By Linda E. Platts
A love of animals could not keep red ink from spilling across the pages of Christine Jurzykowski’s account books at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Jurzykowski and her partner Jim Jackson had purchased 2,700 acres of rolling Texas hill country with good intentions and hefty bank accounts and made it home to more than sixty rare and endangered species from five continents. Their highly successful breeding programs and first-rate animal care earned them an international reputation for excellence but did nothing to help bankroll their ambitious project. The partners had to come up with a profit-making venture that was compatible with the center’s wildlife mission, or Fossil Rim would end up on the auction block.
Even in the shade of a fragrant southern pine forest, wildlife biologist Tom Bourland could feel the sultry Louisiana heat. Hired to manage wildlife on the vast holdings of the International Paper Company, Bourland found himself eye to eye with the corporate bottom line. If he was to achieve his ambition of effectively protecting wildlife habitat and increasing populations of deer, quail, rabbits, turkeys, woodpeckers, bluebirds, and other species, he had to make them pay their way. Bourland wagered that the giant timber producer would manage its commercial forests for the benefit of wildlife if he could show the executives how it would benefit their profit margin.
As Ron Bowen toiled over tulip beds and Bermuda grass, he had a vision of another landscape that required neither weed whackers nor lawnmowers. The tallgrass prairies thick with wildflowers that once carpeted his native Minnesota would make beautiful, virtually care-free landscapes for homes and businesses. Wild rye and thimbleweed, pussytoes and prairie sage, blazing stars and porcupine grass, these were the plants that Bowen wanted to tend. His summer job as caretaker had opened his eyes to a career as a native plant landscaper, and he set his sights on restoring at least some small patches of the American prairie. Now, he needed to find a way to earn a living doing the work he loved.
Jurzykowski, Bourland, and Bowen, three people with a vision about the natural world, but all in need of capital to carry out their work. So they did what every successful entrepreneur had done before them. They used imagination, innovation, persistence and grit, dogged hard work, business acumen and whatever else it took to make their ventures successful. They did not seek the support and assistance of government agencies. They did not call for new laws and regulations. They did not ask for taxpayer dollars. Instead they found value in the natural world, developed goods and services, and sold them in the marketplace for a profit. As their businesses flourished, so too did the endangered cheetah, the wild turkey, and the prairie wildflowers.
We call these individuals, and thousands more like them, enviro-capitalists. They are doing good while doing well.
As Fossil Rim Wildlife Center teetered on the brink of economic ruin, Christine Jurzykowski came to an obvious conclusion: "Let’s apply business and economic principles to conservation." Although a philanthropist at heart, she realized she could no longer single-handedly keep the center afloat.
The previous owner had reached the same conclusion. In an effort to stem his losses, he built a nine-mile scenic drive for wildlife viewing and charged an entry fee. Jurzykowski and Jackson decided to go even further, turning Fossil Rim into a forprofit tourist center and using the proceeds for their breeding programs and other conservation activities.
Today Fossil Rim offers an array of guided naturalist tours, educational programs, conservation camps, and special events such as a Moonlight Safari. A café, gift shop, elegant lodge with a spring-fed swimming pool, a safari camp, and rustic cabins are all popular with tourists, while the scenic drive continues to draw a steady stream of visitors; more than 120,000 last year. Just an hour southwest of Fort Worth, Fossil Rim is well on its way to becoming a destination resort.
The expanded tourist programs have helped fill the coffers and allowed the conservation work to continue. Cheetahs, which are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, have given birth to an astounding ninety cubs at Fossil Rim. Eight endangered black rhinos have been given safe harbor at the center because of civil unrest in Zimbabwe and increased danger from poachers. Also thriving amidst these glamorous visitors from other continents is the Attwater’s prairie chicken, a native species of Texas that is listed as endangered. In 1996 the center released more Attwater’s prairie chickens than existed in the wild at the time.
When Tom Bourland joined International Paper Company (IP) in the early 1980s, he knew there was a growing demand for hunting, fishing and other recreational experiences. He also knew that consumers were willing to pay for a quality experience. If he could turn these activities into moneymakers for the company, it would allow him to improve wildlife conditions throughout International Paper’s 2.3 million acres of timberland in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Beginning in the 1950s, IP had successfully experimented with a timber program in Georgia that was designed to benefit wildlife and earn profits from recreation. Bourland built on this success with a comprehensive plan to expand recreation and increase revenues. It called for selling hunting club leases, seasonal family camping permits, and daily use permits. Within three years revenues from recreation had tripled and represented more than 25 percent of the firm’s profits in the region.
With wildlife now contributing to the bottom line, forest managers modified their methods and made wildlife habitat a higher priority. Corridors of trees 100 yards wide were left between harvested areas, clumps of older trees were left standing beside younger trees, the size of cut areas was reduced, and harvests along streams were halted.
Wildlife was the big beneficiary. Eastern wild turkey increased tenfold and whitetail deer increased fivefold. Nongame species such as heron and bluebirds flourished as well. With the abundant wildlife, hunters and anglers, hikers and campers were willing to pay more to use company lands. Today two-thirds of IP’s six million acres in the United States is managed profitably for wildlife and recreation. Bourland’s belief that the market could be wildlife’s best ally was confirmed by one of the country’s largest timber producers.
Market timing gave Ron Bowen’s new business a boost. About the time that he began growing native plants and landscaping with them, many homeowners were ready to abandon the great American pastime of mowing the lawn. Households with two working adults were starved for time between longer commutes and childcare. Water to keep the grass green was increasingly expensive and new health concerns had surfaced over the use of fertilizers, weedkillers, and pesticides.
All of these changes seemed to provide a perfect niche for Bowen’s business. Native landscapes have lower maintenance and better water conservation and erosion control, require fewer chemicals, and provide habitat and food for a variety of wildlife. As for aesthetics, the visual beauty of a natural landscape was appealing to many people who had grown up amidst manicured lawns and flower beds laid out in grids.
Corporations such as General Mills and IBM found the native landscapes attractive for many of the same reasons as homeowners. And they saw an added advantage in using their native plant landscapes to project an environmentally sensitive image.
Last year Prairie Restorations grossed $1.5 million, employed fifteen full-time employees and twenty seasonal workers. In addition to the full-scale landscaping operation, the company runs a retail greenhouse and a store. Bowen designs do-ityourself kits for homeowners who want to install their own landscapes, offers a computer program that helps customers plan a native plant landscape, and gives educational seminars.
Bowen takes pride in his thriving business, but perhaps he is most proud of the part he has played in restoring some of the flowers and grasses that once covered 2 million acres of Minnesota prairie. "Economics sold the projects," Bowen says, "but aesthetics are the greatest reward."