With around a billion dollars in annual revenue, The Nature Conservancy is the largest organization of its kind in America. Their stated mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends” and they boldly claim to have “done more than anyone else to advance conservation around the world.” And yet, this large, powerful group is under fire from a set of progressive grassroots environmental justice advocates. This week on Sea Change Radio, we welcome the Reverend Leo Woodberry and Danna Smith to the show. Woodberry is pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina and the executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation, and Smith is the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance. They explain why they are critical of The Nature Conservancy’s stance on carbon offsets, wood pellet usage and its dubious alliance with the wood products industry.
Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Danna Smith: Now we have a 158 organizations that have signed onto a letter to her, again asking TNC to help us solve this problem of protecting forests from industrial logging and wood production in the US.
Narrator: With around a billion dollars in annual revenue, The Nature Conservancy is the largest organization of its kind in America. Their stated mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends” and they boldly claim to have “done more than anyone else to advance conservation around the world.” And yet, this large, powerful group is under fire from a set of progressive grassroots environmental justice advocates. This week on Sea Change Radio, we welcome the Reverend Leo Woodberry and Danna Smith to the show. Woodberry is pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina and the executive director of the nonprofit New Alpha Community Development Corporation, and Smith is the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance. They explain why they are critical of The Nature Conservancy’s stance on carbon offsets, wood pellet usage and its dubious alliance with the wood products industry.
Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Danna Smith and Leo Woodberry. Danna is the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance and the Reverend Leo Woodbury is the executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation. Reverend, Danna welcome back to Sea Change Radio.
Danna Smith: Thank you.
Leo Woodberry: Thank you so much.
Alex Wise: Yes Reverend Woodberry, we had you on in 2018 to talk about the People’s Climate March which you coordinated with the Dogwood Alliance. Danna, I want you to tell us about your organization’s mission and what you’re currently focusing on.
Danna Smith: Sure, Dogwood Alliance is based in the southern U. S. and our mission is focused on advancing environmental justice and climate action through protecting southern forests from destructive industrial logging practices and our big effort right now is focused on stopping the growth of the wood pellet market across the southern US which has expanded like wildfire in just the last ten years causing a lot of damage to forests and negatively impacting environmental justice communities across the south as well.
Alex Wise: And Leo why don’t you talk about the mission of your organization and how it intersects with Danna’s work.
Leo Woodberry: Sure what we’re finding is that with the increase impacts from the climate crisis it is especially impacting gone far state communities will rather than leaving our trees standing all farmers to being decimated by log game particularly clear cutting which is making the flooding worse and causing damage not only to nature but also to communities that are environmental justice communities.
Alex Wise: So Danna up one explain what The Nature Conservancy is and the work that they do and why you have concerns about some of their interests when it comes to protecting forests.
Danna Smith: Sure well The Nature Conservancy is the world’s largest conservation organization they have a budget of roughly a billion dollars every year annual budget and while most people think of The Nature Conservancy as an organization that stands up for nature and is doing all that it can to protect nature what we’ve seen as a pattern especially gotten worse in recent years of The Nature Conservancy aligning itself with us some of the worst players in the forestry industry that are responsible for destroying massive amounts of for us every year and contributing to pollution and environmental justice communities as well so we’re concerned that you know this large organization that’s very powerful and has a lot of resources is on side with an industry that is dirty and destructive at a time when we need to be really scaling up the protection of forests and reducing the amount of pollution and overburdened communities.
Alex Wise: So Leo, why don’t you explain how the southeastern United States is impacted by policies that allow for logging and wood pellet consumption and why your organization has concerns about The Nature Conservancy’s stance.
Leo Woodberry: Well okay sorry about The Nature Conservancy’s alliance basically with the wood product industry is that they have a sign on the policies that are actually going to expand the wood product industry and also thereby expanding logging and with the expansion of logging we have found one of the worst in southeast Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. In Alabama and Mississippi everyone is saying that the flooding is worse as the logging is increasing and so by them signing on in particular the policies that will allow the Enviva and Drax and all of the companies that are producing wood pellets not only are they damaging their communities by increasing the flooding but also with every treated they cut down their releasing more carbon in the air as they drive these trees down highways the diesel trucks are releasing more fumes in the air and then of course when they go to actually produce the wood pellets et cetera in environmental justice communities then we have an increased amount of knocks it’s socks and carbon and of the volatile organic chemicals.
