Protecting Nature With Retail Environmentalism

A du Pont descendant wants to save our water and land in a novel way that just may work—something called retail environmentalism.

Photograph by Tessa Smucker. Richie Jones of Wilmington is executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Nearly every Sunday, Richie Jones returns to his rural roots. He typically has his three sons—Barron, 13; Holcomb, 11; and Harry, 8—in tow. As a single dad, one of his most gratifying weekly endeavors is to bring the boys to the farm, an almost 300-acre expanse in what was once the heart of a cattle operation owned by the Texas-based King Ranch. Upon arrival, the boys run into the woods. “They don’t need anything artificial,” says Annie Jones, their grandmother, from her 1745 inn-turned-home in Chester County, Pa. “Our mom sent us on our ponies into thousands of acres of territory,” says Richie, who also has a daughter, Lee Lee, 21, a junior at the University of Delaware. As kids, every day was an adventure, searching inside the house, “a living antique,” Richie says—and outside it. “It all became ingrained in my soul.” A direct du Pont descendant, Annie grew up at Oberod, one of the prominent former family chateau-style estates that dot the Northern Delaware landscape. She and her husband, the late Richard I.G. Jones, were instrumental in the landmark preservation of thousands of Brandywine Valley King Ranch acres—and in influencing their oldest son.

Trained as a lawyer, like his father, Richie, 51, who lives in Wilmington, is the executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the largest nongovernmental, nonpartisan environmental organization in the world. As such, Jones has become one of nature’s great protectors. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, TNC-Delaware is leading the way in numerous efforts to protect water and land, to combat climate change’s effect on sea-level rise and other natureinvestment projects like the First State National Historical Park that includes the 1,100-acre Woodlawn property near Brandywine Creek State Park. Since 1989, TNC efforts in the First State have resulted in the conservation of more than 30,000 acres. “Delaware used to be a state slow to adopt new ideas from TNC’s perspective,” says Dawn Rittenhouse, the DuPont Company’s director of sustainable development, who joined TNC-Delaware’s board with Jones in 2012. “Now Richie is viewed as one of the leaders. He’s clearly passionate about the area. He tells the story well, and isn’t overbearing when he’s out there talking to people. He was clearly raised in a way that he values all of this. He did his corporate litigation while still involved in conservation groups that were always a part of him, but now he’s turned a corner and said, ‘Now this is all of what I’m doing.’”

Photograph by Tessa Smucker    Richie Jones of Wilmington is executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Photograph by Tessa Smucker. Richie Jones of Wilmington is executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

When Jones was growing up, his mother took him and his three siblings on their ponies “three hills over” when boxcars would transport the signature red Santa Gertrudis cattle from the weigh stations. “We thought we were driving the cattle,” Jones says. “We were just riding aside.” Annie Jones says, “This is what gave Richie the foundation for his job, and now he has the experience and the commitment [as well]. It’s grown into him, or it’s grown to mean more and more to him.” Richie Jones calls it “the innate power of nature, and the hold it has over people —a unique phenomenon. You can’t help but respond to it.” In the late 1980s, he helped form the Young Friends of the Brandywine and credits Frolic Weymouth, a second cousin once removed, for keeping interest up among the next generation. Then Jones served on the Brandywine Conservancy’s board for two terms and is still on its environmental committee. He served on the board of The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County until he started with TNC. Jones’ work today, he insists, circles back to Lammont du Pont, Weymouth and his other du Pont cousins and conservationists who, in 1967, saved the old mill property that now headquarters the conservancy and the Brandywine River Museum, all of what Jones calls “touch points” in the story of the region’s conservation record.Jones remembers the ranch days on land that Lammont du Pont bought—some 4,241 acres—in the early 1900s, assembling what became Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms, named for the two critical runs to the Brandywine River. Du Pont, a visionary in the face of urbanization and industrialization, knew the land’s water resources were vital as the source of Wilmington’s drinking water. He also knew then what others assert today: Those who control the water will eventually control everything. “You can look at [his vision] as charitable or uncharitable,” a longtime insider says. After a local presence from the 1940s to the 1970s, King Ranch retreated to Texas, leaving the land in jeopardy. A group of local landowners stepped forward—the Joneses among three parties initially and then part of the larger group—and, with the help of the Brandywine Conservancy, a land-use advocacy group, divided and sold the properties to 20 like-minded investors. Called the Buck and Doe Associates Limited Partnership, it met a $13 million price tag and established a landmark joint easement in 1984. The move saved 4,596 acres and the 771-acre Laurels Preserve.

