9 Investigates: Environmental group's investments not always environmentally friendly

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ORLANDO, Fla. —

9 investigates has learned that some of the investments made by a major state environmental protection group may have not have been very good for the environment.

Florida has a specialty license plate that helps support the Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

But, WFTV investigative reporter George Spencer found out where its millions have been going.

In the summer of 2010, tar washed ashore in the Florida panhandle andthe world watched as 53,000 barrels of oil a day spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon rig, operated by Transocean.

But that same summer, Florida's nonprofit environmental foundation held investments worth thousands in both BP and Transocean.

Chip Castagnos donates to the group through his specialty license plate. He said he couldn't believe it even allowed such investments.

"You would think they would draw their own hard line, said Castagnos.

The Wildlife Foundation of Florida works at, in their words, "Preserving and maintaining Florida's precious fish, wildlife and natural habitats."

But in a 2011 snapshot of the foundation's $4.4 million portfolio, WFTV found, along with the BP and Transocean investments, stock in Royal Dutch Shell, another huge oil producer, Teck Resources, a large Canadian mining company and Halliburton, a massive oilfield operator, also involved in the Gulf spill. And there were many others.

The foundation is funded by drivers who buy environmental specialty license plates for their cars, like Conserve Wildlife, or Protect Florida Springs. But it also accepts private donations.

The foundation said the holdings were part of large, blind investment bundles with Merrill Lynch, not individual stock purchases, by the foundation.

What's more, it says, environmentally friendly funds, which screen out certain companies, have underperformed traditional funds.

"It sounds like a vegetarian investing in a meat company because they want to get better returns," said Castagnos.

But urban ecologist Karina Veaudry said            many environmental groups face the same trade-off.

"It's a big paradox," said Veaudry. "In order to do the good work, some of those investments have to happen that way."

The foundation says, "We are excellent stewards of the funds entrusted to us and fully comply with our donors' wishes." Wishes that, the group says, are focused on long-term growth.

The Guidestar Review of Non-Profits gave the Wildlife Foundation of Florida high marks, and its specific stock holdings with Merrill Lynch probably changed regularly.

The foundation now says it's changing its investment strategy.

It said it switched from so-called blind funds to more transparent ones so, at any given time, they know where their money is.