How did you choose a career in conservation?

I was blessed with the opportunity to grow up in a Wyoming ranch family and to have big game and fishing as a part of my childhood. I developed a passion for wildlife, wild lands, natural landscapes, and free-flowing rivers. That passion translated into running for elective office; I was in the Wyoming legislature, and I began working on public land and natural resource policy for the next 20 years. I then had the opportunity to be director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under President George H.W. Bush. After that I came to The Conservation Fund for eight years. Then I was asked to serve as Assistant Secretary for the State Department representing the United States on international environmental affairs all over the world. I’ve just had wonderful opportunities. 

How did you first meet Pat Noonan?

I became an admirer of Patrick F. Noonan when I was director of USFWS. We were able to partner with The Conservation Fund on several fronts.  During my time at USFWS, we created more wildlife refuges than under any other president or administration in United States history. The Conservation Fund was a partner on many of those new units and helped expand others. I admired the way the Fund could move quickly and bravely and bring capital to the table. I admired Pat’s vision which was unique in the conservation field to blend the protection of wild lands and watersheds with an appreciation and promotion of economic development and the well-being of communities and business.

Pat and I also shared an interest in training and educating the young people who would be involved in conservation in the future, whether they were state or federal, nonprofit, or even business professionals. That was always something Pat was interested in, mentoring and training young people. So together we forged the vision of the National Conservation Training Center, where we could bring people together to learn collaborative skills. 

The creation of NCTC was quite a legacy.  Do you have other favorite projects from your tenure at the Fund?

There were several projects that stick out in my memory including the Northern Forestland project. That was one of the largest intact timber tracts left in the eastern United States. There were other really innovative projects like Aspen Village, right outside of Aspen, Colorado, where we took a failed subdivision and created critical winter habitat for elk and other wildlife. We combined it with low cost housing for the labor needs of Aspen. That was a particularly unique project that showed what the Fund does well, finding solutions to difficult challenges.

Another project I enjoyed working on was the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie where we took former Defense Department land where they produced TNT and all kinds of things for WWII and we created a 20,000 acre tallgrass prairie.  We could incorporate getting kids from the inter city out in nature, we created low income housing, and we were also able to introduce bison on the land.

Another project that was truly inspiring was in Tyrrell County, North Carolina, where the Fund went into one of the poorest counties and created a whole sustainable community; an economic development focused on conservation, refuges, environmental education, and reintroduction of red wolves.  That work is still ongoing today, led by Mikki Sager (the program is now known as Resourceful Communities). That kind of innovative work, there is no other group in the United States that is that innovative, entrepreneurial, and moves as expediently as The Conservation Fund; there’s just no other group that is as effective and creative. 

What role do you think The Conservation Fund will play moving forward?

The early founders’ vision, that of Pat Noonan and Rich Erdmann, is more prescient today than ever. Being a non-advocacy, non-membership group that can work across sectors with economic interests and conservation interests on behalf of this great country of ours is the brand of conservation that wears well. Americans will continue to be receptive to it going forward.  Many of the environmental groups that have been partisan and over-strident and have had distain for the business community and economic development and jobs have floundered. It’s groups like The Conservation Fund that can work with ranchers, timber managers, county commissions, and companies to do work like the restoration efforts in the Mississippi Bottomlands, restoring hardwood forests and meeting the needs of wildlife and migratory birds. The Fund has had that innovative approach, listening to the needs of partners; not trying to dictate one vision of conservation, but listening very closely to each partner and trying to find common ground. 

A good example is in Wyoming. Wyoming is a very conservative state and Wyomingites can be wary of traditional conservationists, but thanks to Luke Lynch and Mark Elsbree, The Conservation Fund is pioneering and incredibly successful here, working with the community, the ranchers, the legislature, the governor’s office, Wyoming Game and Fish, and with agriculture groups.  They are able to focus on species habitat, watersheds, and key migratory routes for some of the largest big game.  The work The Conservation Fund does will continue to do very well into the future.