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The Essential Role Of Eco-Capitalism In Saving The Best That Remains

Greater Yellowstone's rich tapestry will be won—or lost—based on what businesspeople do next

Ted Turner at his 113,613-acre Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman, Montana.  More than a quarter century ago, Turner put a conservation easement on the ranch through The Nature Conservancy that, at the time, ranked as one of the largest ever.  Had Turner not protected the ranch, which provides crucial habitat for public wildlife at the northern end of the Madison Range, the land in the hands of real estate developers would likely today be covered with homes, golf courses and other exurban amenities. Its protection enhances the quality of wildness on adjacent public lands. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Ted Turner at his 113,613-acre Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman, Montana. More than a quarter century ago, Turner put a conservation easement on the ranch through The Nature Conservancy that, at the time, ranked as one of the largest ever. Had Turner not protected the ranch, which provides crucial habitat for public wildlife at the northern end of the Madison Range, the land in the hands of real estate developers would likely today be covered with homes, golf courses and other exurban amenities. Its protection enhances the quality of wildness on adjacent public lands. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
While I was researching my book on Greater Yellowstone media pioneer turned bison rancher Ted Turner (Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet), my thinking about landscape-level conservation began to shift, particularly in pondering the critical intersection of public and private land. 

As I have shared with friends, after giving a hundred public talks on Turner's trailblazing ethos as an eco-capitalist, I've accrued far more knife wounds in the back from environmentalists who are skeptical about any billionaire doing good.  Some are warier of Turner than hardcore political conservatives who have convinced themselves he is somehow an evil lefty simply because he was married to actress Jane Fonda.

It's mind-boggling how many perceptions of people are based upon mythology or hearsay that isn't ground-truthed by fact. 

This I know: In business circles today, there are many people talking about "the triple bottom line,"—i.e. maintaining a measurable ledger sheet that accounts for three different kinds of values factored into business decisions.

° The first is the factual reality that in order for the dividends of private lands conservation to persist into the future, being passed along from one generation to the next, they need to be economically sustainable. That is, conservation which functions only as a net debt proposition or liability heired to future generations cannot and will not last, no matter how solid the intentions. That's why Western ranch country is riddled with a history of land consolidations and bust-ups. Any self-righteous person who doesn't understand the difference between operating in the red versus being in the black has no business criticizing people who live by its cruel reality. This is the economic leg of the triple-bottom line.

° Secondly, as Turner has put into practice and demonstrated by example, the ultimate goal is to leave land in as fine a condition, ecologically speaking, as one found it, or to do no harm, or, whenever possible, to use proceeds to heal past abuses and restore ecological function in a way that re-enhances natural values. This is the ecologic leg and achieving this can be accelerated if incentives are provided that help alleviate the costs of doing good.

° Thirdly, decisions should be done in a way in which humans are approached with dignity. It means treating employees well and paying them a living wage with health insurance in the event they or family members get sick. It means that working for you does not leave employees in a chronic state of economic desperation.  It means treating your neighbors with respect and working constructively across fencelines to preserve the values both sides hold dear.  It means trying to keep as much of your economic activity local, enabling investment dollars to trickle down and cycle widely throughout the community. 
The Upper Green River Valley west of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming is a mixture of private ranchlands and public lands stewarded by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Protection of private ranches is crucial to preserving ancient migration corridors for pronghorn, mule deer and elk. Sage-grouse leks, too, are found in the sagebrush open country and where natural gas drilling has occurred at industrial levels, sage-grouse have disappeared.  Photo Credit: Theo Stein / USFWS
The Upper Green River Valley west of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming is a mixture of private ranchlands and public lands stewarded by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Protection of private ranches is crucial to preserving ancient migration corridors for pronghorn, mule deer and elk. Sage-grouse leks, too, are found in the sagebrush open country and where natural gas drilling has occurred at industrial levels, sage-grouse have disappeared. Photo Credit: Theo Stein / USFWS
Many environmental problems inherited from the Old West are the result of not adhering to those principles—of approaching the region as one would a natural resource colony. Distant boardrooms aren't always interested in the long-term condition of the land following its exploitation, or building durable, diverse communities, or thinking beyond short-term profitability.  

In economic parlance, the costs that companies don't account for, and have passed along for others to deal with, are called "externalities" and often those costs have been passed along to taxpayers in the form of expensive cleanups.

No one can deny that because of modern environmental regulations put on the books to protect public lands—and an accompanying shift toward more enlightened thinking, corporate accountability driven by social concerns of shareholders, and incentives for advancing better stewardship on private lands— things have dramatically improved over the last century.

That's good news but in a region like Greater Yellowstone the ecological threads holding wildness together extend across both private and public land. In some cases it doesn't matter how big the public land base is; if key pieces of private land—like tracts encompassing river valleys, wildlife corridors and winter range or breeding habitat—aren't safeguarded, the whole fabric could unravel.

Mountain Journal believes in celebrating and highlighting the efforts of private sector exemplars. Some of these are demonstrating how the tenets of the triple bottom line work on a variety of scales. Some of the stories that we'll be featuring here will include tales of businesspeople who, once infected with biophilia, have become local heroes in their communities by bringing innovative ideas to land protection. 

Most people, we believe, want to do the right thing in order to protect the landscapes they are drawn to and nurture their souls, but many don't know how. 

Mountain Journal is a place where good ideas are shared. Correspondingly, there is an astounding amount of financial wealth congregated in Greater Yellowstone, held by people (permanent denizens and part-time visitors) who are drawn to the natural beauty and unparalleled wildlife values here.

Many have demonstrated their commitment to the ethic of giving back and, being big picture people, they understand how their can make a profound difference in helping to preserve the best of Greater Yellowstone that remains. With more involvement from people with means, game-changing things are possible and yet there is urgency given accelerating growth trends and landscape-level shifts brought by climate change already under way. 

