December 20, 2023 |The Conservation Fund

Celebrating Three Conservation Champions

Together, Joe Hankins, Bill Holman and Ralph Knoll have protected more 162,000 acres (valued at $360 million) in their combined tenure at The Conservation Fund. While those numbers are certainly impressive, a successful career in conservation can’t be measured by statistics alone. It is also about the partnerships formed and the mentoring that happens along the way, which all three of our retiring staff members have exceled at.

Joe Hankins

Joe Hankins is known for bringing a biologist’s eye and an entrepreneur’s passion to the modern issues in conservation. Joe joined The Conservation Fund in 1992 to develop aquaculture, sustainable rural economic development and technology outreach in Appalachia. For two decades he led the Fund’s Freshwater Institute, during which time the program’s research into Recirculating Aquaculture Systems gained international recognition and respect.

Joe Hankins at Freshwater Institute. Photo by Ezra Gregg.

Joe shifted his focus to become our West Virginia State Director, and working with colleagues and partners in 2016, he helped to protect over 32,000 acres in southern West Virginia for elk reintroduction, wildlife habitat and public outdoor access. The project is the largest single conservation acquisition and conveyance in West Virginia state agency history. Overall, Joe’s work across West Virginia has protected 76,400 acres in 17 projects valued at $62 million.

Elk restoration in Logan, West Virginia. Photo by Frank Ceravalo.

“As a result of the collaboration between West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and The Conservation Fund during Joe’s tenure, West Virginians will benefit from the conservation of public lands in high priority areas, as well as the growth of our agency's elk restoration program. Furthermore, Joe provided valuable guidance in developing a mitigation approach to pipeline projects, bringing in millions of dollars to West Virginia for wildlife conservation. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Joe over the past decade and I wish him the best in his retirement. West Virginians will enjoy the fruits of his labor for generations to come.”

- Gary Foster, retired Assistant Chief of Game Management, WV DNR

Joe Hankins (far right) and Freshwater Institute staff members display a thank-you banner made by students who had visited for a tour. Photo courtesy The Conservation Fund.

Bill Holman

Bill Holman directed the Fund’s real estate program in North Carolina from 2013 to 2023, when he turned over the reins to a new state director and became Senior Advisor of Conservation Acquisition in the months before his retirement. Bill has worked to increase funding for North Carolina’s Land & Water Fund and Parks & Recreation Trust Fund, provide funding for state and local trails and advocate for One Water strategies to protect drinking water and to reduce flooding.

Bill Holman speaking at the National Park Service Centennial Event at Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2016. Photo courtesy of The Conservation Fund.

Thanks to Bill’s tireless efforts in combination with our full North Carolina team, he’s overseen the protection of 23,000 acres in 101 projects valued at $101 million in total. Bill has been integral in the protection of many sites abutting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the nation. Many of these projects protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and secure recreational areas in the very scenic western part of the state.

View from Long Arm Mountain, Linville Gorge, NC. Photo by Jason Johnson.

“Bill was the consummate environmental lobbyist. When Bill left his position lobbying for the Conservation Council of NC, the NC Sierra Club, and others, an entire organization had to be created to fill his shoes.”

- Carrie Clark, Executive Director, North Carolina League of Conservation Voters

Bill (far left) joined by staff at Waterrock Knob event. Photo courtesy of The Conservation Fund.

Ralph Knoll

It might be more accurate to say that this is Ralph’s second time retiring, having previously spent 28 years working for the Maine Department of Conservation prior to joining The Conservation Fund in 2006 to lead our land conservation work in Tennessee.

Ralph Knoll speaking about Conasauga River headwaters protection project in Fall 2018. Photo by Claire Cooney.

Under Ralph’s direction, The Conservation Fund was able to protect 77,289 acres through 92 projects across Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, valued at $197 million. His experience includes projects protecting the Appalachian Trail in the Cherokee National Forest and the protection of 600 acres along the Stones and Cumberland Rivers in Nashville.

Rocky Fork, TN. Photo by Greg Hutson.

“Ralph is the most communicative partner that we have ever had. It’s a rare week when I don’t speak with him at least once. He and I both began working when email was not a thing, and we are the probably the last generation who feels more comfortable talking on the phone with partners rather than simply emailing back and forth. His focus on his projects is unmatched. I am happy that Ralph will soon enjoy less than a full-time work schedule, but I don’t expect retirement to slow him down much. We will miss him mightily here at TWRA.”

- Tim Churchill, Chief, Federal Aid and Real Estate Division, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

A crowning accomplishment indeed: Ralph led his team to victory in our All-Staff trivia game in 2022. Photo courtesy of The Conservation Fund.

It has been said that often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re actually at the beginning of something else. Our organization has learned so much from Joe, Bill and Ralph, and while they leave behind big shoes to fill, we stand ready to build on their accomplishments and advance the Fund’s mission. This is especially true for our three new state directorsAshton Berdine in West Virginia, Guenevere Abernathy in North Carolina and Zachary Lesch-Huie in Tennessee.

To Joe, Bill and Ralph: thank you for everything. We simply wouldn’t be where we are today without you.

Written by

The Conservation Fund

The Conservation Fund protects the land that sustains us all. We are in the business of conservation, creating innovative solutions that drive nature-based action in all 50 states for climate protection, vibrant communities and sustainable economies. We apply effective strategies, efficient financing approaches, and enduring government, community and private partnerships to protect millions of acres of America’s natural land, cultural sites, recreation areas and working forests and farms.