May 2018, Vo. 245, No. 5


A Conversation with Conservation Fund CEO Larry Selzer

By Pipeline & Gas Journal

The Conservation Fund’s CEO Larry Selzer grew up in New England on the shore of Long Island Sound, where the ocean was his playground. As a result, Selzer wanted to be a marine biologist from the time he was very young. After graduating from Wesleyan University, he joined the staff at Manomet, a nonprofit biology research center in southeastern Massachusetts.

When he started work there, President Reagan had just proposed opening the outer continental shelf off the eastern United States to oil and gas exploration. Selzer spent the next seven years documenting the population dynamics of whales, dolphins, seabirds and sea turtles from the Canadian border south to the tip of Florida.


“What I came to realize was that, while science was critical to good decision-making, most major decisions were made based on politics or money,” Selzer said. “I wasn’t really interested in the politics, but I realized I didn’t know anything about money – how it really works in a capitalist society.”

So, instead of going to graduate school in the sciences, Selzer attended business school to learn about money. It was at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia that he began to see more clearly the intersection of business and the environment, and in June of 1990 he joined The Conservation Fund, a newly formed nonprofit with a unique charter. After working on the program-development side for a decade, he became CEO in 2001.

P&GJ: What does your organization do, and how is it different from other environmental groups?

Selzer: The Conservation Fund is the nation’s only environmental organization chartered for both conservation and economic development. Our dual-purpose mission – conservation and economic development – makes us uniquely able to work with business and our public agency partners to bring environmental protection and economic vitality together.

We don’t litigate, and we are not an advocacy group. What we are is the most effective group in the country at getting projects done on the ground. As a result, we are one of the nation’s top-rated environmental charities working with industry, including major oil and gas companies, to balance economic and environmental objectives.

Our work includes buying land for National Parks and Wildlife Refuges and Civil War Battlefields; small business development in economically distressed rural areas; working forest conservation; and working with energy and other infrastructure companies to mitigate the impact of their large-scale development projects.  

Since our founding in 1985 we’ve protected nearly 8 million acres of land, including habitat for wildlife as well as recreational access for people who hunt, fish, hike and simply enjoy the outdoors. Our mitigation solutions, in particular, help our country significantly improve its critical infrastructure while at the same time achieving significant conservation results on the ground.

P&GJ: How does working with businesses and creating partnerships help you reach your goals

Selzer: For more than 30 years, The Conservation Fund has worked with business to advance the principles of sustainability. The environmental challenges we face today – such as threatened and endangered species, the loss of working farms and forests, water quality and changing climate – all require faster innovation, effective collaboration and greater financial sophistication. These are essential characteristics of the business community and of The Conservation Fund.

When we take on a mitigation project with an energy or pipeline company, we work to satisfy the developer’s mitigation obligations by protecting lands and waters that regulatory agencies and local partners have identified as conservation priorities. Our expertise in identifying and implementing mitigation solutions for complex development projects allows companies to focus on their business goals.

Just in the past five years, working with great companies such as Enbridge, Williams, Dominion, Diamond Pipeline, and TransCanada, we have accomplished more than $200 million of important mitigation work for new construction and long-term operations, protecting thousands of acres for at-risk species and conserving cultural and historic sites.

P&GJ: Can you share details of a mitigation project you’ve done with an energy company that provides an example of how your organization works?

Selzer: One great example is our partnership with Williams, which began in 2013 and evolved during their planning of the Atlantic Sunrise Project. Williams expressed a desire to demonstrate its commitment to the communities in which it operates, and our experience in working with communities, businesses and regulating agencies made us a natural fit for this partnership. We worked in collaboration with their project team to develop the Atlantic Sunrise Environmental Stewardship Program.

This program accomplished all three of Williams’ primary goals. First, it helped the company go above and beyond its compensatory mitigation requirements to advance local conservation efforts. It established an unbiased process for evaluating and selecting environmental projects that would make sustainable improvements to natural resources where Williams operates. And finally, it connected stakeholders to identify shared priorities and potential projects.

The Environmental Stewardship Program enabled the restoration of over 10 miles of wildlife habitat along streams, prevented over 900 tons of harmful nutrients from entering waterways and supported the construction of eight miles of new trails. It has been recognized with an Environmental Excellence Award from the Southern Gas Association.

P&GJ: Are you concerned about previously protected areas being opened to drilling and exploration? Are there options available to address this through mitigation?

Selzer: America is blessed with enormous energy resources, and we should take advantage of them. But not every area should be open to new oil and gas exploration. Some areas should be left as pristine as possible. If new areas are to be opened to drilling and exploration, we hope that the companies taking on the work will consider the sensitivity of their natural, cultural and historic resources during project development. We would encourage them to conduct thorough environmental reviews that will evaluate alternatives ranging from avoiding impact altogether to mitigating unavoidable impacts in meaningful ways. Great companies want to do the right thing, and we are ready to help.

P&GJ: Which of The Conservation Fund’s accomplishments make you proudest?

Selzer: I’m most proud of our work on the ground, protecting key lands and waters and accelerating economic development where it is needed most. We have been a pioneer in the convergence of the environmental movement and the free enterprise system – two of the most powerful forces in the country today. Only by bringing together the tools of business with the passion of the environmental movement can we make real progress across America.

Our work is people-driven, and our staff is masterful at collaboration, not confrontation. They have unique skills to bring together many disparate sides of an issue and create lasting conservation outcomes. We’re small and lean as an organization, so we work well with partners and include them in achieving solutions.

Through community engagement, we listen to residents and work to develop solutions that address environmental, economic and even social challenges.

P&GJ: What are the challenges facing your organization?

Selzer: There will always be headwinds, but I believe the integration of business and the environment holds great promise for discovering new solutions to tough challenges. The Conservation Fund’s approach to conservation and community has proven that connecting people, communities and business can benefit all of them. I am very optimistic about the future. P&GJ

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