Leadership and Legacy
Today’s environmental challenges are among the biggest we have ever faced. No one understands this better than Michigan Trustee Tom Cook.
“Personally, being part of the Conservancy’s efforts is exhilarating; but I also find myself a little daunted,” he said. “What can I do? What can one trustee from a small town do? What can any one person ever do to make a difference?”
Over the years, Tom hasn’t just found the answer to that question—he has become a conservation leader and forged a path from the roots of his father and grandfather in Michigan and to his children and conservation around the world.
Tom’s journey began in 1983 with a $10 donation to The Nature Conservancy, which he learned about in college. His support of conservation grew when he became executive director of the Cook Family Foundation, an organization started by his grandfather in 1979 and expanded by his father, Bruce. Much of the Foundation’s work is focused on protecting Shiawassee River, which forms the southern border of the Saginaw Bay watershed, the largest watershed in the State of Michigan.
“The Shiawassee River is a special place to me and my family,” Tom explained. “Some of my earliest childhood memories are canoeing down the Shiawassee with my grandfather. It was always a family activity.”
Like many other rivers in the southern half of the state, the Shiawassee is a warm-water river fed by run off surface water. It’s home to an abundance of fish and mussel diversity, but it’s threatened by excess fertilizers and loose soil from nearby farm fields that can wash into the river during intense storm events.
“We wanted to protect and improve the health of the Shiawassee, but how do you buy a river?” Tom asked.
The Foundation’s Board had been working with Michigan Chapter staff to find a way to collaborate and protecting the Shiawassee was a natural fit. The Foundation provided the Conservancy with a grant to help farmers implement best management practices, such as no-till and cover crops, in the region. The benefits were two-fold: the Foundation helped protect the community’s most important freshwater resource, and the Conservancy took the first steps in building what is today a thriving agricultural program that spans the Great Lakes.
“What I love about The Nature Conservancy is to watch and see how the organization evolves, and we really saw that through this project,” Tom said. “There are things I learned doing that first grant together, and today I see those same issues being talked about on the Senate Agriculture Committee. That’s what the Conservancy is—you do some work on this little place that you love, but then you find a way to scale up to the bigger geography, to the whole system, to really make an impact.”
Tom’s conservation journey didn’t stop there. Today, he serves on the board of the Michigan Chapter, raises awareness about the Conservancy on social media, has funded events like this year’s benefit concert featuring The Accidentals, and most recently, was named leader of the Conservancy’s Global Trustee Council, which he finds helps with his work in the Great Lakes.
“As part of the Trustee Council, I’ve been able to make some great connections with other people doing conservation work all over the world,” Tom said. “Being a part of the Trustee Council adds to my knowledge and awareness of environmental issues, and I bring that knowledge home to my work in the Shiawassee.”
Tom’s conservation leadership also includes shaping a vision for the future. He’s made it a priority to protect nature for the next generation by including The Nature Conservancy in his estate planning.
“As I mentioned, my family feels very connected to the Shiawassee, having helped to start the Friends of the Shiawassee River in 1996, and now I feel the river has become my connection to Saginaw Bay and the rest of the Great Lakes,” Tom explained. “I can see and understand the connection between a little river running through Michigan farmland and larger, worldwide fresh water issues.”
Editor’s Note: Follow Tom on Twitter @Tom4TNC.
Planting for Success
The Saginaw Bay Watershed is the largest in the state of Michigan, spanning 5.5 million acres and 22 counties. It provides so much for people and nature—from the water that helps agricultural crops thrive to the beer enjoyed on the beer garden patio at Midland Brewing Company (MBC).
Dave Kepler, MBC president and owner, understands the bay’s importance.
“Being located in the region, we see the impact of the watershed first-hand,” he said. “So many depend on it for clean drinking water, recreation, farming and other uses. We have a deep connection to the community, the history and to nature, and increasing our involvement in regional improvement efforts is really important to us.”
That commitment to community made MBC a natural partner for TNC. The brewery sponsored the 2018 inaugural Saginaw Bay Agricultural Conservation Awards Dinner, which honored farmers, agribusinesses and conservation professionals who are working to protect the bay’s lands and waters. In recent years, TNC has focused on partnering with farmers, agri-businesses, government agencies, corporations and other nonprofit partners to test innovative agricultural conservation programs in critical areas of the Saginaw Bay Watershed.
Agricultural conservation practices—such as cover crops, reduced tillage, filter strips and nutrient management—help keep nutrients on fields and out of rivers and lakes. Several different programs have helped farmers enroll conservation practices on their land, and as a result, significant amounts of sediment and nutrients have been kept out of local waterways.
Through the watershed’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, 37,031 acres have been enrolled in the program, keeping approximately 2,492 tons of sediment and 9,258 pounds of total phosphorus out of waterways.