Alex Wise: Let’s focus on wood pellets for a minute a lot of people assume that wood pellets are just from reused recycled materials and that they’re up fairly sustainable and clean energy source but that’s not really the case is it.
Danna Smith: No. Absolutely not I mean we’ve followed the logging trucks from cleared a hundred euro wetland forests back to the wood pellet mills we’ve seen whole trees walk for miles and miles and miles on logging trucks sending up at the wood pellet facilities this is not waste words that they’re that they’re turning into wood pellets and the irony of it all is that they’re turning these ecosystems into what pilots that are then being shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in power stations as an alternative to coal and they’re calling it renewable energy and that’s against a backdrop of hundreds of scientists around the world work warning that burning wood in place of coal is actually worse per unit of energy generated is going to accelerate climate change and take us in the wrong direction versus making things better and so at the same time you’ve got The Nature Conservancy a part of a collaborative along with the two biggest players in the wood pellet industry companies called Drax and Enviva in promoting a policy agenda to Congress to expand what production and what markets as a so called climate solution. And meanwhile what we’re saying with the expansion of this global market is the tearing apart of forests in the southeastern US that would otherwise be providing flood control that would otherwise be absorbing and storing carbon out of the atmosphere and that provide important habitat for biodiversity in this region.
Alex Wise: And what is in it for The Nature Conservancy when you talk about their collaboration with these corporations if they care about the environment and one must assume that everyone who works at The Nature Conservancy loves nature what is their motivation for getting in bed with some of these players.
Leo Woodberry: You know the most for me the most outrageous claim a benefit that that they put forth is that you know they’re actually practicing conservation because in the fall role communities many of which are sparsely populated they’re claiming that you know they have pre venting you know impervious surfaces of from being put down a rural communities as if communities that only have a few thousand people going to suddenly decide that they need to build a shopping mall and so to me that is the one of the most ridiculous assertions that they make and I’m really curious to as to funding not only from the philanthropic community but I’m wondering in terms of some corporate funding as well because very rarely do people come together to make consensus decisions without there being some sort of quid pro quo.
Alex Wise: Did you want to add to that, Danna?
Danna Smith: You know I think what’s in it for TNC as they are the most influential player, people see them as experts and a lot of times you know this is kind of old way of thinking you know those with the money have the expertise. And does so I really think that TNC is positioning itself as a broker of some kind of you know come by moment where force industry wins and so does the forest but the reality is that the forest industry is the problem when it comes to U. S. for us it’s not sprawl it’s not urbanization it’s not outright deforestation to another use its industrial logging that’s really driving the carbon losses that are coming from for us it’s industrial logging that’s degrading forests’ ability to provide protection against storms like flood control and it’s the what production and would industry that is driving pollution and already over burdened poor poverty stricken black communities across the south so it’s time to hold this industry accountable and I think TNC is made a lot of friends in the forest industry and I think it’s really challenging this moment in time is challenging us to really think differently is challenging us to let go of old ways of doing things and I think it’s very difficult for an organization the size of teensy that has spent the better part of its existence in the last several decades building these alliances with these big giant forestry companies to publicly critique them and hold them accountable but that’s what this moment in time is all about and that’s where we have Jennifer Morris who’s the CEO is relatively new she has the opportunity to set a different course for this organization then they have said in the last several decades.
Danna Smith: It’s time for TNC to get on the train of helping to chart a truly green path for the future and to get off of the train of perpetuating ongoing destruction and pollution.
Alex Wise: This is Alex wise and Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Danna Smith and the Reverend Leo Woodberry. So you mentioned that The Nature Conservancy is the largest of its ilk what separates it from some other organizations that may espouse similar policies when it comes to logging and it is there is some kind of an out liar factor that we can point to that shows either a quid pro quo or something less than what may appear to be on the surfaces for any prospective donors to the organization – namely salaries, et cetera.
