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Nature Conservancy works to preserve WV beauty

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek, left, and Thomas Minney, West Virginia director for the conservancy, stand outside Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge during the Environmental Council of the States’ annual fall meeting last week.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey
The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek, left, and Thomas Minney, West Virginia director for the conservancy, stand outside Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge during the Environmental Council of the States’ annual fall meeting last week.

WHEELING, W.Va. — As CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek knows all about “Wild and Wonderful” — on a global scale.

Tercek — who heads an organization that works in all 50 states and on six continents — understands West Virginia’s state slogan is much more than a marketing gimmick, and he believes The Nature Conservancy can play an important role in sharing that with the world.

“You have tremendously beautiful ecosystems. I don’t think the country as a whole fully appreciates that,”Tercek said during an interview at the Environmental Council of the States’ annual fall meeting, held last week at Oglebay Park. “Our challenge is to protect them, and we don’t feel that time’s on our side.”

In its more than 50 years in West Virginia, The Nature Conservancy’s work has helped preserve treasures such as Cheat Canyon and Cranesville Swamp, southeast of Morgantown; Smoke Hole Canyon in Grant and Pendleton counties; Canaan Valley; Bear Rocks Preserve at Dolly Sods; and the New River Gorge — some of the last places to which people can go to disconnect, if temporarily, from an increasingly fast-paced society.

“We’ve been here since the 1960s, working on conservation in West Virginia — conserving the land and water on which all life depends,” said Thomas Minney, West Virginia state director for The Nature Conservancy.

Part of the organization’s mission in West Virginia is to promote natural resource-based economies. From protecting more than 1,600 acres on the rim of the New River Gorge, where for more than 35 years tourists from all over have flocked to take part in Bridge Day, to working toward a whitewater rafting renaissance at Cheat Canyon, Minney believes the state chapter has been wildly successful in that.

“Each one of those places has turned into a hub of sustainable development in West Virginia,” Minney said.

An ‘Outsized Role’

West Virginia’s size, geographically, belies its importance to The Nature Conservancy’s overall mission of protecting water quality and biodiversity everywhere, according to Tercek and Minney.

That means the striking vistas at conservancy-protected locations, from the rushing whitewater at Cheat Canyon to the fiery red of the heath shrubs in September at Bear Rocks Preserve, are more than just once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.

“West Virginia is at a peak of biodiversity,” Minney said. “We have some of the most intact forests anywhere in the country, and some of the most dense forests in the world.”

An example of West Virginia’s importance is The Nature Conservancy’s most recent project in the Mountain State, the protection of more than 400 acres at the Sinks of Gandy in Randolph County. The area is home to a variety of rare and protected species, including the Virginia big-eared and northern long-eared bats, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander.

The property borders the Monongahela National Forest, which makes it crucial to sustaining healthy and diverse plant and animal populations there, according to the conservancy.

Tercek said West Virginia is well-positioned to have a major impact on the surrounding region, and that’s why it’s a focus for the conservancy.

“As the heart of the Appalachians, it has an outsized role,” he said of the Mountain State. “Protecting those places in West Virginia gives you a lot of return for your investment.”

An Unlikely Collaboration

Tercek’s leadership of The Nature Conservancy represents a collision of two worlds that many see as directly opposed to one another: nature and business.

A former partner at Goldman Sachs, Tercek left the investment banking firm in 2008 to take the CEO job with The Nature Conservancy. In the years since, he’s brought a different perspective to the organization that has meshed with its overall mission in a way some may have doubted was possible.

Tercek is an advocate of the concept of “natural capital” — placing importance on nature not only for its beauty but for the ways in which it can help people. It’s the subject of his book, “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” copies of which he signed during his visit to Oglebay. His approach — partnering with, rather than opposing, business — has been chronicled in such publications as Forbes, Fortune and The Economist.

“We want our conservation to work in a way that’s aligned with economic opportunity and aligned with what people need,” Tercek said.

So what does that mean for West     Virginia?

It means, Tercek said, taking a pragmatic approach to issues such as natural gas exploration — which, although in a downturn now, has transformed the state’s economy over the last five to seven years. He said The Nature Conservancy, rather than vilifying industry, wants to work with states where drilling and fracking is happening to ensure the least environmental impact while still producing the resource.

“You can’t instantly go from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that’s not. … We’re for robust, environmentally safe fracking,” Tercek said. “We don’t say, ‘No’ — rather, we say, ‘How?’”

Although The Nature Conservancy is a nonpartisan organization that prides itself on bridging differences on difficult issues, he acknowledged many “activist” organizations don’t buy into that approach. And that’s OK, he said.

“They’re led by good people, and they do important work. There are bad actors who need to be put under a little heat,” Tercek said of such organizations.

A Global Mission

The Nature Conservancy as it’s known today was founded in 1951, after a small group of scientists decided action was needed to save threatened natural areas. Its first foray into land acquisition came four years later when it spent $7,500 to finance the purchase of 60 acres along the Mianus River Gorge on the New York-Connecticut border.

That loan was to be repaid and used to establish a revolving fund for other conservation projects. That fund remains The Nature Conservancy’s most important tool in protecting ecologically valuable land, according to its website.

The conservancy continued to expand over the next two decades, eventually growing to cover all 50 states by 1974. The organization turned its eyes beyond the United States in 1980, deciding to focus also on Latin America. Its first foray into the Western Hemisphere came in 1990 with the construction of an office in the Pacific island republic of Palau.

“For 65 years, we’ve been known as a pragmatic, nonpartisan organization that brings diverse parties together to advance conservation progress,” Tercek said during the ECOS fall meeting at Oglebay. “That approach allowed us to become the largest conservation organization in America and the world. Our work is firmly rooted in strong science, creative partnerships and boots on the ground.”

For more information about The Nature Conservancy, visit nature.org.

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