Wisconsinites engaged with the campaign to persuade Kohler Company to drop its predatory golf course plans and leave the rare Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore ecosystem intact were shocked to learn in late June that the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, selected Kohler VP Laura Kohler to be the honorary chair of its Wisconsin’s Path initiative.
The environmental activists did not take TNC’s affiliation with Laura Kohler lightly. A letter to the editor by activist Belle Rose Ragins was published in the Capital Times, The Wisconsin State Journal, and, on August 5, in Madison.com, the papers’ digital offshoot. It was later picked up by the Ozaukee Press, the Wausau Pilot and Review (in English and Spanish) and Daily Advent.
“Ms. Kohler asks us to ‘create a legacy for the future while doing what’s right, right now,’ Ragins wrote, quoting the statement accompanying Kohler’s photo on the Wisconsin’s Path web site. “Will Kohler [Company] and the Conservancy do the same?”
A Sierra Club member who lives most of the year in California, when invited to a Nature Conservancy fundraiser, told them she wouldn’t be giving any more money while Laura Kohler was the public face of the organization in Wisconsin.
There were emails to TNC staff and social media posts questioning the sincerity of Laura Kohler’s commitment to preserving “the special places and the natural resources that we’ve all been given” when the company that her family runs has made an equally firm commitment to clear-cutting an old-growth forest, bulldozing globally rare dunes, and destroying the habitat of hundreds of local species and an annual stopover site for 10,000 migratory birds.
The Nature Conservancy’s response was swift and decisive: On August 12, the team discovered that Laura Kohler had been scrubbed from the Wisconsin’s Path web site and marketing videos.
Thus far, the change is purely cosmetic. Herb Kohler, Jr., Laura’s father, remains an honorary trustee of the Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin. TNC in Wisconsin vice chair Davor Grgic is the retired CIO and VP of Sustainability of Kohler Company.
As the wealthiest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy boasts a $6 billion endowment. In 2019, according to its own annual report, TNC “raised more than $1.055 billion in total assets and support” in service of its mission “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.” TNC does do a fair amount of marketing to small donors through slick direct mail campaigns and its beautifully designed web sites featuring cuddly, well-intentioned white people telling why they are thrilled to give money to TNC.
But the organization did not get that rich just through marketing to individual donors. It has a long history of financial relationships with global corporations, including some in the extraction industry that cause the pollution that now threatens all life on Earth.
A 2020 article by Ben Elgin in Bloomberg Green describes TNC as a “dealer” in “meaningless carbon offsets.” Elgin wrote that TNC “recruits landowners and enrolls its own well-protected properties in carbon-offset projects, which generate credits that give big companies an inexpensive way to claim large emissions reductions.”
Carbon offsets are financial instruments that represent metric tons of reduced emissions, and TNC is not the only entity that deals in them. Elgin wrote that the corporations that buy the offsets use them “to subtract an equivalent amount of emissions from their own ledgers.”
Companies that bought the offsets from TNC included JP Morgan Chase, Walt Disney Co., and the “investment giant” Black Rock, Elgin said. However, Elgin found that, while the “market for these credits is booming . . . an unknown number represent inflated claims.”
In other words, the land was already being preserved. While the companies continued doing business-as-usual, carbon emissions were not actually lowered by the purchase of offsets.
Chris Lang started Redd-Monitor in 2017 to examine “the contradictions and controversy behind the harebrained scheme to allow continued greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels by offsetting these emissions against ‘avoided deforestation.’”
In an article Redd-Monitor published in late 2020, Lang pointed out that TNC has history of doing business with big polluters, including but not limited to Exxon, Dow Chemical, and International Paper.
(TNC has even been a polluter in its own right. On a preserve that was supposed to be dedicated to the Attwater’s prairie chicken, the organization was found to profiting from oil wells that it owned. Through a spokesperson, TNC says that the wells on the prairie chicken’s preserve in Texas have been capped, and that the number of birds there is now at 178, up from zero while drilling was in progress.)
It’s interesting then, to read on Kohler Company’s web site that the company is “committed to leaving the world a better place” by “working toward net zero environmental impact by 2035” through “reducing or offsetting [italics mine] all greenhouse gases.”
According to tax records obtained through Pro Publica, Kohler Company, through the Kohler Trust for Preservation, has donated $2.99 million to the Nature Conservancy since 2002.
Of course, no one is suggesting that Kohler Company paid TNC for carbon offsets. If anything, what Kohler paid for was public relations offsets, help in maintaining its image as a company committed to “sustainability.”
Because, despite the questionable practice of selling carbon offsets, TNC does a superb job of preserving land. TNC is a global organization with projects in Mongolia, Indonesia, and Africa. In the U.S., it protects between 20 million and 125 million acres of land, according to various sources. In Wisconsin alone, more than 236,000 acres are protected by TNC, including some of the most pristine hiking spots in the state, like the Baraboo Hills and the Baileys Harbor Boreal Forest and Wetlands.
And, while Laura Kohler may have been scrubbed from the Wisconsin’s Path web site, her contributions remain. Cate Harrington, TNC marketing director in Wisconsin, said Kohler had “supported” the creation of a mapping tool that helps “identify and protect key wetlands for biodiversity . . . and flood protection.” And Laura Kohler, according to Harrington “is also supporting TNC’s effort to map the freshwater systems in North America that will best support the diversity of freshwater species and habitats as our climate changes.”
Kohler money will also help “hundreds of Wisconsin farmers to put conservation practices on close to 500,000 acres of farm fields, reducing erosion, building soil health and protecting water quality,” Harrington wrote in an email.
In the meantime, Kohler Company executive chairman Herb Kohler, Jr. continues to be the driving force behind a golf course plan whose permit application two Wisconsin judges have now found to be based on nothing but spit and promises.
The Nature Conservancy is well aware that habitat destruction is one of the main causes of climate change, second only to carbon emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Could TNC really be unaware that Herb Kohler, Jr.’s golf course plan would devastate a habitat on which a hell of a lot of life depends, including the lives of Kohler’s neighbors, whose aquifer will be polluted by glyphosate if he prevails in one of several court challenges of Friends of the Black River Forest lawsuits.
Mr. Kohler, if you don’t give a damn about the whippoorwills whose nests will be destroyed when the old-growth forest is clear-cut, or the bluebirds, the red foxes, the Blanding’s turtles, the salamander, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Greater Scaup, Sanderling, Dunlin, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlin, all of whom live at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore and many of which are members of endangered or threatened species, could you at least stop planning golf championships long enough to give a damn about your neighbors, who will be more than inconvenienced if your plan succeeds?
If this golf course goes ahead as planned, the wildlife in the area will be reduced to that of a typical suburban subdivision. In other words, a bunch of squirrels, maybe the occasional fox scampering through, a few deer munching on shrubbery, and that’s about it. That’s a lot of habitat destroyed just to give Herb Kohler, Jr. his fifth golf course in Sheboygan, a county already has 16 golf courses.
Surely the Nature Conservancy can find something better to do in this instance than simply take the Kohlers’ money. Think of the pride all of Wisconsin could feel if the Nature Conservancy added 247 additional acres to the land it protects in this state, and a billionaire Wisconsinite did the right thing.
Stand down, Mr. Kohler. Stand down and preserve Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore.
(If you would like to assist the effort to protect Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, please consider giving to the Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter or making a donation to Friends of the Black River Forest to help defray the legal costs a group of Sheboygan county neighbors has incurred by taking a $7 billion, privately held company to court.)