Demise of a Nature Center

(This column was first published in the December 3, 2001 Buffalo News.)

 

I report this week on one of the saddest episodes in the recent history of regional conservation: the destruction of the Pfeiffer Nature Center in the Town of Portville in southern Cattaraugus County.

 

Destruction is a strong word and readers might well assume that a natural catastrophe occurred -- a forest fire or tornado.

 

Not this time. This Center's demise is due to human actions.

 

Some background: Wendy Pfeiffer Lawrence, a woman whose family fortune was partly derived from lumbering, established the Pfeiffer Nature Center by deeding to it 188 acres of forested property, about a tenth of which is old-growth. She aided in its incorporation "to develop a foundation of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the intrinsic value and aesthetic qualities of the natural world in the community; to preserve the integrity of the old-growth forest and the surrounding property; to provide an area for scientific research; to promote community-based nature study programs for grade school, high school, college and adult students; and to promote natural resource stewardship." Clearly her goals are laudable.

 

Ms. Lawrence also provided a $200,000 endowment which she knew would not be enough to sustain Center programs. To do that she appointed, with her newly established board's approval, an executive director, whom she encouraged and with whom she discussed the sanctuary's future. Their plan was to support Center staff and activities through selective annual timber harvesting of small plots away from the old-growth woodlands.

 

Unfortunately Ms. Lawrence died shortly after the Center's formal incorporation and before these plans could be fully implemented. Despite this key loss, however, executive director Richard White, naturalist Tom LeBlanc and many dedicated volunteers established nature programs; initiated publication of "The Ovenbird," a newsletter of quite remarkable quality; and developed a forest management program in cooperation with Syracuse and Cornell Universities, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, the U. S. Forest Service and the New York Forest Owners Association. Students in environmental courses of five local schools signed on to participate in scientific data collection for this project.

 

The forestry plan drew countrywide attention to the Center and the prestigious National Wildlife Federation scheduled its 2002 meeting for Olean to give those attending an opportunity to observe the forest management. This meeting would have drawn over 400 visitors to that city.

 

Sadly, this auspicious start turned sour. Letters opposing any sanctuary tree cutting suddenly appeared in local newspapers. Ms. Lawrence's nephew together with the family's lawyer, banker and insurance agent took over the Center board and used the poor press as an excuse to postpone indefinitely any forest management. This left the Center effectively insolvent; it led to the resignation of the board vice-president and secretary, as well as the Center's executive director, naturalist and newsletter editor; it abandoned those local environmental students and, of course, it forced cancellation of the Olean meeting. The Pfeiffer Nature Center is now closed.

 

I am left with a number of questions. How did the letter writers criticizing the timber cutting, none of whom had participated in Center activities, propose to support the sanctuary? (Such Centers pay notoriously poor salaries to dedicated employees, but those and other expenses still have to be met.) Since the volunteers had strongly sided with the resigned staff, who would replace them to reopen the sanctuary? And finally, will the actions of the remaining board lead to this valuable property reverting to ownership by the very family members who have done so much to obstruct Ms. Lawrence's wishes?

 

This episode represents a tragedy not just for those who loved the Pfeiffer Nature Center but for the natural history of this region as well.-- Gerry Rising


I have received much mail about this column, both supportive and condemning. Many of the critical messages came from well-meaning people who feel that any tree-cutting is a desecration and who believe that the Pfeiffer property should be maintained as a sanctuary, not the teaching center for which it was established.

Much information could not be included in the column itself. In order to flesh out some of my points, I include here my responses to the charges made in what I consider the best informed of the critical e-mail messages:

Dear Sir:

I will try to respond to your communication [printed in italics] point by point.

Though you seem to have picked up the banner of certain disgruntled associates for your column on the Pfeiffer Nature Center, did it not occur to you as a scientist and writer to ask any questions or at least speak with any board member before waving it so zealously?

My main source of information was Steve Eaton. I have known Steve for almost 50 years and consider him above reproach. (His credentials as a now retired St. Bonaventure University biologist and as a conservationist who has done much to aid in the preservation of Southern Tier bogs are widely known. Everyone I know would name Steve among the top scientific naturalists in western New York.) It is true that he left the Pfeiffer board a short time ago, but before that he was its vice-president. He is also, next to Ms. Lawrence, the most substantial fiscal contributor to the center. Because I claim no scientific credentials, I drew my information -- including the information about the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) -- largely from him. He supplied me with the incorporation information and with copies of the correspondence about this situation. Tom LeBlanc had earlier provided me with the full file of "The Ovenbird." Since I wrote the column, Jeff Reed, who is on your side, has supplied me with what he considers relevant portions of Ms. Lawrence's will.

