Steve McCormick

An Evolving Conservation Ethic

Recorded: February 7, 2014

Steve McCormick served as president of the Nature Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, both nonprofit organizations deeply involved in land conservation. Steve shares his views and experiences regarding land conservation, environmental ethics, and wilderness in this short video.

Steve is co-founder of the Earth Genome Project, a start-up venture to create the first global, open-source database on ecosystem services and natural capital.

Steve served as President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, one of the largest Foundations in the U.S., from 2007-2014. He led the Foundation through development of new strategies in each of its three Programs – Environment, Science, and Patient Care

Steve served as President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) from 2000-2008. As president, Steve led the organization into becoming a truly global enterprise, operating in 30 countries as well as every state in the U.S.  Steve began his career with TNC in 1976 as western regional legal counsel and rose through the ranks to spend 16 years as executive director of the California state program and Western Region. In that role, he led an organization-wide effort that created Conservation by Design, the strategic framework that now guides all of TNC’s work around the world.

A leader in the social innovation sector, Steve serves on the boards of Independent Sector, Sustainable Conservation and the California Wildlife Officers Foundation. He has also served on the U.C. Berkeley College of Natural Resources Advisory Board. Steve’s work has been profiled in Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post, and he has been a featured speaker at numerous high-profile events.  Steve is also the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Edmund G. Brown Award for Environmental and Economic Balance, the John Pritzlaff Conservation Award and the California League of Conservation Voters’ Conservation Leadership Award.

Steve holds a B.S. in Agricultural Economics from the University of California at Berkeley (1973), where he graduated with honors, and a J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of Law (1976).


Steve McCormick:    I loved that period of my career at the Nature Conservancy when I was a field representative. So you know I had, I had the liberty to go out and look at property, meet great people who were interested in the land, land owners. And then, you know, make a plan around — okay, what should we be looking at here in terms of the habitat, the design of, in that case the Cosumnes River, the flooding pattern in that lower stretch of the river.  That project, Huey, was very interesting.  Up to that point I’d been working mostly on, kind of, single owner acquisitions, and some were fairly sizeable.  We acquired Santa Cruz Islands –was one owner.

Huey Johnson:    Yep.

Steve McCormick:    It was 60,000 acres.  But the Cosumnes River project was the first time we really thought about an assemblage of ownerships; acquiring land from different owners based on a very careful design of the kind of dynamics of the system and opportunities for restoration.  So we started very small there.  I think one of the first acquisitions was 40 acres, and you know, you’re right, today I think it’s almost 50,000 acres.  It goes up into the foothills and all the way down into the delta.  You know I still go out and see those places. I’m so proud, you know, that I could contribute to that place being served.

Huey Johnson:    Yeah.  A question about wilderness, can you tell me what your thoughts are about wilderness?

Steve McCormick:   I grew up, and still have a just a deep visceral connection with the notion of wilderness. Frankly, my career at the Nature Conservancy in terms of my direct involvement in land conservation, was not really — didn’t really result in establishment of wilderness areas.  Most of the wilderness was designations on public lands. And I — there was something — maybe something unique to the west. There is something about the character, the evolutionary connection to wild lands. There was something about wilderness that draws me indescribably. And I think one of the, frankly, greatest contributions that this country has made to the advancement of civilization and humanity is in the form of the Wilderness Act. It is one of the most selfless expressions of human commitment to non-human elements of the globe. I would say the Endangered Species Act is the same thing and it is distressing to me that those kinds of ethics and that ethos is lost. I personally have contributed to areas that support endangered species and remnant habitats. But it is the wilderness scale and functionality and effable character that in some respects is the greatest achievement in this country.


Huey Johnson:    I’m interested in how things have changed for you since you first got into the field.

Steve McCormick:    I started, as I said earlier, with an absolute passion and a conviction for conservation of nature for its own sake and had the great fortune, you know, by luck of the draw to be born at a time and a place where that ethic was understood and widely embraced.  And when we can talk about preserving and setting aside, and protecting nature, it was no question in my mind that that had value in and of itself and that it was something essential, I felt, as again an expression of our own humanity that did.  And not just to sort of live with nature, but for nature.  And when I became president of the Nature Conservancy in 2000 and I started traveling outside of the United States and would use language that was so natural to me, and talk about values that were so natural to me, I would see there was no uptake.  So I would say, you know, how important it was to preserve nature and you know, even the imagery that I would have, you know, my own mind consciously, unconsciously, Ansel Adams painting or John Muir’s writings that had so affected and so moved me, and created a — just a fundamental believe system that I never had questioned.  And I would see, you know, particularly in developing countries, a reaction that I realize was one that expressed from that point of view, a sense that I was advocating to take something away from people.  I’d never had that experience before,  I certainly had dealt with people in the United States who wanted to exploit natural resources.  But when I realized that people were like living in these landscapes, deriving their basic needs from natural resources, I started to see a natural world from a different prism and I’m still grappling with that.  I’m still trying to figure out the resolution of that at a time when the population of the world is going to surpass 10 billion probably within my lifetime.  It’s not enough to make the case, which I so ardently believe in, that nature has its own right to exist in places where more fundamental needs are paramount.

Huey Johnson:    Well, the lessons learned for the next generation, you mentioned its up to them, what will it be?

Steve McCormick:    One piece of advice is, don’t see things as binary.  There are false dualities or false dichotomies like either this or that.  And one of the things that I’m still kind of struggling with is, in my whole life was devoted to creating protected areas, well the converse of that then is everything else is unprotected.  I’d like to think that there’s not such a hard line, either literally, a boundary that says from here on in it’s protected and everything else is unprotected but there’s more of a continuum.  Two, to maintain the appreciation for nature in its own right.  And the third thing is, think about what is good for people.  So if you could hold those two thoughts, nature for its own sake, but also what’s best for humanity, and don’t think of solutions as one or the other.  It’s going to be complex.

Huey Johnson:    Interesting [unintelligible].

Steve McCormick:    Then, I think, I think the next generation will figure things out.