Unfamiliar to many longtime environmentalists, the S.C. Natural Resources Society bills itself as a friend of conservation.
But you won't see its members waving signs to protest nuclear power. Nor will you see the society appealing state pollution permits granted to industries.
Instead, this 4-year-old group, composed mostly of conservative and well-connected business people, is more likely to support increased funding for land conservation and other initiatives backed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The society wants to protect natural resources to help the economy, said society board chairman Emmett Davis of Greenwood, founder of one of the state's most well-known engineering firms.
Davis said the group is less interested in taking on specific causes, aside from natural resource preservation, and it isn't opposed to nuclear power.
"We are interested in seeing that the natural resources are preserved to the extent they can support the economic driver in this state," Davis said. "We can have economic growth, and we can have natural resources, too."
The society has more than 100 members. Those who join typically pay $5,000 down and $1,000 annually to fund the organization. The society's 10-member board includes former state commerce secretaries Bob Royall and Charlie Way. Upstate textile tycoon Roger Milliken is a member of the group, as is state Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd.
Since the society's formation in 2005, it has quietly raised money and maintained a low-key presence - until recently.
On Nov. 3, the society gained statewide recognition when it sponsored a bipartisan debate on the environment for the 10 candidates seeking to become governor next year. The society helped raise $26,000 from corporate sponsors and persuaded S.C. Educational Television to hold the environment debate. ETV says it had control over all editorial content in the debate and invited representatives of news media outlets to ask candidates questions.
Some of the state's established environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, knew little or nothing about the Natural Resources Society before ETV flashed the name across the television screen.
"I had never heard of them until that forum," said Dana Beach, whose conservation league is perhaps the most powerful environmental group in South Carolina. "It looks to me like they're kind of a support group for the DNR."
Floyd said the society's existence contradicts a long-held perception that people with "far-left" views are the only ones interested in protecting the environment.
Floyd is a former DNR board member whose marketing firm, the Palladian Group, was paid $30,000 last year to provide management services for the Natural Resources Society. Floyd was involved in early discussions about forming the Natural Resources Society. Records show the society received about $86,000 in revenue in 2007-08 and ended the fiscal year with a nearly $57,000 fund balance.
Members of the nonprofit society's board understand the need for "a balance of economic development and natural resources," Floyd said. Angel Cox, a Palladian group official who provides staff support for the society, agreed.
"Some are developers, so they are not in the business of saying you can't cut down any trees," Cox said. "But they want it done smartly."
The society's bipartisan board is a collection of influential people who could make a difference in whether the state Legislature votes to set money aside for the environment, said John Frampton, director of the state DNR. Frampton said his agency has experienced painful budget cuts that are making it more difficult each year to manage natural resources for the public.
"Members of the General Assembly are going to respond and listen to them," Frampton said.
Those on the board include:
- Royall, a retired banker and former state commerce secretary under Republican Gov. David Beasley. Royall is a former chief executive of NBSC in South Carolina.
- Way, a Charleston developer who served as commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges. Way heads The Beach Company, one of the state's largest development companies, responsible for the CanalSide neighborhood in Columbia.
- Jim Anthony, an Upstate developer who built the high-end Cliffs resorts in the mountains north of Greenville and Pickens.
- Joe Edens, who runs one of Columbia's largest real estate and development companies, Edens and Avant.
- Jim Roquemore, an agribusinessman who runs the SuperSod turf business in Orangeburg County.
- Morgan Martin, a former Democratic state representative from Horry County and one-time chairman of the state Department of Transportation board.
While some environmentalists say they're glad the society wants to protect the landscape, others are skeptical. Many of the conservation community's leaders weren't invited to the Nov. 3 governor's debate in Orangeburg and had to ask for permission to attend.
Many people attending the debate were invited by the candidates for governor and the political parties, said the Palladian Group's Cox. Guests were treated to wine and caviar.
Tom Clements, a Columbia representative of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the debate gave many of the candidates a platform to promote nuclear power virtually unchallenged. Clements is actively fighting the expansion of nuclear energy in a state where many leaders support it.
Clements questioned whether the Natural Resources Society would support "unbridled development" under the guise of environmental protection.
"I'm not saying this group can't end up doing some good things," he said. "But if you have a group that presents itself as being concerned about the environment but really is creating a situation where 'greenwashing' is possible, it can do more harm than good."
Bob Guild, a state Sierra Club leader active in environmental issues since the 1970s, said the Natural Resources Society may not agree with every position his group takes, but it could provide support on other issues. Beach and Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said the society could help their causes, too.
Beach and Timberlake said they're glad the debate was held and they look forward to meeting with members of the society.
"We would very much welcome more conversation with them," Timberlake said."