(Updated 08-08-2014) "With more than $6 billion in assets, the conservancy is by far the largest environmental organization in the United States," writes Justin Gillis of The New York Times about the Texas City Prairie Preserve that "is supposed to be a refuge for the Attwater’s prairie chicken, one of the most critically endangered birds in North America."
Gas and oil were being produced on the Texas City property at the time the land was donated, but relatively far from the breeding grounds of the prairie chicken. In 1999, the Nature Conservancy’s Texas chapter decided to permit new drilling there, with the idea of dedicating the money to prairie chicken conservation. It sought out a deal with an energy company and a new well was drilled, about a half-mile from the primary breeding grounds.
Gillis provides a thorough chronology of the nonprofit's energy/conservation dilemma. "The drilling was exposed by The Los Angeles Times in 2002, and explored in more detail a year later by The Washington Post, in a series of articles that raised broad questions about the activities the Nature Conservancy was permitting on conservation lands. A two-year Senate investigation [PDF] sharply criticized the Nature Conservancy."
The Nature Conservancy "argues that it has had no choice" other than to permit drilling of a new well in 2007, writes Gillis, due to its original lease. "But the lease contains termination clauses, and Ms. Klein argues in the book that the Nature Conservancy could most likely have stopped the 2007 drilling. The group has earned millions of dollars over the years from gas and oil production on the property, though the 2007 well was not especially lucrative," adds Gillis.
Last word goes to the Attwaters Prairie-Chicken, and it is not a nice ending.
Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Sadly, the endangered bird no longer graces the preserve - the property purchased for it. Gillis writes that "(t)he birds appear to have disappeared from the site, though it is unclear whether the drilling had anything to do with that. The Nature Conservancy contends it took exhaustive steps to protect the birds, which continue to exist in small numbers elsewhere in Texas."
One such place one may be able to see the rare bird is at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The initial question asked in this post, "Can Conservation and Oil Drilling Coexist?" was answered by Terry Rossignol, Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge manager. "We do have oil and gas* facilities operating here since the property was first purchased," he stated in a phone call.
*The post was updated to more accurately describe the facilities in the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.