• April 19, 2014

President of the Nature Conservancy Abruptly Resigns

Steven J. McCormick, who has served as president of the Nature Conservancy since 2001, abruptly stepped down from his post today after a controversial tenure in which the organization came under fire for land transactions and its relationships with for-profit businesses.

Mr. McCormick said in a written statement that he believes it is time for him to move on.

“I’ve reached a personal and professional crossroads and concluded that my work at the conservancy is done,” Mr. McCormick said.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest environmental groups and ranked No. 20 on The Chronicle’s most recent list of the charities that raise the most from private sources. The Arlington, Va., nonprofit group raised $475-million from private sources in 2005.

Mr. McCormick earned $375,000 in 2006, according to the charity’s Internal Revenue Service filings.

Longtime Staff Member

Mr. McCormick has been involved with the Nature Conservancy for three decades, joining the organization shortly after he graduated from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in 1976. He directed the organization’s California program for 16 years and became the Nature Conservancy’s president in 2001.

During that time, he led the organization through a period of both growth and turmoil.

His biggest challenge was sparked by a 2003 Washington Post series that questioned the Nature Conservancy’s conservation-easements program.

The newspaper said that in some cases the charity had purchased environmentally sensitive land, placed development restrictions on it, and resold it to trustees and supporters at a reduced cost. The purchasers then gave the conservancy cash donations that were about the same size as the discount they received — an approach that allowed them to take income-tax deductions for their charitable contributions, deductions they would not have received had they instead paid the assessed price for the properties.

The Post series prompted an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee and the organization decided at that time to make a concerted push to overhaul its governance, accountability, and disclosure policies.

One of those changes included ending the practice of offering low-interest loans to help staff members buy homes when they relocated. Mr. McCormick himself repaid a $1.5-million loan he received from the organization to help him buy a house.

The Nature Conservancy also prohibited its directors, employees and their families from taking part in land sales involving other parties related to the charity and significantly changed its policies regarding conservation easements to make sure land included in such transactions is properly valued.

In addition, the charity reduced the size of its board from 41 to 21 members, created the position of chief compliance officer, and created a committee of outside experts to make sure it was following its own ethics policies.

Expansion Effort

Against that backdrop, Nature Conservancy officials said the organization expanded significantly during Mr. McCormick’s tenure. The charity started new programs in Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia and made new investments in efforts aimed at protecting oceans.

“[Mr. McCormick’s] relentless pursuit of excellence at the conservancy and life-long commitment to conservation has left an indelible mark on our organization and on the conservation of so many of the Earth’s special places,” John Morgridge, the organization’s chairman, said in an e-mail message to staff members this morning. “He inspired so many of us to think bigger and to embrace a conservation agenda that has the potential to change the world.”

Stephanie Meeks, the organization’s chief operating officer, will serve as interim president while a search is conducted for Mr. McCormick’s successor.

Mr. McCormick will stay with the organization for the next year, working as an adviser to the Nature Conservancy’s board of directors.

Peter Panepento

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