August 31, 2018 |Emily Korest | Land

The Life and Legacy of Charles Jordan


My internship project involved researching some of The Conservation Fund’s (the Fund’s) past projects to tell their stories and share updates, but I soon added another research component. During the first weeks of my internship, as I introduced myself to my new coworkers and told them my title—the 2018 Charles Jordan Memorial Intern—people often would pause and smile and share a few fond memories of Mr. Jordan, a man who had retired as chairman of our board ten years ago.

Mr. Jordan is remembered as larger than life; from his 6’7″ stature to his booming laugh he lit up rooms and invigorated crowds, bringing a very human-centric perspective to the conservation movement throughout his career and into retirement. His impacts and legacy are still felt today within the Fund and the conservation movement as a whole.

Charles with his son, Dion. Photo Courtesy of Dion Jordan.

Born in rural Texas before moving to Palm Springs as a teenager, Mr. Jordan first moved to the Pacific Northwest where he attended Gonzaga University on a basketball scholarship. He eventually began working for the local government in Portland, Oregon, moving through many positions and leaving his imprint on each one. His first position in Portland was Director of the Model Cities program, which focused on community development. This work in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of northeast Portland aimed to uplift these struggling neighborhoods, and Mr. Jordan approached it with the same focus as he would most of his life’s work—by getting the community engaged and involved.

“Charles was consistent with the board on these particular themes, both the diversification of the conservation movement at the professional level and also the engagement of people of color in land conservation and use of the resources. I think his vision was absolutely on point. He was a zealous advocate of urban parks and that passion was a huge part of who he was. It was what got him out of bed every morning.”

- Rich Erdmann, Executive Vice President, The Conservation Fund

“He could motivate people like nobody you’ve ever seen. To see him speak at land trust rallies or any event was amazing—the place would become electrified just listening to him. No matter what he was speaking about, he just lit up the room. He was larger than life in all respects— a gentle person who had unwavering integrity and was a force to be reckoned with.”

- Nancy Bell, Vermont and New Hampshire State Director, The Conservation Fund

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Photo Courtesy of Dion Jordan.

His successful work with Model Cities, a program to develop new antipoverty programs and alternative forms of municipal government, made him so popular that he was eventually elected City Commissioner for Portland, the city’s first African-American commissioner. Next, after exploring his love for urban greenspace as director of the Austin, Texas Parks and Recreation Department, he then returned to Portland in 1992 to head their Parks and Recreation Department for the following 14 years. During this time 44 new parks and outdoor facilities were constructed as he continued to engage citizens to better provide what they needed from their urban greenspace and from him.

“He always reminded us that we're really doing this for future generations—that this is really selfless work that goes well beyond this organization or any of us as individuals. That it’s a gift that we're giving to future generations. And in providing that gift we also offer the perspective of leadership and the support to take care of the land and waters that they’ll be preserving in the future.”

- Mark Elsbree, Senior Vice President and Western Director, The Conservation Fund

Mr. Jordan first joined the Fund after being appointed to President Reagan’s Presidents Commission on American’s Outdoors where he worked with and befriended our founder Pat Noonan. Mr. Noonan was so impressed with Mr. Jordan’s passion and wisdom that in 1988 he asked him to join our board of directors. While serving on the board Mr. Jordan was as an inspirational leader for all within our organization and prompted the Fund to begin to work on urban parks. He served as a spokesperson and an advocate for projects from the Fund and the conservation as a whole.

“When you think back on Charles, he’s one of those rare people that you’re a better person for having known.”

- Pat Noonan, Founder and Chairman Emeritus, The Conservation Fund

Photo Courtesy of Dion Jordan.

He was outspoken about the need for the conservation movement to better engage and involve people of color and for the conservation movement to focus on not only conservation itself but also the people positively affected by conservation.

“He would ask about what I was working on and I would tell him about trees and plants and habitats and he'd say, ‘Okay, so tell me about the people, how are the people? What does the community have to say?’ And for a long time, my answer was, well there is not much of a community or I haven't really asked them. Over the years, I’ve really appreciated these questions and have asked them. That’s something so important, the human element and making sure that people are connected to these natural lands and parks.”

- Evan Smith, Senior Vice President, The Conservation Fund

Charles Jordan passed away in 2014, but his presence is still felt not only within the Fund but throughout the environmental community. Mr. Jordan brought a very human emphasis to conservation and he changed the landscape of conservation and parks in America, literally and figuratively. He is deeply missed and I am honored to have held the internship created in his name.

Charles Jordan as The Conservation Fund’s Board Chairman. Photo credit: The Conservation Fund.

Please check back in the coming months for Emily’s series of updates on important projects, including Minidoka National Historic Site, Two Mile Ranch, and McIntosh SEED Community Forest.