3. The Nature Conservancy: Setting Up the Necessary Structure Ourselves
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53 In light of how formidable The Nature Conservancy is today, it may be tempting to think that it sprang effortlessly, even inevitably, from the Ecologists’ Union. In truth, success was far from certain and the end result different from what was initially envisioned. George Fell took it upon himself to give form to chaos during the start-up years. Among many other things, he conceived and put into place the conservancy’s vaunted chapter system, set the stage for its massive membership program, and inculcated an institutional commitment to conserving land systematically and strategically. To ensure that everything worked as he intended, he and Barbara staffed the organization for little or no pay. Fell’s insistence on laying the groundwork for a strong national organization put him at odds with another strong-willed leader of the conservancy. Richard Pough preferred a far more flexible, opportunistic approach to protecting land. Pough readily acknowledged that “were it not for George Fell, the Ecologists’ Union might never have become The Nature Conservancy.” On the other hand, he and other leaders eventually came to the conclusion that Fell, with his particular brand of tenacity, was “not the right man” to lead the conservancy long-term.1 With his accustomed stubbornness, Fell fought to retain his position, even more aggressively than he had when faced with dismissal from the Soil Conservation Service. In both instances, Fell’s actions only further reinforced the other side’s decision to part ways. Nonetheless, the structure Fell conceived and instituted during the launch years of the conservancy anchored its growth as it became what is today the largest conservation organization in the world. 3 The Nature Conservancy Setting Up the Necessary Structure Ourselves 54 The Nature Conservancy Setting Up the Necessary Structure When the Fells arrived in Washington in 1950, they had no firm plan in mind. They had no idea how long they might stay. They had little money of their own and the organization they informally represented had only about three hundred dollars in the bank—the same amount Victor Shelford had provided out of his own pocket as seed money four years earlier. Prior to the Fells’ arrival, the Ecologists’ Union had not acted on any of the reorganizing ideas presented at its annual meeting, including Fell’s own intriguing but vague assertion that “those who know” should lead and organize some kind of national organization to preserve remnant natural areas.2 About the only direction they received came from the Ecologists’ Union president, Charles Kendeigh, who, given the union’s modest resources, reiterated his preference for affiliating with an existing organization or agency. “If we were to build up a large, effective organization of our own,” Kendeigh wrote, “this [would] require a great deal of time and effort at merely organizational and administrative duties.”3 Heeding Kendeigh’s advice and following a course that had served him well while trying to advance a statewide system of natural areas preservation back home in Illinois, Fell met with anyone who would meet with him. Over the course of the first couple of weeks, he met with representatives from the National Parks Association, the National Park Service, the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, the US Department of the Interior, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, the Wild Flower Preservation Society, and the Wilderness Society. Most individuals with whom he met were supportive of the concept of a national natural areas preservation effort, some considerably more so than others. But no one was willing or able to take on the effort, for reasons no different from those Fell had encountered in Illinois. For some, preserving small, isolated natural areas was not specifically within their missions. For others, preserving such areas would have been impractical from a management perspective, besides which there was hardly enough money available to administer those lands already preserved. Yet others balked at Fell’s idea merely because no one had ever suggested such a thing before. In spite of encountering the same excuses that had plagued their state efforts, the Fells determined that the people they had met had been sufficiently “friendly and supportive” to warrant their remaining in Washington to explore additional options.4 Staying, however, meant first finding a means of supporting themselves. In search of work, Fell paid calls on the personnel departments of several federal agencies, including, ironically, the very same Soil Conservation Service that a few years earlier had terminated his employment after...


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Subject Headings

  • Fell, George B.
  • Nature Conservancy (U.S.) -- History.
  • Natural Areas Association (U.S.) -- History.
  • Illinois Nature Preserves Commission -- History.
  • Natural Land Institute (Rockford, Ill.) -- History.
  • Natural areas -- Illinois -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- Illinois -- History.
  • Conservationists -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Natural areas -- United States -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- United States -- History.
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