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A century ago, Jack Miner became known to Canadians as the father of conservation by turning clay pits dug to supply his farmyard brick factory into goose ponds. Then, by banding thousands of geese, he was among the first to show where flocks come from and where they go.

Today his sanctuary in Kingsville, Ont., still attracts migrating waterfowl, as well as visitors, and 150 years after his birth (April 10, 1865), we still celebrate National Wildlife Week in his honour.

Less well known is the fact that his brand of conservation was deeply religious. As well as practising it, he crisscrossed the continent preaching that, according to the Bible, humans have "dominion … over every living thing." We are its stewards because wildlife was created for our use and enjoyment.

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This idea – that nature's value stems from its worth to humanity – typified thinking on the subject for a half-century. But in the 1960s, preservationists began to argue that nature has intrinsic value and should be saved for its own sake. Since then, many conservationists have taken to the ramparts, defending the wild against the perceived siege of human development.

Now, the landscape is changing once again. Many conservationists, including the largest such organization in the world, the Nature Conservancy, are rethinking their priorities in ways that echo some of the colourful sermonizing of Mr. Miner. They argue for valuing nature in ways that emphasize human and even economic needs – and the about-face has sparked a feud some fear threatens conservation's united front just when the planet needs it most.

'New conservation'

Companies with poor environmental practices "need to be challenged," says Mark Tercek, the Nature Conservancy's president and chief executive officer, "but we overdo that. … I think we have to shift a little bit from fighting over everything."

Mr. Tercek, who spent years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before taking the conservation group's helm in 2008, is a key figure in what some call "new conservation" – the notion that protecting nature requires valuing it in terms that people, and even corporations, care about. Mr. Tercek's organization, with more than a million members worldwide and annual support and revenues of more than $1-billion, is among conservation's most influential. In 2012, its chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, and colleagues published several articles, some in such leading journals as BioScience and Conservation Biology, calling for a change. "Conservation is not going to succeed," Mr. Kareiva has said, "until we make business our friend."

Climate change, pollution and other human impact, explains Mr. Tercek, affect all areas, even protected ones. The accelerating rate of change, meanwhile, means long-term fights for small gains are not enough: "You could say, 'Well, you're winning a lot of battles, but you're losing the war'," he says. Instead, the Nature Conservancy (while not abandoning traditional efforts) aims to "scale up" to meet these challenges through partnerships with corporations – even if some, such as Rio Tinto Group, Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., have faced environmental criticism in the past.

"It's wrong for environmentalists to presume that business goals will always be at odds with environmental goals," Mr. Tercek argues. "Often – not always – business goals and environmental goals overlap. And if we can shine a spotlight on that, and prove it … then we should be able to really grow business as a constituent for conservation."

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Take, for instance, the Nature Conservancy's $10-million project with Dow to generate baseline data and a computer model for valuing nature in business decisions. Dow's chemical-manufacturing complex in Freeport, Tex., is one of the project's sites, and scientists with the Nature Conservancy have showed that, dollar for dollar, restoring adjacent woodlands can cost less and suck up more air pollution than adding mechanical emission controls. So Dow, with large land holdings around the world, may be able to use local ecosystems instead of machinery to offset its costs and save money. Woods and wetlands, it turns out, can have a price-tagged place on the corporate balance sheet.

"This is what the collaboration is all about," says Neil Hawkins, Dow's vice-president of sustainability. "It's about taking nature and the services it provides and putting it into a monetary value that business can understand."

Conservation today has two options, he explains. One is urging regulation – "but we'll never come up with enough regulations around the world quick enough." The other, he says, is appealing to big business: "If you bring the economic picture to the equation, then you can … find options that are good for nature and good for business."

In the Amazon, the Nature Conservancy collaborated with Cargill – a major buyer of Brazilian soybeans previously criticized for encouraging farmers to decimate rainforest – on a moratorium to halt the purchase of soy grown on land cleared illegally. Before the agreement, clear-cutting in the three Amazon states where the crop is grown accounted for nearly 30 per cent of soy-farm expansion, but dropped to about 1 per cent in 2014, according to a recent report in the journal Science. Meanwhile, Cargill gets the benefit of an improved corporate image.

"We can't go there and pound the table only for environmental outcomes," Mr. Tercek says. To be viable, "you have to recognize that [a project] has to have several good outcomes."

Putting a value on nature

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Michael Soulé doesn't see things that way. "Not only is it crass, in a way, to somebody who sees the value of nature more in esthetic or spiritual terms," says the emeritus professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, "but it just doesn't seem to work."

Prof. Soulé and other leaders in traditional conservation, including biologist E.O. Wilson, Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm and Don Weeden, head of the environmental-funding Weeden Foundation, have taken a firm stance against new conservation.

Because the Nature Conservancy's board of directors includes former executives from Goldman Sachs, AP Capital Holdings and Google, it has "strong ties to corporations" and "a very different perspective," Prof. Soulé says.

"You can put a value on nature and say this is the worth of this tree, or this fishery is worth so much if we protect it, but one of the problems of that argument is that people these days are not interested in long-term valuation. They want to know how much money they can make this year."

For example, the business value of protecting a forest – to cut greenhouse gases or other pollutants, say – is measured across decades, while selling the land would better satisfy shareholders focused on the short term.

Prof. Pimm says the Nature Conservancy's desire for corporate engagement too closely resembles an overeagerness to please – and an unwillingness to ask hard questions of big donors, or companies in which the organization has stakes as part of its $2.1-billion in shares, mutual funds and other investments. It is working with Rio Tinto on a landscape-conservation project in Mongolia just as the company faces international criticism over the handling of its Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in the South Gobi desert. "One needs to be very careful about how you engage with corporations," Prof. Pimm says. "Are they doing good? Are they using you? What's the correct balance?"

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In her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein wrote that the Nature Conservancy had earned millons from oil drilled on its own conservation land in Texas. The organization says it is legally bound by a years-old lease to permit the production. But Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told The New York Times that it "has just lost its moral compass."

With acrimony between the conservation camps deepening, 240 scientists signed a recent opinion piece in the journal Nature, calling for a truce: "Unfortunately, what began as a healthy debate has, in our opinion, descended into vitriolic, personal battles … We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress." At stake, the authors warn, is the "future of conservation science, practice and policy."

'We don't have 10 years'

"The stakes are high because time is limited," says Elena Bennett, a McGill University ecologist among the signatories. Important work has been stalled by a philosophical dispute that doesn't need to be settled, she says. While academics debate whether nature has a dollar value or an intrinsic value, the public and, importantly, donors are simply losing interest. "We don't have 10 years and probably don't even have five years to sit around and have that debate. We really need to move – now."

"I think it's unfortunate that people see this as a polarized issue," says Mary MacDonald, senior vice-president and chief conservation officer at World Wildlife Fund Canada. While the country has more parks than ever, the list of nationally endangered species is 312 and growing, while climate change is testing the mettle of ecosystems everywhere.

The best answer, says Ms. MacDonald, is probably not one approach over another but a combination of many. "If an organization is working where they think they can make a positive difference toward conservation or environmental improvement, I say please carry on. … We need everybody."

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Peter Christie is a Kingston-based science writer.

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