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TNC was launched by scientists in 1951 in the Hudson River Valley of New York. With 50 state units and a presence in 35 countries, the mega nonprofit is responsible for protecting nearly 120 million acres and 5,000 miles of river worldwide from its Arlington, Va., headquarters. With $6 billion in assets and a $600 million annual budget, TNC has one million members and 1,300 trustees. For years, its motto was “quietly protecting the last of the great places.” Like TNC president and CEO Mark Tercek suggests, and Jones agrees, “Why should we be quiet?” The recent overt approach has hinged on aligning economic sense with conservation concerns as espoused in Tercek’s book “Nature’s Fortune.” Nature has a value to business— and nature’s capital isn’t inexhaustible. “I don’t have to agree, but I do,” says Jones. “Can we commoditize nature? For people to value something in this day and age, there has to be a value assigned.” The proof will be in creating tools, sound metrics, that can assign monetary value to natural resources. Tercek, a former investment banker and partner at Goldman Sachs, wants to harness the power of the markets.

Call it retail environmentalism— coaching, maybe even coaxing, industry and individuals to be environmentally and economically minded consumers. Can a chemical plant—say DuPont—save money by investing in environmental reform? According to The New Yorker, Tercek told Dow Chemical, “The old model would be, ‘We’re doing it for conservation’s sake.’ The new approach would be, ‘No, no, we’re doing this for business’ sake, and we get the conservation, too.’” He’s asked: Can the same capitalistic forces that damage nature be used to protect it? Last May, the magazine explored the unique partnership between TNC and Dow. For its part, Dow has invested $10 million. Others like J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Have invested $5 million. At TNC headquarters, a lobby plaque thanks DuPont among other corporate friends like Dow, J.P. Morgan and Coca-Cola. DuPont, which co-owns Pioneer Seed Co., is funding a major TNC project that focuses on two watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River, where row-crop agriculture dominates land use. That’s thanks to an arranged meeting between Jim Borel, a DuPont executive with expertise in global food security, and Tercek at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Switzerland. DuPont has engaged with TNC-Delaware on small projects—for example, a Clear into the Future grant is supporting the installation of a state-of-the-art rain garden at Brandywine State Creek Park.

The DuPont-Pioneer commitment in the Boone River in Iowa and the Mackinaw River in Illinois is a $250,000 investment. DuPont’s practice of donating to the organization of choice of former CEOs when they die has also benefitted TNC. Dick Heckert, who died in 2010, chose TNC. That $1 million donation was split between TNC-Delaware, TNC-Wyoming (where he retired and was on the chapter’s board) and TNC’s national organization. “We’re not Dow or J.P. Morgan, no nothing in that category,” says Rittenhouse, calling their partnerships “showcase” initiatives. “So far, we have not taken that step, but we clearly continue to engage with the national office and are interested if there are good places for [DuPont] to be involved. There’s some activity in Brazil; it does not have to be in Delaware.” Though sitting on the TNC-Delaware board is Rittenhouse’s own interest, no doubt she’s also fostering relations between the company and the nonprofit. “I’m hopeful that we can work with DuPont [locally] since it’s heavily involved with agriculture and food security,” says Jones. “It’s easy to blame evil corporations, but corporations are really run by people with consciences. TNC and DuPont are continuing to explore ways to translate the value of nature to DuPont’s bottom line.” Rittenhouse remains intrigued with creating an economic model that encourages conservation.

“TNC is very creative in how it can put players together who naturally do not come together,” she says. “It can do the work, create pilots and demonstrate it makes economic sense. It has potential.” But not all strict, veteran scientists— the purists—are buying what the new-school conservationists are selling. The old school says you can’t, and shouldn’t, put a price on nature, or even on doing what’s right. Also, it might just squeeze out the middlemen, the conservationists, biologists and environmentalists who have long waged the war. They want less corporate influence and sponsorship, less Wall Street comparisons and more old-fashioned biodiversity—conservation for nature’s value, not man’s. “They’re the old guard,” Jones says of the dissenters. “If you have especially and effectively espoused one thing your entire career and someone comes along with a new theory at the end of your career, it’s threatening to your legacy. You want to protect that legacy—your life’s work—and it’s been extremely important and great work.” TNC-Delaware secured Peter Kareiva, TNC’s chief scientist, for a TED Talk in mid-March at Winterthur as part of the local unit’s 25th anniversary celebration. Kareiva, joined by DuPont’s Borel and Dogfish Head founder and environmentally-minded philanthropist Sam Calagione, has “intentionally pushed the discourse (and resulting controversy) the distance,” Jones says, but he’s also a leading conservationist scientist. TNC has approximately 500 staff scientists.