Danna Smith: Yeah I mean I think what separates TNC from others is their sheer size the scope of their operations which is an all states all across and even down to the local level in some areas and their influence D. N. C. at this point as acting more like a large corporation and then a nonprofit organization and one only needs to look at their their tax returns to see the amount of salaries that their upper level management is making.
Alex Wise: Can you expand on that give us some examples if you can?
Danna Smith: Sure so and the recent one that I have I think is from 2020 the director of conservation at TNC made one almost 1.2 million dollars and that was for part of the year while the last CEO for up to July of 2020 made it almost five hundred thousand dollars. For less than a year almost just a half of year half a year you’ve got dozens of others within the TMC management that make over three hundred fifty thousand dollars a year these are corporate salaries these are not salaries of nonprofit folks who are doing mission related work.
Alex Wise: And that would be fine if it was a corporation if you are buying stock in the company and and and had a voice as a shareholder but they’re actually a nonprofit they get a tax free five oh one see three status from the IRS I assume and people who are donating they assuming that most of their money goes to helping the environment.
Danna Smith: That’s right and that’s one of the issues that is problematic is the concentration of you know power and wealth at the top.
Alex Wise: Leo – Danna was mentioned how The Nature Conservancy has partnered with some of these corporations to lobby for Congress. Is there anything in the latest infrastructure bill that is reason for concern for listeners?
Leo Woodberry: Well one thing we know now that they have lobbied is sick then successfully been able to get funding from the federal government that’s going to allow them for the would prop product ND street to expand so right after the passage of the infrastructure bill you know we had both Drax and Enviva announced that they will going to expand by building additional biomass wood pellet plants and now they’re even moving out west and looking at how they can also get into bio fuel industry although that can you know they claim me as they always have that they won’t be using trees that they’ll be using wood waste but we already know by tracking the trucks that that has not been true in the past and looking at their past practices that it probably will not be true in the future and I want to add also that with this the expansion of the wood product industry a lot of this logging that was saying in places like marrying county and and other places that we’re seeing that they are logging in areas that are flood plains so you know you look at Britain’s that gaff the hurricane force in twenty eighteen and you see that Connie Grove Baptist church where the flooding was so bad that the only thing that you can see with the steeple the residents tell us I’m sticking up above the flood waters and then within a hundred feet just this year you can see where there’s more clear cut so in addition to that helping the wood product industry expand with what amounts to subsidies to the wood product industry and the infrastructure building and of the of the legislation well also saying that the destruction not only to all farmers but to environmental justice communities of continuing there is just a complete and total lack of caring for nature fall flowers and for the very people who live in these communities.
Alex Wise: And yet after the murder of George Floyd lot of organizations including The Nature Conservancy works strong voices for social change – do you see some hypocrisy here, Leo?
Leo Woodberry: Oh absolutely I being as an African American we are so accustomed to people shedding crocodile tears when something happens in our community but then when the voices of community cry out for justice as these organizations have done a hundred fifty organizations representing three point eight million members in the south when all voices lifting up lifted up and cry out nothing changes they drive their crocodile tears and they go on to business as usual. So no, I didn’t I didn’t expect anything to come out of statements from The Nature Conservancy other than the usual rhetoric.
Alex Wise: So it’s not like we hear about greenwashing and that might be kind of the example that we’re discussing with these corporations what’s in it for them and aligning with an organization like The Nature Conservancy is they can kind of green wash their wood products but this is also The Nature Conservancy in some ways is I don’t know brown washing, if you will.
Leo Woodberry: We call itgreenwashing.
Alex Wise: This is greenwashing too?
Leo Woodberry: Yeah and what was particularly harmful is because here you have an organization it is claiming to care about nature to care about four hours and ten K. about communities and is claiming that this solutions are actually going to help us deal with climate change and reducing emissions that are contributing to climate change yet after the decades the decades of them supporting the logging industry in the wood product industry we know the truth of the matter is is that none of their practices have proven to reduce emissions all have any positive impact when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the Reverend Leo Woodberry and Danna Smith so Danna so we’ve talked about the wood pellet issue and your qualms with an organization like The Nature Conservancy allying with big business to perpetuate some less than clean fuels what other concrete examples can you give listeners about The Nature Conservancy’s practices that give you pause.
Danna Smith: Yes so The Nature Conservancy is also a big proponent of carbon markets.
