Reformed corporate lawyer Richie Jones recently left the courtroom behind to follow a passion for protecting the environment and promoting preservation of open land. As Delaware State Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Jones now leads the work of a national organization with a very local mission: partnering with Delaware businesses, government and environmental groups to keep our state’s beautiful wild spaces healthy and available for future generations. TSD connected with Jones on the trails to find out more about his new career path and TNC’s priorities in the First State.
Town Square Delaware: Last year, as State Director for The Nature Conservancy, you joined with many other local environmental leaders in authoring a piece in the News Journal supporting the idea of a national park along the Brandywine River (in addition to submitting your own letter to the editor, which we republished here). Do you foresee more of that kind of collaboration and communication in the future?
Richie Jones: Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons the creation of Delaware’s first national park is so exciting. It’s a catalyst for collaboration. It’s also an unprecedented opportunity for the environmental conservation community to connect Delawareans with nature and help them understand the vital role nature plays in their lives. The Woodlawn property has everything from springs and wetlands that help the Brandywine supply drinking water to Wilmington and much of New Castle County, to floodplains that help reduce downstream flooding, to agricultural fields capable of supplying food to our communities, to mountain biking, hiking and riding trails that help people stay healthy, both mentally and physically. We’re in the process of building a diverse coalition of non-profits – not only environmental ones – to figure out how we might combine forces to realize the full potential of the national park.
TSD: Along those lines, Delaware is a small state and there are certainly a lot of non-profits doing great work in many areas including environmental conservation, but with so many groups involved in similar mission, isn’t there an opportunity for some consolidation to bring critical mass and greater focus to these efforts?
RJ: Over the course of my first year at the Nature Conservancy, I’ve really gained perspective on the ways each conservation group contributes to the whole. Everybody has their niche, and I think there is a conscious effort to minimize overlap. For example, The Nature Conservancy is tackling conservation on a large-scale, coordinating our efforts with neighboring chapters, taking on the entire Delaware River and Bay or the entire Mid-Atlantic Seascape, restoring and improving broad swaths of bird and fish habitat, flood plains, headwaters, coastal marshes etc., addressing big issues like sea-level rise adaptation and coastal resiliency. But we can only achieve our goals with the help of partners. So again, collaboration is mission-critical.
TSD: How does a corporate lawyer end up leading an environmental organization?
RJ: I get asked that a lot, of course. I credit Frolic Weymouth and the Brandywine Conservancy with kindling my passion for environmental conservation. My family’s farm is in the middle of what once was the King Ranch out in Unionville. If Frolic and his team hadn’t shown the landowners like my dad how to use conservation easements to preserve that beautiful country, who knows what it would be like today. I’ve been active with the Brandywine Conservancy for more than 20 years, and that’s where I picked up my conservation knowledge and skills. My work as a corporate litigator gave me a whole other set of skills that translate very well to my current job. Blaine Philips, one of best friends and confidants, set an example for me by working for environmental groups right out of law school. And The Nature Conservancy deserves credit too. It turns out we hire about 40% of our senior managers from outside the organization. Case in point: our CEO, Mark Tercek, is a retired Goldman Sachs partner.
TSD: What are your key goals for The Nature Conservancy in the coming years?
RJ: We’re going to be tackling many of the same big issues in Delaware that TNC is taking on around the world. Adapting to a changing climate – sea-level rise, increased flooding, coastal resiliency – is probably the biggest issue for us, since so much of our land abuts the ocean and bay. We’re also looking at ways to lessen the impact cities are having on the environment, particularly rivers. Another big area for us is broadening the constituency for conservation. If we’re going to save the natural systems that provide life-support to people, we need to help more people understand and care about how important nature is to their survival. We think projects like the national park can help with that.
TSD: How does the Delaware chapter of TNC work with the national organization? How do you carve out a mission that is specific and relevant to Delaware?
RJ: TNC is an amazing organization. We have some of the top scientific minds in the world charting the course toward solving the most pressing challenges facing our planet. And we’re very good at bringing that science down to the ground. One of the ways we do that it by working across state lines. For example, the Delaware Chapter works in lockstep with science and conservation staff from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the Delaware River and Bay, so when we’re restoring migratory bird or fish habitat in the Delaware Bayshore region, we know that our friends in New Jersey are employing the same techniques. And when we learn something that works particularly well in one area, you can bet we’ll be trying it out in other places, which increases our effectiveness. Working pragmatically and non-confrontationally with governments and corporations to bring about big policy changes is another of our hallmarks. Of course, you can get things done in Delaware more easily than almost any other state, and we have great state agencies like DNREC and the Department of Agriculture as partners, which means we can sometimes lead the larger organization. That’s when things gets really exciting.
TSD: What does Richie Jones enjoy doing for fun?
I like to be outside. I spend a lot of my free time playing with my kids in nature, most often on my mother’s farm in Pennsylvania. I also love mountain biking and trail running at places like Woodlawn and White Clay. Fly fishing is another of my favorites. Years ago, a few of my friends and I stocked some secret honey holes with trout and now they’re reproducing in the wild. Of course, if I told you where they were, well, you know…