To get us started, we are sharing two short videos here that are well worth viewing. The first involves the story of Bozeman capital investment manager Robert Keith who delivered a TedX-Bozeman talk. Together with Carl Palmer, Keith founded the Bozeman-based Beartooth Group in 2005 that identifies investment opportunities for those interested in the triple bottom line.  Palmer today heads Santa Barbara, California-based LegacyWorksGroup that works with non-profits and uses impact investing on ecological restoration, strategy development, environment-friendly entrepreneurship, and place-based education.

Keith in his TED Talk mentioned a statistic. Today there are over 18,000 investment firms in the U.S. that manage about $16 trillion and invest $500 billion a year in new projects. "What if we could take a tiny sliver of that investment capital and put it to work for a good cause, in our case restoration and protection of the American West?" he asked.
Think of how the figures cited by Keith have grown over the last decade and a half. If you are a person with means who resides in Greater Yellowstone or plans to retire here, it's chic to support environmental protection; it lifts up your value and prestige in a community.

Businessman Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and an outspoken promoter of sustainability, corporate altruism, and healthy environments, is featured in the February 2018 edition of National Geographic with NatGeo's Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg

Bloomberg notes that acting on altruism is admirable but he notes that sound environmental decisions have shown time and again to be shrewd investment decisions, too. Moreover, companies that are openly committed to environmental protection are attracting top-flight talent entering the workforce. 

When Goldberg asked Bloomberg what role big employers play in the environment, Bloomberg replied, "Why will a corporation be environmentally friendly?  Today, if you go and recruit on campus for the best and brightest, they [young people] interview you. They ask, What are you doing for the environment? Employees want to work for an environmentally-friendly company. And then there are investors. If you talk to the managers of the big pensions and endowments, they want socially responsible investing. We don't buy coal stocks, gun stocks, tobacco stocks."
"Today, if you go and recruit on campus for the best and brightest, they [young people] interview you. They ask, What are you doing for the environment? Employees want to work for an environmentally-friendly company. And then there are investors. If you talk to the managers of the big pensions and endowments, they want socially responsible investing."  —Michael Bloomberg
The second video highlights a news-making agreement, just announced, that involves the creation of new national parks in the Patagonia region of Chile, made possible by Kristine Tompkins and her late husband, Doug. Following their multi-decade careers as businesspeople and entrepreneurs in the clothing industry, the Tompkinses saw an urgent need for wildland conservation in that South American country. 

Tompkins founded both The North Face and Esprit. Kris McDivitt Tompkins helped Yvon and Malinda Chouinard build clothing company Patagonia—while serving as its chief executive officer—into one of the most respected environment-minded companies in the world. She was instrumental in founding One Percent For The Planet by which companies devote one percent of their profits to causes advancing environmental protection. In recent decades, the Tompkinses poured themselves and their resources into buying private property in Chile.

They worked hard to win the trust of locals and their land acquisition has culminated in giving their properties to the Chilean government on behalf of citizens there. The centerpiece is Pumalin Park, an 800,000-acre, publicly-accessible reserve in Chile's Los Lagos region. Another focus area is the Ibera Wetlands in northeastern Argentina. Both are shining examples of private enterprise bettering nature and humanity.  

A historic five-park agreement, signed by Kris Tompkins and Chile President Michelle Bachelet, was announced January 29, 2018. You can read the Guardian story about it here
Mountain Journal's friend Dennis Glick, who founded the Bozeman, Montana-based think tank FutureWest and oversaw the Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow program for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, has often spoken to us about the "south-to-north" axis of conservation lessons learned.

Normally, and often, land protection has been presented as a purely imperialistic gringo invention and one that has spread to the rest of the world in the wake of Yellowstone National Park's creation in 1872.

But as Glick, who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America and then became a leader in World Wildlife Fund's conservation initiatives there four decades ago, says: "There is much we can learn from how other countries have adopted and adapted conservation models to suit their own needs."

Before resetting in Greater Yellowstone 30 years ago, Glick worked in Costa Rica, a nation for which nature-tourism is its main economic engine. Fully 25 percent of Costa Rica's land mass is protected via a network of 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 other protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves, eight biological reserves and a dozen others. All of these areas are aimed at safeguarding biological diversity which attracts travelers from around the world.

Consider: Costa Rica, about the size of West Virginia, is home to 10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 indigenous and migrant birds (some that spend part of their year in the U.S.), 205 species of mammals, over 35,000 speaks of insects, 160 species of amphibians, 220 species of reptiles, and around 1,013 species of fresh and saltwater fish.

Glick helped lay the groundwork for a number of national parks in Central America and he praises the Tompkinses for persevering over resistance in Chile. As he says, the citizens of Costa Rica are proud of their natural heritage and he says that in a generation the parks created by the Tompkinses in Chile and Argentina will be cherished as national treasures embedded in their identity.

Here's a truth: without the private sector marshaling both human intellectual and financial capital to address critical conservation issues in Greater Yellowstone, the wildness in America's most iconic ecosystem could become fragmented and seriously eroded within the span of a single generation.
Pastoral Paradise Valley, Montana, carved out by the Yellowstone River and ancient glaciers, provides crucial habitat for a number of species and east-to-west connects the Absaroka Mountains with the Gallatins. Photo by: Jen Epstein / U.S. Department of the Interior
Pastoral Paradise Valley, Montana, carved out by the Yellowstone River and ancient glaciers, provides crucial habitat for a number of species and east-to-west connects the Absaroka Mountains with the Gallatins. Photo by: Jen Epstein / U.S. Department of the Interior

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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