Alex Wise: Yes so what does that mean and how are they able to benefit from the confusion that often comes from carbon markets it’s the crypto currency of the green world and that not everybody can really explain it to each other very clearly.
Danna Smith: Yeah exactly well that the idea which is fatally flawed is that if you’re if you’re emitting carbon over here but you protect a forest somewhere else that forces pulling carbon out of the atmosphere that you that you are admitted emitting and just from the get go that’s just a a false sort premise so the way The Nature Conservancy is benefiting is that they are actually selling carbon credits on land that they manage and own under conservation and we’ve seen you know there’s been a lot of critique of the approach that The Nature Conservancy is taking with its carbon credit programs but what we do know is that carbon credits and carbon markets are another fault solution to the climate crisis because it’s leading a company for example like B. P. continued to use fossil fuels and that carbon from fossil fuels while paying The Nature Conservancy for example to conserve forests that they were already planning on conserving so nothing different check happened only be P. gets to claim that they reduce their carbon emissions and The Nature Conservancy gets the money for doing what they were going to be doing anyway on that land.
Leo Woodberry: Yeah I’m glad that you mentioned that nothing changes because what doesn’t change in in that whole computation is that polluting primarily occurs in environmental justice communities people of color communities and sold that’s the thing that doesn’t change in the equation is that these corporations are still allowed to pollute and put people of color and low income whites health and lives in danger so that a profit can be made and as Dr Martin Luther king junior said long ago that we must move from being this society that puts profit over people and we need to move realistically and truthfully towards a society that puts people in nature over profit.
Alex Wise: And Danna, in the scenario you just spelled out, it sounds almost like a money laundering scheme except that the carbon emissions don’t actually get reduced like it doesn’t actually clean up the environment ultimately is that a cynical view or is that realistic?
Danna Smith: No that’s exactly right that’s exactly right in the end this these concerns were brought to light in an article that was published in Bloomberg News back in 2020 I believe it was with The Nature Conservancy’s carbon offset projects that they’re doing on forest land you know look Alex we brought these issues to the CEO of The Nature Conservancy we had a three and a half hour meeting with Jennifer Morris he’s the CEO and senior staff and we talk to them about you know the two hundred scientists that have signed a letter to Congress while they were promoting would subsidies for expanding what markets in the infrastructure bill. He urged members of Congress not to pass the infrastructure bill with those subsidies for wood production and what markets because it’s it would take us backwards in terms of our ability to solve the climate crisis. Leo spelled out very clearly in that meeting from the pollution to the locking the impacts that the expanding global market for wood pellets is having on environmental justice communities. And we asked TMC to change course we asked TMC to get onside of nature to get onside of environmental justice communities to get onside with scientists and to chart a better course for the future and six weeks later after three and a half hour meeting Jennifer basically said that thank you for the dialogue and we have to agree to disagree. So we went out and now we have a hundred and fifty eight organizations that have signed onto a letter to her again asking TNC to help us solve this problem of protecting forests from industrial logging and wood production in the US and asking her to publicly acknowledge what scientists and environmental justice communities now which is that this industry is causing major damage to the climate to biodiversity and to our communities and to get onside and work collaboratively with us to scale up the protection of forests at the scale needed at this moment in time to effectively address the ecological crisis that we’re in right now.
Alex Wise: So Leo what solutions do you see and how can people take action?
Leo Woodberry: Well, you know what the solution is to let all flowers remain standing so that they could be all carbon sinks so that they could be our protection on natural defenses against flooding and also to realize that all farmers so as as particularly in low income communities where we can use all far as for hiking for fishing for hunting for outdoor recreation in a way so that we can generate revenue not only for land owners but also for entire communities so that’s the solution the solution should not be a market based solution but it should be a solution that is for people and for the planet.
Alex Wise: Danna Smith and Leo Woodberry – thanks so much for being my guests on Sea Change Radio.
Danna Smith: Thank you, Alex.
Leo Woodberry: Thank you, Alex.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio are intrinsic is by Sanford Lewis outro music is by Alex why additional music by Wes Montgomery and The Dramatics. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast visit our archives hear Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken, Van Jones and many others. Tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.