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The Duke Foundation gives big bucks to enviro groups

"Trust no one." According to pop culture lore, those fateful words were spoken by Doris Duke's father James Duke, the tobacco mogul and benefactor of Duke University, as he lay on his death bed.

But the announcement last Wednesday by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that it would be giving away millions of dollars to help conservationists in Montana and elsewhere craft long-term agreements with private landowners to preserve the integrity of the environment shows that the heiress, who inherited $100 million when she was 13, didn't take the old man's advice to heart.

On December 23, the Duke Foundation announced that it would be giving the Nature Conservancy a three-year, $2.35 million grant to work on community-based projects, including ongoing projects on the Rocky Mountain front. A spokesman for the Conservancy says the Montana office will receive $175,000 over three years. Likewise, the charity gave $600,000 to the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition to help the group fight sprawl and ensure ecosystem health around Yellowstone National Park.

The geography of the grants and their target of fostering sustainable relationships between public and private interests, according to Duke environmental program director Peter Howell, partially reflect Doris Duke's own interest in conservation and wildlife. And in today's often contentious battle over the future of the West, Howell says, there remains the hope that such disparate interests as cattlemen, land developers and environmentalists can be brought together.

"These grants represent [Doris Duke's] interests," Howell says. "It's not about wildlife at all costs, but an effort to integrate the needs of people who have been working and living on the land for generations."

Jamie Williams of the Montana Office of the Nature Conservancy says his organization will be putting money towards ongoing projects along the Rocky Mountain front, home to a multitude of species including one of the largest remnant populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. The front, which stretches from the east side of Glacier National Park southward along the Continental Divide, remains relatively pristine but is threatened with being subdivided by ranchers who cannot afford to keep their parcels intact.

Williams says the money from the Duke Foundation will act as a seed grant so that the Nature Conservancy can buy conservation easements from those who don't have the resources to place their land off-limits to development otherwise. "What we're most concerned about," he says, "is subdivisions and fragmentation in the landscape. The crux of the issue is keeping those ranches intact."

Similar challenges are faced in the Yellowstone region as well, says Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Scott says the counties surrounding Yellowstone in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are some of the fastest growing in the nation in terms of population and development, and this growth spells trouble for the park's natural features as well as wildlife that doesn't necessarily conform to park boundaries.

"We'll be using this grant to work on a variety of topics," Scott says, noting that the money will be going to fund both education and conservation programs. "We'll be using it to address conflict in growth and in the relationship between public and private land ownership."

In particular, Scott says, the Coalition hopes to add to the coffers for projects surrounding the Yellowstone River, which he says is in danger of degraded to the level of the Los Angeles River. He also says the Coalition is seeking to ensure that bison and elk have safe migration corridors as private interests don't always take a sympathetic view of wildlife on their land.

"It all goes toward protecting the intactness of the ecosystem," says Scott, comparing the national park and its environs to a tapestry. "We're just trying to keep enough of the threads so that you can still see the picture."

Additionally, Peter Howell says the Duke Foundation is not interested in advocacy, per se, but rather building the sorts of public-private alliances that have been at the heart of the work done by both the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Nature Conservancy. By providing such groups with financial resources, he notes, the Foundation can establish incentives for those with a stake in the land to keep their holdings intact.

It's a point not lost on Williams of the Nature Conservancy, who notes that ranchers often make excellent stewards, and development marks a much greater threat. "We really recognize the extraordinary contributions that ranchers have made to the Front," he says "and being able to purchase conservation easements, we hope will allow them to be able to continue to do so."

The Nature Conservancy, Williams says, also hopes to be able to work with the Blackfeet Tribe on issues of conservation and ownership along the Front. He says that although the project is only just beginning, it remains apparent that the tribe has a tremendous interest in maintaining both the cultural and environmental heritage marked by the continued ecological integrity of the area.

Ironically, legal wrangling over Duke's fortune held up the capacity of the Foundation to make any contributions. When the heiress died at the age of 80 with no husband or children, there were numerous challenges to her decision to establish a charity. According to reports, her adoptive daughter was awarded $65 million. Including gifts to the environmental community, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has awarded moneys totaling $18.6 million to the arts and sciences.

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