In this episode Eric Cooperström, Senior Director, Asset Management at NatureVest part of The Nature Conservancy, discusses NatureVest’s shared conservation agenda to drive conservation at scale and plans to make it repeatable. Learn more about how NatureVest operates within The Nature Conservancy, the impact of the Cumberland Forest LP and what 2020 looks like for impact investing in conservation.

What we’re doing is trying to channel capital at scale into distinct strategies, underlying those priorities to really move the conservation needle. And we’re trying to do it in a scalable and replicable way so that if we do a pilot transaction or we do even a larger transaction right off the bat, we want there to be runway to repeat those transactions, assuming they are successful over time and really drive conservation at scale and drive our contribution toward those global issues.

Eric Cooperström, Senior Director, Asset Management at NatureVest | The Nature Conservancy

Transcript of Interview with Eric Cooperström

Jenelle:
Hello and welcome. Thanks for being here with us today Eric.

Eric:
Thank you for having me.

Jenelle:
Today, we have with us Eric Cooperström, Senior director of NatureVest, which is the impact investing arm of the Nature Conservancy and you can learn more about NatureVest at the Nature Conservancy website. They do have their own space on the website, which you’ll be able to find attached to this podcast, but you can go to nature.org to learn more. So to get started, Eric, do you want to tell us a little bit about the Nature Conservancy as well as the role of NatureVest within it?

Eric:
Sure. Thanks Jenelle. And so the Nature Conservancy is one of the largest nonprofits focused on conservation in the world. We have over 4,500 employees spread out across every state in the United States and over 75 countries internationally. And we really work across the entire conservation spectrum from policy to on the ground conservation and the Conservancy has a long history. We’ve been around for about seven decades doing this work. So we have quite a bit of experience and as you can imagine, our strategy has evolved over that time from our origins as primarily a land trust. So buying high conservation value areas and preserving them and then transferring those ultimately to long-term conservation owners to more expansive focus across the conservation spectrum.

Eric:
NatureVest itself is, as you mentioned, the impact investing arm of the Conservancy. We were founded about six years ago based on the premise that really all of the philanthropic capital and all of the government capital in the world is not going to be enough to address the major conservation and climate issues that the world faces. And so what we need to do is mobilize private capital and that’s what NatureVest seeks to do. We develop transactions that have both a conservation impact target as well as a financial return target for investors and we seek to crowd in private capital toward those conservation ends.

Jenelle:
That’s certainly a big mandate both from just the investment arm but also obviously of the Conservancy as well. Can before we get into talking more about the organization, can you tell us a little bit about your role within NatureVest?

Eric:
Sure, so my role is as many roles across the Conservancy given that we are a pretty agile organization and especially within NatureVest, you know, we’re a 20 person team. So we all wear multiple hats. My primary primary role is as Senior Director of Asset Management. So I focus my core responsibilities on our closed portfolio of transactions. We’ve closed 11 deals to date with external partners and our internal Conservancy colleagues for over a billion dollars in committed capital. And so I work with those internal colleagues and external partners to try to steward those transactions and manage those transactions toward their impact and natural targets.

Eric:
I’ve been with TNC and nature vest for a little over three and a half years and in that time I’ve done quite a few things. So I’ve led certain aspects of deals. I’ve led recapitalizations in fundraising. I’ve helped with our origination team development. I serve on our management team at nature vest as well, setting broader strategy with my management team colleagues and our managing director, Charlotte Kaiser. And I’ve also run a grant program called the Conservation Investment Accelerator that sought to really jumpstart a new transaction development in conservation impact investing both within TNC and externally. So yes, I wear a number of different hats, but the core is on that asset management function.

Jenelle:
That’s really neat that you’re able to function across so many different areas of the organization. You said, you know, part of the reason for why NatureVest was founded was just simply not enough capital to address the climate issues that the world was facing. Speaking of the global impact and scale, can you tell us a little bit about, and maybe at a systems level, what is the aim of NatureVest in reaching scale and at a systems level, what does impact look like?

