“Noonan set our negotiating style,” said vice president Dave Morine, “the attitude that no one is ever completely wrong. We don’t believe anyone purposely goes out to destroy the land. You just have to understand their priorities and appeal to them.”
Communing with corporations may be the Conservancy’s forte, but their coffers have also been swelled by individual acts of generosity. Legendary is the late Willie Brown, a Florida bachelor of modest means who donated rolling woodlands and marsh along the St. Johns River to keep it natural. As part of the bargain he lived on the property, valued at more than a million dollars, until his death.
Keith Lewis is a sixth-generation resident of Block Island, the offshore chunk of Rhode Island invaded each summer by thousands of tourists. A merchant seaman with a nautical beard, he has the all-business build of a tugboat. The shrinking open space on his beloved four-by-six mile island turned him toward the Conservancy. Land that would have made him a millionaire he sold at a bargain price in a deal that merely paid off his mortgage and was enough to refinance consolidated student loans. That left him a chunk of land to live on. “Fourteen percent of the island is protected now,” he said. “I’d like to see us get to 25 percent.”
Open space was not the only benefit. Hard-pressed upland sandpipers and grasshopper sparrows nest in the saved habitat, and barn owls burrow in the cliff faces. In one meadow I joined biologist Tim Traver in a catch-and-release inventory of a butterfly now under reprieve, thanks to Lewis. It was the stuff of cartoon strips, bounding with net held aloft in pursuit of the regal fritillary, and great fun in the name of science.
INCH-THICK boards fence in Glenn Plumb’s charges on the Samuel H. Ordway, Jr., Memorial Prairie in South Dakota, where grasslands stretch as far as the eye can see. The young preserve manager in a slouch Western hat herds bison on the 7,800 acres. “To maintain prairie plant diversity, we need both controlled fire and grazing,” he told me as we toured sturdy corrals and catch pens. “The bison provide the grazing, and the sale of extra animals brings in $25,000 a year to help with expenses.
“Nothing could be more ecologically stable than a healthy prairie,” Plumb said as we walked into a waving sea of big bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass.