April 12, 2021 |Larry Selzer | Support our Efforts

When the Genius Met the General

You see, in June of that year Pat Noonan and Rich Erdmann began their professional partnership. Now, decades later on the eve of their retirement, it is clear that they changed the course of conservation in America. Together, they protected more than 20 million acres across all 50 of the United States, an area almost as big as the entire state of Maine. No two people have completed more transactions to conserve more of America’s magnificent land legacy than Pat and Rich, and for that we owe them an immense debt of gratitude.

They first met back in 1964 at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that they began working together. Pat, then the President of The Nature Conservancy, recruited Rich right out of law school. Pat, the first person with a business degree to lead an environmental organization, had a bold vision for conservation. He wanted to create a new kind of nonprofit that would embrace the tools of the marketplace to make conservation competitive in the fast-paced, aggressive world of real estate transactions. More like a business than a typical nonprofit. It was ground-breaking in every sense of the word, and Pat’s early efforts fundamentally changed the way conservation was achieved in the United States. But to scale his vision, Pat needed someone to help bring it to life and so he hired Rich.

In short order they assembled the best team in conservation, adding stars like Dick Ludington, Rex Boner and Tom and Sydney Macy. With the team in place they made the transition from small, isolated transactions to working on large, intact ecosystems.  Katherine Ordway, one of Pat’s earliest mentors and supporters, encouraged them to make this shift, especially as a means of preserving large swaths of her beloved native tallgrass prairie. Later, Pat would say, “Katherine Ordway encouraged us to think big, to get over our mind-set, which assumed we could only get postage stamp preserves. She showed us that really major gifts for our work were possible.”

4 12 21 Prairie Flowers Todd KaplanThe Fund made the transition from small, isolated transactions to working on large, intact ecosystems. Katherine Ordway, one of Pat’s earliest mentors and supporters, encouraged them to make this shift, especially as a means of preserving large swaths of her beloved native tallgrass prairie. Photo by Todd Kaplan.

When Pat and Rich launched The Conservation Fund in 1985, the same year that Pat won a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” award), they brought that entrepreneurial and aggressive spirit with them. They chose the name The Conservation Fund to be explicit about the critical role bridge financing could play in conserving land on behalf of public agencies. You see, public agencies often do not have their funding ready when landowners want to sell. The Conservation Fund was in large part established to bridge that gap – to step in and buy the land and hold it until the public agency had the money to buy the land back from The Conservation Fund for permanent protection.


Getting to Scale

During the first year of our operation, we completed two projects protecting 450 acres of land. By the end of 2020, the power of their vision was clear: we had completed more than 3,500 projects protecting more than 8.4 million acres across all 50 states.

What has made this possible is the permanent capital that we have raised to buy land. We call it our Revolving Fund because it is constantly at work – as soon as the money comes back from one project it rolls immediately into the next.  It is by far the hardest working capital in conservation and it is the lifeblood of our work.  In the earliest days of The Conservation Fund, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and one of our founding Board members, William I. Spencer played enormous roles in helping to bring the Revolving Fund to life.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation provided The Conservation Fund with its first major gift to the Revolving Fund. As one of the nation’s top land conservation funders, its legacy is etched across every state in the nation – with over 4 million acres protected across America.

4 12 21 Maine StacyFunderburke 003The Champion Forest project is hailed as one of the first landscape-level working forest conservation projects in America. It was the most substantial sale of Northeast woodlands in more than a decade and, at the time, was the largest multi-state conservation project in U.S. history, as well as the largest preservation effort in both New York and Vermont. Thanks to the support of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the success of this project led to the creation of our Working Forest Fund. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Bill Spencer was president of Citibank from 1970 to 1982 and an ardent conservationist. As he did their banking, Bill knew that many large industrial companies had surplus, nonperforming real estate assets on their books and that if they donated them to The Conservation Fund they could get a significant tax deduction. The idea was that The Conservation Fund would then sell these non-conservation properties and use the proceeds to build the Revolving Fund.

The combination of gifts from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and donations of surplus corporate real estate – what we now call Giftlands – proved the winning ticket.  Spurred on by these early gifts, The Conservation Fund has raised more than $150 million for the growing Revolving Fund.  That pool of money, recycled as it is from one great project to another, has conserved more than $7.3 billion of land – an incredible return on investment.