Eric:
Yes, it’s a great question and you know, NatureVest as part of TNC shares TNC’s priorities. And we at the nature Conservancy are guided by, is a set of priorities and strategies called the Shared Conservation Agenda. And our conservation colleagues and our science colleagues at TNC developed this over the past several years. These are broadly defined as kind of the core areas of work where TNC thinks that we can make an outsized contribution to major global challenges, and these align with global constructs like the sustainable development goals and the Paris Co-op.

Eric:
What we’re doing as a Conservancy is really focusing on four main priorities; so protecting oceans, land and water, providing food and water sustainably, tackling climate change and building healthy cities. And so NatureVest strategies really trickled down from those overarching shared conservation agenda priorities. And so what we’re doing is trying to channel capital at scale into distinct strategies underlying those priorities to really move the conservation needle. And we’re trying to do it in a scalable and replicable way so that if we do a pilot transaction or we do even a larger transaction right off the bat, we want there to be runway to repeat those transactions, assuming they are successful over time and really drive conservation at scale and drive our contribution toward those global issues.

Jenelle:
Can you tell us, perhaps provide a few metrics simply to highlight the impact of NatureVest. And it can be either at the organizational level or it can be in any one of those four priorities, but can you provide some metrics to help highlight the impact of NatureVest?

Eric:
Yes, absolutely. So I mentioned that to date through our six year odd history nature vest and our external transaction partners have closed on over a billion dollars of committed capital and we take that as progress but also not the real definition of succeeding; the conservation is the real measure. And so in aggregate we’ve also helped to protect and manage more than 500,000 acres of land and over 150,000 square miles of ocean. So from that, high level, we are certainly having an impact at scale and we’re looking to replicate those strategies even further and get those conservation numbers up and keep them up really over the long-term.

Jenelle:
That’s certainly significant. Do you want to share with us a story that you feel like highlights the impact of the organization?

Eric:
Sure, so last year in 2019 we closed on a major forest transaction called Cumberland Forest Fund and it’s actually called Cumberland Forest LP and that’s a private equity structure where we brought in external private investors to acquire two large forest properties, totalling 253,000 acres of forest land in the central Appalachian mountains. And these properties span Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. So this was really kind of a big team effort across NatureVest and our state chapters in those three States. We closed on that transaction and since then it’s a 10 year fund term plus some optional extensions. We’ve been managing those assets in accordance with sustainable forestry practices. So for instance we’ve applied for California Carbon Market credit offsets for a number of our carbon projects. We’ve also gotten the entire forest land certified under the Forest Stewardship Council framework. And the last piece that’s really exciting is last year we entered into a partnership with the State of Virginia and certain state agencies there to permanently protect over 22,000 acres through an easement. In the very important conservationly important Clinch Valley watershed. And you know, that’s really the type of work that we’re looking to do over the long-term for this fund is ultimately enter into easements and enter into sales with conservation buyers that protect the conservation value of these lands in the long-term.

Jenelle:
It continues to be really impressive. So when you’re looking at the year ahead and I know the world’s changed a little bit, but would love to hear from you, what do big goals look like for 2020, but in the next five years as well? What are the big audacious goals that you’re trying to achieve?

Eric:
Yes, it’s a great question. I mean, I think what we’re trying to do is continue to prove the model for impact investing in conservation and we’re going to continue to try to crowd in private investors. You know, we’re taking a look really across the spectrum from high net worth individuals, foundations, family offices, institutions through to development finance institutions. And we’re looking to expand the diversity of investors that come into our deals. We’re looking to certainly expand the scale and replicate a number of transactions that we’ve gotten off the ground in the past few years. So, I think going forward where we’re aiming to do more of the same. We’re looking to close more deals. We’re looking to replicate more deals. And especially on on my side, I’m on the asset management side, we’re looking to continue to work in unison with our partners to make sure that those conservation and financial targets are hit. So yes, sorry, I can’t give you direct details but we’re looking to do a lot more of the same and really a lot more transactions and a lot more crowding in of capital into this space.

Jenelle:
Yes, I mean, what we’re hearing, the impact investment arm is still relatively new. You’re proving the model and I think growth and expansion after you’ve proven that it works certainly make sense and wishing you so much continued success with that work over the next year. Thank you so much for speaking with us today and our audience.

Eric:
Thank you, Jenelle. Pleasure.

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