I also note that your concern about my credentials "as a scientist" seems out of order since your side has driven the two scientists off the Pfeiffer board. And all the other scientists whom I know are opposed to you. Your side seems made up of upstanding and obviously well-meaning people, but in all the cases I know, people with no scientific credentials.

No, I did not approach your side. I feel that your views have been over-represented in your local newspaper by writers, almost all of whom knew far less about this center than I now do. I know of your views from those letters, one of which was from Pfeiffer family members.

I should also remind you that the entire board approved the lumbering demonstration project, but then refused to implement it.

That this piece got by your editor is unbelievable.

As a matter of fact, since I rarely write an essay that has political overtones, I checked it out with her. I was able to substantiate the facts by reference to Steve's letter to your local newspaper, which that paper has refused to publish.

It is inaccurate, irresponsible, and injurious.

Evidently your first claim is correct. I now believe that I gave the NWF date a year early and I did not know that the nephew had been "driven off the board" as others have informed me. My understanding about the NWF meeting otherwise remains as I gave it in the column.

You have decided about the other two adjectives and I am certain that nothing I will say will change your mind. I wonder if it might not be equally reasonable to suggest, however, that you think about the actions of your side. You clearly consider driving out the center's executive director, naturalist, newsletter editor and two board members responsible and non-injurious.

You correctly quote the mission statement but fail to explain how "appreciation of the intrinsic value and aesthetic qualities of the natural world" or "to preserve the integrity of the old growth forest and surrounding property" or "scientific research" or "nature study" are necessarily defined as timber management.

Nowhere in my column do I claim anything of the kind. And I have a great deal of difficulty with your use of the phrase "timber management." The project never was simply timber management. It was a demonstration of the results over time of several different approaches to forest management, including a control area that would remain untouched. It is true that income would also be generated from I believe two of the four plots but that was income needed to maintain the center.

And of course, "the integrity of the old growth forest and surrounding property" was protected by the proposed project. It was to be at some distance from the old growth. All the rest of this property is second growth, forest that has already been logged at least once at some time in the past.

Preservation rather than production was her original intent as evidenced also by her personal letters and will.

Here is the most relevant sentence I find in Ms. Lawrence's will: "The purpose of the foundation is to allow the real property to be used for the study of nature as the real property has a unique natural setting and several acres of virgin forest." Whatever was Ms. Lawrence's intent as indicated in that sentence, she also approved (and according to Steve not reluctantly) those incorporation documents that included two years of lumbering small sections of the property. According to Steve, she fully understood that the $200,000 she was bequeathing to the center was not enough to meet expenses. (Note that her will also includes the appointment of an executive director. Unless you could hire such a person for much less than $10,000 per year -- since there are other expenses as well -- that endowment would simply not do.) Steve claims that she clearly understood that lumbering would be necessary.

There is, in fact, one other sentence in that will: "If it is necessary to lease, transfer or sell any portion or all of said property, I direct that a conservation easement be placed on said land prior to any such lease, transfer or sale and that the proceeds therefrom be used to further the nature study program at an institution or institutions of higher learning at the choice of the to-be-formed Board of Directors or their successors of said charitable foundation." There are several points to be made about this passage. Jeff Reed has claimed that the will prevents sale of this property; clearly it does not. The nature of the conservation easement is undefined here and could simply restate the phrases of incorporation. And the use of income is again for a nature study program, not for forest protection.

The unpublicized plan that evolved was not "selective annual timber harvesting of small plots" but an intensive one time harvest of an area larger than the old growth and including the oldest stand outside the old growth.

You are associating two different things here. The plan that had to be filed together with the incorporation papers included two years of timber harvesting. That, Steve tells me, was approved by Ms. Lawrence. This and the later demonstration project are clearly separated in my column.

There was no guarantee that future logging would not be done on other parts of the property when the proceeds from the first ran out.

No, there was not. But what about the 500 acre property that was also offered to the Pfeiffer board, about which no action has been taken. Surely that added property, carefully managed, would provide enough income from selective annual lumbering of small parcels to support the center indefinitely.

