protection of natural areas along a 137-mile corridor (Bertie, Halifax, Martin, Northampton and Washington counties) of the Roanoke River. According to inventory data, the lower Roanoke River floodplain is one of the five major brownwater ecosystems in the Southeast and contains the largest complete bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem in the mid-Atlantic region. In the floodplain are:


  • Natural levees
  • Swamp sloughs (river "meander" depressions)
  • Low and high ridges separated by swales
  • Ancient river channels

According to Lynch, the floodplain supports a wide range of bottomland forest types: The middle section of the river is characterized by alluvial forests and large back swamps, while the river's lower section contains large tracts of bald cypress and water tupelo swamp forests.

Roanoke swamp forests and bottomlands have large numbers of black bear, river otter, white-tailed deer and bobcat. The floodplain has 214 bird species, including a large wood duck population, the (federally listed) threatened bald eagle and 44 species of neotropical migratory birds (birds that winter in the tropics and breed in North America), such as the scarlet tanager.

The project has benefited from the involvement of several private and public groups. Union Camp Corp. donated 176 acres to The Nature Conservancy, establishing the Camassia Slopes Preserve in 1981. In 1989, the Conservancy bought 10,626 acres in Bertie and Martin counties from Georgia-Pacific Corp. to create the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge and add land to the state-owned Roanoke River Wetlands.

The Timber Co. and the Conservancy agreed in 1994 to jointly manage and protect 21,000 acres on the Roanoke. Working with partners such as the Bertie and Martin County Commissioners, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the N.C. Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy has played key roles in protecting 51,000 acres in the river floodplain, according to Lynch.

Today, this area along the river is a popular recreational region for fishing, bird watching, canoeing and kayaking. The Conservancy and several area universities and private and public conservation groups have collaborated on creating a canoeing and camping trail. (To inquire about an upcoming field trip here, contact Roanoke River Partners, 252-794-2793.)


Getting Involved in the Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Chapter

4011 University Drive, Suite 201


Durham, N.C. 27707

Phone: (919) 403-8558

Fax: (919) 403-0379

The Nature Conservancy, International Headquarters

4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100

Arlington, Va. 22203-1606

Phone: (703) 841-5300

Check here for your state office.

At the state level, you can donate $25 and become a member (subscriptions to The Nature Conservancy Magazine" and the state newsletter, North Carolina Afield, are included). You can become a Carolina Conservator member by donating at least $100 per year (publications and participation in an annual "exclusive" field trip are included) and a Conservation Partner member by giving a minimum of $1,000 (publications, special field trips and events are included). Your membership includes the chapter newsletter, Afield, which contains information about land protection and membership activities (such as field trips), as well as The National Conservancy Magazine.

Check The Nature Conservancy's national Web site for membership information and opportunities at the national level. One of the more innovative opportunities for donors is the Adopt An Acre Program, through which you can adopt one acre or 100 to help provide funds for the purchase and management of rainforests.

If you're interested in environmental or ecological issues or if you just want to do something to keep your community healthy and attractive, you might also want to consider volunteering. Like most charitable organizations, The Nature Conservancy is always happy to increase its volunteer ranks. Contact a nearby Conservancy office to see what your state needs people to do.


Frequently Asked Questions

How does The Nature Conservancy select areas for conservation?
The Conservancy uses scientific data and state Natural Heritage Inventory Programs to identify ecologically critical areas in need of protection.
What is the role of volunteers in The Nature Conservancy?
Volunteers are vital for managing preserves through restoration techniques and they often lead educational field trips for the public.