It was the type of project that Seligmann, now chairman and CEO of CI, envisioned when he and longtime friend and classmate Spencer Beebe
co-founded the organization in 1987. It had environmental goals yet was rooted in economic realities; It sought to improve the livelihoods of local communities; and it convinced an international company to make commitments that previously might have seemed unlikely.
And it was a great success. Within a few years there emerged a corridor of wilderness running from South America to Mexico, where jaguars and other large predators could travel uninterrupted. It generated new income for family farmers and new jobs for local communities. For McDonald’s it was an opportunity to show they were willing to do the right thing — and still secure the produce it needed.
It also helped earn credibility for Seligmann’s fledgling conservation group. During the past 27 years, Conservation International has grown into one of the world’s largest conservation organizations by building partnerships that cross sectors — and by convincing companies that doing the right thing can be good for business.
eter Seligmann grew up in Plainfield, N.J., a suburb of New York City. The son of an accountant and a dance teacher, he understood early that his family expected him to embark on a traditional career, such as law or finance.
A trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in his early teens, however, offered a glimpse of a completely different future. During a summer vacation arranged by his grandmother — who wanted her grandchildren scattered around the country to remain close — Seligmann found that life in the mountains brought him a kind of peace he’d never experienced.
But while his cousins spent their summer days hiking in the mountains or making trips into town, Seligmann got a job, as an irrigator, with a local rancher. “It really changed my life,” he says. “I just loved it. I loved waiting for the water to flow from one irrigation ditch to the next, looking at the clouds, and listening to the birds.
“It’s when I first really became aware that nature was my drummer.”
He returned to Wyoming each summer throughout his teens, cultivating his growing interest in wildlife ecology. The kid from New Jersey even ended up doing research on grizzly bears.
Just what he might do with this passion for nature crystallized when, as an undergraduate at Rutgers, he came across an article in the New Yorker
about Maurice Strong
, the Secretary General of the UN’s first Conference on the Human Environment. In the article, Strong suggested that anyone interested in wildlife should also become acquainted with changes in land use, the transformation of landscapes, and the impacts of agriculture. “I thought, oh yes, that’s what I want to do,” Seligmann remembers.