After reading your column I also am left with a number of questions. How do you know that this project drew national attention? To what National Wildlife Federation meeting in Olean in 2002 are you referring? If you had taken a breather from your rapid transcription you might have called them to find that the 2002 summit was scheduled for Montana long before the board's decision to table the project.

I have already addressed this error in dates. I stand by my claim that the meeting was planned.

The conspiring board members you accuse were not the family's but Wendy's lawyer, banker, and insurance agent. The former two being founding board members, how did they stage this coup?

I did not accuse anyone. I raised a question. Coup is your word but I believe that it accurately describes driving out the staff and board members. It was accomplished, I understand from Steve, simply by refusing to act and refusing to respond to the many requests for attention to a wide range of matters from the center staff.

What evidence do you have that the PNC is insolvent?

My phrase "effectively insolvent" was carefully chosen. Here is my evidence. Annual expenses: well over $50,000 per year. Very generous annual income estimates: $10,000 interest from endowment (if the $200,000 endowment were still intact, which it is clearly not); $5000 from memberships; $5000 from fund raising events. (I have not included Steve's contribution here because it obviously was an action not to be repeated.) Mr. Micawber has something to say about this kind of budgeting. Since this has been going on for several years, it has cut deeply into the endowment, in the process further exacerbating the problem.

As of now the board is simply letting this kind of stewardship run its course, refusing even to implement the small cuts associated with incorporation. This constitutes, I believe, irresponsible leadership.

What standing do you have to declare to Western New York that the nature center is closed? It was a bad situation to have the phone and computer unattended after the abandonment by staffers at the end of the season, but wouldn't you expect it to take time to hire and train replacements?

I find your use of the word "standing" here interesting. What is your standing to claim that it is open? Do I have to be a board member to make this judgment? Yours is the kind of inside-only information sourcing that recently took down Enron. You have already mentioned the unattended phone: for over a month it was -- until after my column was published -- filled with unanswered messages and not responding to new calls. Mail has gone unanswered over that period as well. And most to the point: the Nature Center building is boarded up.

As to the hiring and training of replacements, I must ask you what is being done? It was not Ms. Lawrence's plan to have this simply a sanctuary as you seem to wish. Her plans specifically call for at least an executive director. What qualified person in her or his right mind would take on that position, given the recent history and current state of Pfeiffer?

On what do you base your innuendoes of Wendy's surviving family obstructing her wishes then having this "valuable property" "revert" to them? If you choose to do your own research, you will learn that if the nature center fails, only as a last resort may the property be leased or sold with the proceeds used for nature study at an educational institution, and then only with a conservation easement attached.

Although I again raised this as a question, it does indeed constitute an innuendo. We will have to see how this matter plays out. The conservation easement in the will is discussed in an earlier response, but it is clear that the property could be purchased.

Is it your purpose to effect the demise of the PNC through this piece of gothic writing?

No; rather it was my intent to expose through what I continue to feel was accurate reporting the side of this matter opposed to your own. It seems evident to me who is responsible for bringing this nature center to its knees.

And it seems equally evident that my column is having a positive effect: there at least appears to be some activity down there. I have also had a number of e-mail contacts that make irresponsible claims about such things as the demonstration proposal cutting all of the old growth forest. Those distortions are now being corrected. One of them, by the way, was that the NWF meeting was never cancelled and is scheduled for Allegany State Park as it always was. I seem to be attacked on this issue from both sides.

Before you take it upon yourself to write the epitaph for the PNC, please contact people who are still involved.

Okay, you and I are in contact. Please demonstrate to me how the Pfeiffer Nature Center (not the Pfeiffer Sanctuary as you seem to wish it) is to be resurrected, given its budget problems and its unresponsive board president.

You will see that the vote against the project came not just to avoid bad press, but after months of sometimes heated discussions, calls, and letters among interested parties.

As I have said, I have read the published reports and I have Steve's take on the board responses. I think that I have a full sense of what has transpired.

You'll find that a new staff person has been hired, that there are new board members, and that a newsletter and arts and education programs are being planned for 2002 in accordance with the mission statement and Wendy's wishes.

I would be very interested in knowing about this new staff member. What are this person's credentials? Is there a search for a new executive director? I am, I must say, pleased to have Ms. Woodin recently appointed to the board and I wish her well.

Again, the future will bring answers to both of us. And, harshly as I have criticized those who have botched up the Pfeiffer Nature Center so badly, I will be very pleased to see it brought at least part way back to what it was and what it was becoming.

Sincerely yours, Gerry Rising