By Maria Saporta
In early 2009, former Georgia Lt. Governor Pierre Howard was not convinced he wanted to make a five-year commitment to the Georgia Conservancy as its president and CEO.
So he took his name out of the hat until his close friend – attorney Clay Long – convinced him that as president, he would have “the latitude to do what was right thing for the environment” – free of undue pressure from the board or major donors.
But the person who may have had the most to do with Howard ultimately taking the job was the late Jamie MacKay, a Georgia statesman and political leader who had been instrumental in launching and leading the Georgia Conservancy in 1967.
“One of the main reasons I decided to take this job was because I loved Jamie so much as a friend,” Howard said in a lengthy interview a week before his own retirement as CEO of the Georgia Conservancy. “I admired him so much. The Georgia Conservancy was the only statewide, organized voice for the environment at the time. I was inspired by him during my entire political life.”
As he spoke in the Conservancy’s board room, he looks over to the wall where there are two photos — a photo of Mackay (who passed away in 2004) and a photo of the late Ray Anderson, another Georgia legend in environmental circles who passed away in 2011.
“I have ordered a photo of John Sibley,” Howard said of one of his predecessors who has been a close advisor during his tenure at the Georgia Conservancy.
For Howard, it is a time to reflect as he departs as the Conservancy’s CEO on June 30 after more than five years leading the organization.
“One thing I wanted to do when I came here was bring us back to our roots,” Howard said.. “I wanted us to have hikes every Saturday and for us to do more trips. And I wanted to do more for land conservation.”
Howard said that now the Georgia Conservancy is taking more than 1,000 people a year on trips.
It also started a Land Conservation Initiative, working with property owners across the state to have them protect their land through conservation easements and receiving tax benefits in return. Priority is given to property owners with the greatest bio-diversity on their land and those who have the greatest desire to conserve their property by deeding their easements to a land trust.
“The Georgia Conservancy played a key role in protecting more than 20,000 acres of land in Georgia in the last three-and-a-half years,” Howard said. “On every deal we have done, we have partnered with somebody.”
Howard said that he noticed a definite attitude shift among some environmentalists when he become president and CEO of the Georgia Conservancy.
Before I got there, people in the environmental community had all given me all kind of awards,” Howard said. “When I got here, people looked at me differently. We have been criticized before for being willing to compromise.”
But Howard, who was first elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1972 and re-elected to eight more terms. In 1990, Howard ran for and was elected as Lt. Governor – serving until 1998, when he stepped away from the political scene instead of running for Governor, as had been widely anticipated.
Howard said his years in the legislature taught him that compromise is essential if there is going to be forward movement.
“We can’t get anything done to protect the natural world if we are not working together,” he said, adding he understand when certain groups take more pointed positions “I feel we need everybody to work and to work in the way they feel most comfortable. There are too few of us to be divided.”
The Georgia Conservancy does spend much of its time and energy at the state legislature keeping an eye on legislation that could impact the environment.
“We have really got a great relationship right now with the General Assembly,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. Our job is to work with whoever has been sent down there. You can’t wait for time when you think the political waters are going to be more comfortable. You have to dive in no matter who is in office.”
Asked if he could enact one change for Georgia, Howard said he would love to see the Georgia Heritage Fund become a reality once and for all.
“In a perfect world, we would have a dedicated fund for land conservation,” Howard said. “The first message that I would try to get to all nine million people in this state is that land conservation is water conservation. They are one and the same.”
Howard said polling shows that between 70 and 75 percent of Georgians would be willing to tax themselves to protect drinking water. That’s why he believes that a statewide champion could sell the idea of a dedicated fund for land conservation – an idea that has been known as the Georgia Heritage Fund for more than 15 years.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to see something like that done,” Howard said. “But we would also have assure people where there is a lot of vacant land that the money would not all go to Atlanta, that it would go all over the state.”
For example, several “wildlife management areas” where Georgians hunt and fish are privately-owned lands that are not protected. A conservation fund could seek to acquire those so they could become public lands.
Although Howard is stepping down as president of the Georgia Conservancy, he plans to continue working to protect the state’s natural resources.
He has a new consulting firm – Green Day, and he’ll be working as a senior advisor for the Georgia Conservancy to its new president – Robert Ramsay – for the next six months. He also plans to work on land conservation, teaming up with his long-time associates – Will Wingate and Shannon Mayfield – who have formed a company – Winfield Strategies.
“I’m not retiring. My health is great. I feel great,” said Howard, 71. “My feet aren’t tired. My soul is rested, and I’m going to keep on fighting to protect the natural world, to protect the environment and to protect the water and the marshes in this state.”