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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


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Lodging a Protest

Why did The Nature Conservancy rush to close
Bear Mountain Lodge?

We admit to having followed the news of The Nature Conservancy's abrupt closing of Bear Mountain Lodge in Silver City with particular interest, since the story first broke in Donna Clayton's Business Exposure in these pages last month. A week before the story hit other papers — the day after the lodge had actually closed — Desert Exposure readers knew that the nonprofit organization was pulling the plug on the lodge and shuttering its hiking trails to the public. Local businesses were already feeling the pinch, with one restaurant reporting nearly a dozen Thanksgiving cancellations alone by guests suddenly with no place to stay.

In these tough economic times, we can sympathize with the Conservancy's challenges. As Terry Sullivan, TNC's state director, explained in an email to members, "The Nature Conservancy, like most nonprofits, businesses and families, is adjusting to economic conditions not seen in more than a generation. We are responding by scrutinizing our budget, reducing expenses wherever possible and directing our resources toward our highest priority conservation projects. This process has helped lead us to the difficult conclusion that we can no longer continue to sustainably operate our Bear Mountain Lodge facility located in Silver City."

Running a nature-lodging facility "is simply not core to our mission and was a net drain on our resources," Sullivan added. That's probably true, although perhaps this is something TNC should have thought harder about before accepting the lodge and surrounding land and investing in its renovation in 1999-2001.

As Donna Clayton detailed in a January 2006 Desert Exposure feature ("Natural High"), Bear Mountain Lodge was originally built as the Rocky Mountain Ranch School for Boys in 1928 by longtime Silver City resident Juanita Franks. After several other incarnations, the lodge was bought in 1959 by Myra and Fred McCormick, who operated it as the Bear Mountain Guest Ranch for 41 years. Fred McCormick died in 1978, and Myra McCormick donated the property to The Nature Conservancy before her own death in 1999.

In its closure announcement, one can't help but feel that the Conservancy rushed to get out of its commitment to the McCormick estate as soon as legally possible: "The property was transferred to the Conservancy through the estate of Myra McCormick with the specific direction that, provided that it was economically feasible, TNC would make a good faith effort to run a bed and breakfast operation here for 10 years. We have passed that 10-year mark and have fulfilled the wishes of the donor."

Technically, the renovated lodge reopened in March 2001, so, no, TNC didn't really make 10 years of actual operation. And we doubt Myra McCormick ever imagined that the Conservancy would treat her generous donation like a white elephant as soon as the clock ran out on her wishes. Calling this rush to bar the door and slap up a "For Sale" sign a "good faith effort" is (to put it in TNC terms) a bit like saying a developer tried really, really hard to preserve that pristine wetlands, but the bulldozers couldn't be kept waiting.



Worse yet, in all that budget scrutinizing and financial analysis, The Nature Conservancy somehow overlooked the fact that a live, going concern is easier to sell and worth more than a dead one. Ask any small-business owner about the wisdom of shutting down a business and then trying to sell it. Instead of preserving a smoothly running business with staff intact (a staff that might have been willing to accept some financial sacrifices in hopes of retaining their jobs), TNC foolishly opted to turn Bear Mountain Lodge into a ghost, its value to a potential buyer dropping by the day.

The Conservancy also appears blind to the impact of its decision on the local community. As far as we know, TNC didn't consult with any community leaders about options for the lodge or give any warning of its abrupt closure. Proceeds from the sale of Bear Mountain Lodge, according to Sullivan, "will benefit people and nature in New Mexico by helping us to expand and manage our nature preserves throughout the state." That's lovely, but it does nothing to counter the economic harm to the Silver City area.

Although the Conservancy gets high marks from organizations that rate charities, with 80% of its funds going to programming, we can't help noting that Mark R. Tercek, TNC's president and CEO, makes $486,000 a year (according to the most recent Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance report we could find). We wonder if that isn't more than the entire staff of Bear Mountain Lodge put together, and what sacrifices Tercek and other top TNC brass are making. (The highest-paid non-officer/director at TNC, according to IRS filings, earned $243,000 in 2007, and two other regular employees topped $200,000.)

Overall, TNC brought in roughly $1.1 billion — yes, billion with a "b" — in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, with assets of more than $5.6 billion. So it's hard to imagine this huge, well-capitalized organization could not have afforded to keep Bear Mountain Lodge open another few months while seeking a buyer.

We hear rumors — though nothing more — that a local buyer may already be interested in Bear Mountain Lodge. We hope so, because the lodge has tremendous potential if properly developed and marketed. (Is it too self-serving to point out that TNC never advertised the lodge, not even when offering special nature-education programs costing $400 and up?) It could be the site of artists' and writers' retreats, bringing a fresh infusion of creativity to the area. It could be the centerpiece of promoting Silver City to the booming birder community.

Instead, as of this writing, Bear Mountain Lodge is simply closed and useless, its trails barred to local hikers for legal liability reasons. If Myra McCormick has any distant heirs out there, we can only hope they challenge The Nature Conservancy about its "good faith effort" to fulfill her wishes. And perhaps local donors to the Conservancy can make their displeasure heard by the sound of their checkbooks slamming shut.



David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.





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