4 12 21 Rocky Mountain Front MT c Todd KaplanFor generations, family ranchers have owned large swaths of the land in the Rocky Mountain Front. But due to challenging economic times, increased demand for recreational property and vacation homes and increased oil and gas development, many of these ranchers have had to sell their land. To date, we have protected over 140,000 acres along the front. Photo by Todd Kaplan.


A Caucus in the Hall

One Giftland in particular stands out as the purest example yet of what it was like when the Genius met the General. Early in 1985, not long after The Conservation Fund opened its doors, Bill Spencer introduced Pat to the CEO of Pfizer Corporation. Their initial phone conversation had gone well, and the company had zeroed in on donating to The Conservation Fund its entire talc mining division in southern California. This required a face-to-face meeting, so on a sunny spring day, Pat and Rich flew to New York to try and close the deal.

They arrived at the company headquarters and were ushered into an austere and well-appointed conference room. Soon after a team of dark-suited executives entered the room, and the negotiations began.  Back and forth they went, discussing detail after detail.  The stakes were high as this would, if consummated, be the largest corporate gift for conservation to date. Back and forth they went, making headway and giving ground – like evenly matched teams facing off on the field.  Finally, after a short break in mid-afternoon they reached a deal!

The lead executive from Pfizer came back in the room and said to Pat and Rich, “Congratulations! By the time you get back to your office in Arlington, Virginia, the paperwork will be on your desk.  Sign it and send it right back.  We’re going to fax it to you as soon as you leave.”

Instead of celebrating, Pat looked at Rich, then back at the executive and said, “Gentlemen, this is outstanding, but would you excuse us for just a minute while we caucus in the hall?”

“Certainly,” came the reply, after a somewhat puzzled pause.

Pat and Rich went into the hall, and Pat turned to Rich and said, “Thanks to your great work, we’re going to get this gift.  But how are we going to sign the documents?  We don’t own a fax machine…”

Well, they walked back into the conference room, thanked everyone profusely, and then Pat said, “There’s just one problem.  We can’t sign the documents; we don’t have a fax machine.”

The executives looked at each other, then the lead executive said, “Would you excuse us for a minute while we caucus in the hall?”

“Certainly,” said Pat.

The executives all filed out into the hall and Pat and Rich could hear their hushed whispers. All of a sudden, things weren’t looking so great.

But then the executives filed back into the conference room and the leader said, “It’s all fixed.  By the time you get back to your office we will have had a new fax machine installed in your office and you can sign the documents and send them back!”


Ambition we Shoulder Proudly

When The Conservation Fund launched in 1985, it was a new kind of organization.  Entrepreneurial, nimble, lean, creative, risk-taking, no membership, no advocacy, no endowment, every dollar focused squarely on transactions – the business of conservation. In fact, it remains the only nonprofit chartered for both conservation and economic development. The vision and ambition that Pat and Rich brought to their new venture was groundbreaking. And it remains so today.

And now with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act last year, after more than three decades of advocacy leadership by Pat and others, we are poised to do even more. From the redwoods of California, to the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, to the vast forestlands of New York, to the ancestral community of Chief Powhatan in Virginia and the Freedom Riders Trail in Alabama, we continue to build on Pat’s and Rich’s conservation legacy.

4 12 21 North Coast CA Ivan LaBianca14To date, we have protected over 750,000 acres of at-risk forestland, which store over 178,000,000 MTCO2. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Over the last three and a half decades, The Conservation Fund has become the most efficient and effective conservation organization in America. It has given me and nearly 200 other top professionals a platform to express our own visions for conservation. Every day we have the privilege of continuing this work, and as Pat and Rich formally retire this month, we at The Conservation Fund will carry their legacy forward. We are humbled by their courage and leadership and we are honored to follow in the footsteps of these two great Americans – the Genius and the General.

Thank you both, for everything.

Written by

Larry Selzer

Larry Selzer is President and CEO of The Conservation Fund. Appointed in 2001, he has led the Fund through significant growth while advancing its environmental and economic goals.