In 2007, Jones’ father died at age 69. He had a brain tumor. A Wilmington attorney, an avid polo player, community leader and a Quaker, he bought and sold thoroughbred horses with his brother, Russell. Jones attended Tower Hill, then Wilmington Friends School, outside a brief stint in a Massachusetts boarding school. He was an undergraduate at UD, then attended Widener School of Law. Before joining TNC-Delaware, he spent 18 years practicing corporate litigation, most recently at the Wilmington law firm of Ashby & Geddes, where he became a partner. Just months before his father’s death, Jones had an exchange with him in the farm’s library that set him free. He asked his father if he ever wanted to leave his law profession behind. He did, but said he could never “get off the treadmill.” “That one sentence told me everything I needed to know,” Jones says. “It told me that I didn’t want to end up saying I wish I had done something else. It was a form of permission to pursue something different.” It took time to figure it out. He took a sabbatical from the firm and worked as an independent screenwriter. Jones pledges he’ll return to that some day, but it was back to Ashby & Geddes. Nine months later, the TNC job crossed his desk.

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In 2012, TNC’s national push was for its state units to align its focus to five areas: securing fresh water, protecting land, climate control and coastal resilience strategy, sustainable fisheries and marine spatial planning, and engaging people in nature. “Protecting land is no longer enough,” Jones says, not with population explosion and climate change, which manifests itself the most in Delaware in sea level rises. As the lowest lying state in the country, there’s reason for concern. One of just three states on a peninsula, the First State is nestled between two of the most valuable estuaries in the country, the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay—but one-third of its landmass is covered by wetlands; 20 percent lies within the 500-year floodplain. “Delaware could get hit the hardest,” Jones surmises. Unfiltered, the Brandywine and Christina rivers do not meet clean water requirements due to legacy pollutants, nutrient overloads, failing septic systems and urban runoff. You can’t even safely fish or swim in them. Since 60 percent of all of Delaware’s residents depend on that watershed for its water, the question is obvious: What do we do? The William Penn Foundation invested $35 million last year in a Delaware River watershed initiative that aims to improve water quality in eight major tributaries of the Delaware River.

The foundation figures there’s a 10-year completion window, so, in theory, that could equate to a $350 million commitment. Specifically, TNC Delaware and UD were awarded a one-year grant of $140,000 to study the feasibility of creating the Brandywine-Christina Healthy Water Fund. It would implement a sustainable business-model “fund” for the 565-square-mile watershed. Guided by science-based investment protocol, the goal is to restore the watershed to fishable, swimmable and potable status by 2025. TNC-Delaware is evaluating the potential to layer into the fund investments by municipalities that are obligated to meet stormwater regulations. TNC is also studying the potential to attract “impact investors”—those willing to sacrifice some upside return for a defined social benefit. Through this so-called “capital stacking”—investments by various classes of stakeholders—each class of investor can gain leverage from other investor classes. “It’s a business proposition,” Jones says. “The lowest cost solution to water pollution turns out to be conservation.” The first investor is the foundation. The second potential investors are water purveyors, Wilmington and Newark. Jones says TNC can save both cities money. “Surface water is their business,” he says.

At some point, since addressing water quality and quantity often requires public funding, the public ultimately has to buy in. And there is a significant public-engagement piece. Eighty percent of Americans live in cities—places that exert a greater demand on natural resources, but also where residents are farther removed from nature and less appreciative of it. How do you get them to value nature? “How many in Wilmington know where their water comes from?” he poses. “It’s one of our biggest challenges.” TNC-Delaware’s involvement in establishing the state’s first national park two miles outside of Wilmington is a good example of bridging the gap. It was proclaimed by National Park Service director Jon Jarvis as the national park of the future, a site unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, because it’s closer to an urban center, one that closes the divide between urban and suburban constituents. Jones says he gets really excited thinking of the burgeoning nature investment model. “That’s the Holy Grail,” he says. “But we’re starting to think about it. It all goes back to Lammont du Pont buying up all that land. It goes back to Frolic [Weymouth], who convinced young people like my parents to get involved. Now, those days are gone, and we have to go to the markets to hit the scale we need to hit.”

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