“The awards dinner was really important because implementing a new practice and working through the technical and programmatic learning curves can be a challenge,” said Helen Taylor, state director of Michigan for TNC. “By recognizing these efforts, we can help these practices grow in popularity, which we’re already seeing, and we’re so grateful that Midland Brewing Company is helping us do that.”
“For us, it’s all about improving community and having an impact in the region,” Dave said. “Opportunities like this, along with the sustainable ways we manage our business, can help improve the economy and nature as we go forward.”
Funding the Future
We can give back to nature in so many ways. Some attend volunteer work days at preserves around the state. Some create a lasting legacy for nature through their estate planning. And others use their philanthropic gifts as an opportunity to connect the next generation to nature.
Jeffrey Littmann is one of those donors. He’s passionate about helping tomorrow’s leaders understand the importance of conservation. To that end, he has funded an opportunity for Michigan State University College of Law students to intern with the Michigan Chapter during their studies.
“We need thought leaders who understand conservation ethics, and understand that as part of nature, we have a right to use it, and we also have a duty to exercise good stewardship over it,” he explained.
Through Jeffrey’s support, the Conservation Law Internship program kicked off last year. Intern Jeff Caviston supported the Conservancy’s urban conservation efforts in Detroit, as well as our work to develop science-based sustainable management practices for our northern forests. A second intern has been hired and is currently building upon Caviston’s initial research.
“One of the challenges in finding new policy solutions is simply having the time to do the background research on multiple aspects of an issue, not just statutory language, but rules and regulations and especially legal interpretation established by court precedent,” said Government Relations Director Rich Bowman. “Having Caviston allowed me to ‘hand-off’ the research on issues like leasing of public forest rights and a few weeks later have a concise synopsis of current law and what we could do, and how to change what might be a barrier.”
Like Jeffrey Littmann, Essel and Menakka Bailey have taken an innovative approach to giving that allows them to help build the next generation of conservation leaders. This year, the Baileys donated their house and land in Muskegon County to the Conservancy, the sale of which has funded The Essel and Menakka Bailey Endowment. The Endowment will allow the Conservancy to hire both undergraduate and graduate students to work alongside conservation staff on a range of projects. The goal is to develop the program into a regional and possibly nationally recognized opportunity that will allow students to get the conservation experience they need to build their resumes and conservation careers.
“We have a strong inclination towards education and science,” Essel Bailey explained. “Helping the Conservancy have the capacity to employ scientists and young people is the best way to get people more involved, and we would encourage others to consider this way of approaching philanthropy.”
“I’m excited to see this program open up avenues for young people to explore different aspects of nature,” Menakka Bailey added. “Getting more young people involved in nature broadens the base of practitioners and conservation professionals, here in the U.S. and abroad as well.”
Investing in the Fight Against Climate Change
When Larry Hands turned 21, his grandmother gave him a membership to The Nature Conservancy as a birthday present.
“She knew I was interested in environmental causes and she thought TNC was a good organization for me to be involved with,” he recalls.
Larry’s mother was also deeply concerned about the environment. Today, Larry helps guide the foundation that honors her name and her legacy by supporting projects that increase human and environmental capital in a world of limited resources.
“For the Sally Mead Hands Foundation, climate change is a top priority,” Larry says. “Most everything we do and the projects we focus on, from empowering women and girls to land use to urban transportation, they all have an emphasis on mitigating climate change.”
Larry wanted to find a way for the foundation to connect its climate change mission with TNC’s work here in Michigan and across the country. Our efforts in land protection—and the carbon sequestration benefits they provide—were a natural fit.
“We’ve supported TNC in Michigan, Florida, Maine, Illinois and Wisconsin and worked with each chapter to find protection and acquisition opportunities that are tied to climate,” Larry says. “In Michigan, we’ve helped secure northern forests in places like the Michigamme Highlands. In Illinois, we’ve helped preserve prairie and in Florida, our focus has been on the Everglades. These are habitats that are incredibly effective in removing carbon from the air and also mitigating the effects of intense storms and weather patterns that come with a changing climate.”
This strategy could pay big dividends in the future. A new peer-reviewed study, led by scientists from The Nature Conservancy and 15 other institutions and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that nature could cost effectively deliver over a third of greenhouse gas emissions reductions required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. This is equivalent to a complete stop to the burning of oil worldwide.
“We look at our work with TNC the way you might look at an investment portfolio,” Larry explains. “In a portfolio, you have stocks, bonds and venture capital to give yourself a good mix of high- and low-risk investments. When it comes to finding a solution to climate change, you need them all. TNC projects we support bring that proven carbon sequestration benefit to the table.”