Rich and Pat Noonan first met as students at Gettysburg College, and twenty years later they joined up again to create a conservation organization that was different by design. We asked Rich to share his thoughts on those early day at the Fund, his tremendous career in conservation, and his thoughts on where we go from here. 

What do you think has been the biggest impact The Conservation Fund has made in its first 30 years?

When we started the Fund thirty years ago, the underlying principles were that we had to be faster, smarter, and more nimble than our counterparts in order to make real change possible.  Back when we had four employees that was easy to do, but surprisingly, thirty years later that remains ingrained in our DNA.

In those years, I believe we’ve redefined the concept of land conservation and broadened it to include working landscapes whether forest or agricultural. We do terrific and essential land protection work day-in and day-out with our federal and state agency partners, addressing challenges like forest fragmentation brought on by the traditional industrial timber land owners divestiture of their North American holdings.  This transfer of forest resources over the past twenty years has put incredible pressure on rural communities and the forests themselves. Our Working Forest Fund program has helped those communities and our agency partners address the issue head on via strategic land acquisition and land planning efforts. That is not to say that the problem has gone away, but we’ve designed a model that combines land protection with community economic development that will hopefully be embraced and emulated by others.

You have been with the Fund from the very beginning. What has kept you passionate about the work?

First, it’s been the continuing evolution of our work. We’re currently in the middle of a five year strategic direction initiative and two of the linchpins of that effort, our Working Forest Fund and our Land Conservation Loans program, weren’t on our screen 30 years ago. We recognized early on that as a national organization that wanted to remain small by design, we couldn’t possibly have the breadth of impact at the local level that over 1,500 land trusts do. So we provide land trusts and other NGOs financial and strategic planning support to accomplish their land conservation efforts.

Second, it’s been our team. I’ve had the opportunity to watch our younger folks, many of whom joined us right out of college or grad school, grow and develop into leaders of the organization in their own right. There’s a certain satisfaction in that and hopefully I’ve provided some guidance and mentoring along the way. Those young leaders are now in their 40s and the average tenure of our senior leadership team is north of 15 years, but then again I bring that average up!

Was there an early project that was a turning point for the Fund?

It’s hard to identify one project out of the thousands, but the Pfizer Corporation’s donation of its Southern California Mining Division to the Fund in 1986 stands out. Pfizer had major mining operations at that time prior to spinning them off into a separate corporation several years later. The Southern California holdings were unique in that they contained the largest talc reserves in North America and the mining operations were situated in Death Valley in what was then a National Monument, now a National Park. Pfizer had approached another organization to gauge their interest in pursuing the gift; they’d demurred and recommended that Pfizer approach the Fund. Pat Noonan and I travelled to NYC in the fall of 1985 to meet with Pfizer executives and after a rather long day they concluded that they were interested in working with us and vice versa. This was pretty heady stuff for a “start up” to be dealing with a potential eight-figure charitable gift. This was the brand of conservation we were interested in practicing, finding common ground between what might otherwise be considered disparate interests. I won’t bore you with the months of transactional minutiae that ensued, but a year later we were able to donate the talc reserves and related mining infrastructure to the National Park Service. That gift remains at the heart of visitor’s interpretive experience at Death Valley to this day. The Pfizer gift provided the Fund with a reputational boost in the eyes of the corporate community, and subsequent multiple conservation gifts have followed with companies such as International Paper and DuPont over the ensuing decades.

How did the Northern Forestlands project with Champion International come about?

The Champion transaction ties back into the previous answer and the reputation the Fund had developed for doing complex work in collaboration with large companies. We had been active in the northeast for years in our core land conservation work. In the fall of 1997 Champion International announced it would “auction” its northern forest lands in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, over 294,000 acres with high conservation values.   Champion set up a two stage bidding process with final bids due in October, 1998. From the fall of 1997 until the bid date we worked with federal and state agency partners, NGOs, private foundations and partners to cobble together commitments to submit our bid of $76.2 million for the entire acreage. Our bid was accepted and we accomplished the largest multi-state public-private conservation partnership in U.S. history. What we didn’t understand at the time was that this project would become the basis of our Working Forest Fund program.

It took an organizational leap of faith to put ourselves on the line where the path forward was far from clear. We were now in the business of working forest conservation and it opened doors for us to the Timber Investment Management Organization (TIMO) community, the new investor class that was replacing the traditional industrial timberland owners of the previous 100 years. Subsequently we’ve protected over 1.5 million acres of working forest and shown our agency partners the environmental and community value of keeping forests working.

Where do you see The Conservation Fund going in the next 30 years?

Based on the last 30 years, predicting the next 30 is difficult. But assuming our cultural DNA remains intact, I’m confident we’ll adapt to changes on the conservation horizon. As long as we maintain our entrepreneurial culture, but temper that with appropriate risk management, I see a very bright future ahead. That may sound a bit like a business analysis, but from the beginning we’ve pursued our conservation objectives and mission in a businesslike fashion. Challenges are always welcome at the Fund—that’s what keeps us young at 30!