Recipient Biography

Richard J. Dolesh


For nearly five decades, Richard J. Dolesh has worked tirelessly for the cause of parks and conservation at the local, state, and national levels. As a devoted public servant and an advocate for conservation, Rich communicates a deeper understanding of issues and challenges that have far-reaching implications for professionals in the field, for communities, and for the nation. His extensive industry knowledge as well as his many contributions to the profession of parks and recreation are measured by the many ways he has shown leadership and through his personal and professional commitments to the cause of conservation that he has championed throughout the years.

After graduating from Saint Louis University, Missouri, with a BA in English in 1971, Rich accepted a position teaching junior high school in Piscataway, Maryland. In 1972, Rich began a part-time job with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) at the Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He fell in love with “the River” and its marshes, fields, woods, wildlife and people, and he became a natural at teaching visitors about the area’s natural resources and cultural history. The following year he resigned from his position as teacher to take a full-time position with MNCPPC as a park naturalist.

During his early career as a park naturalist and subsequently as director of Patuxent River Park, Rich devised new approaches to conservation and new ways to preserve and create wildlife habitat. He established bluebird “trails” in parks and on public lands, planted wildlife habitat plots, and was responsible for helping to bring ospreys back to the upper Patuxent River by construction of nest towers in the marshes of Jug Bay. Where there were no ospreys on this 20-mile stretch of the river in the 1970s, there are now more than 60 pairs that raise more than 200 young annually.

Rich has been an unwavering advocate for parks and conservation throughout his career, beginning with 28 years of employment with MNCPPC, through nearly three years with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and now, for more than 16 years with the National Recreation and Park Association.

During his tenure as the director of the Forest, Wildlife, and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources from 1999-2002, Rich was involved with the acquisition and management of 54,000 acres of forest lands sold to the state of Maryland by the Chesapeake Forest Products company. This unique collection of working forests, which contained 11,000 acres of natural wetlands and swamps, was an extraordinarily valuable natural resource asset for the State of Maryland. However, the plan to manage the forests for timber production and to allow hunting on all properties was not without controversy. Rich represented DNR’s philosophy of multiple-use management to the environmental, hunting, and conservation communities, earning praise for his ability to bring consensus for the management objectives from all parties.

In June 2002, Rich joined NRPA as a senior policy associate in the office of Public Policy, where he served until his promotion to chief of public policy in 2008. His principal duties as a senior policy associate, and then chief of public policy, included advocating for conservation and parks and other important legislative priorities of NRPA. He mobilized NRPA members in support of full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and worked on passage of national transportation, community development, and health bills. He coordinated NRPA’s annual Legislative Forums and facilitated the annual meetings of the urban directors. When Rich was appointed as vice president of conservation and parks in 2012, his primary responsibilities shifted from policy and legislative affairs to action-oriented projects. He served as a staff resource to the Children and Nature Forum convened by The Conservation Fund and participated on a steering committee for development of national guidelines for children and nature play.

Rich led NRPA’s participation in a highly successful partnership with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) called Ten Million Kids Outdoors. The ambitious goal of this initiative, to connect 10 million kids to nature and the outdoors over a three-year period, was not only accomplished but significantly exceeded.

During Rich’s tenure as vice president of conservation and parks, he continued to forge strategic partnerships and develop new initiatives and innovative approaches to parks, recreation and conservation. Some highlights are Rich’s efforts to work on pollinator conservation in partnership with national organizations such as Monarch Watch, Monarch Joint Venture, and the Pollinator Partnership. He worked with the American Planning Association (APA) to create the nationwide Great Urban Parks Campaign. The Great Urban Parks Campaign enabled NRPA to successfully gain major grant funding for green infrastructure storm water management to benefit under-served communities in urban localities. The initial project was instrumental in NRPA developing a training program for park and recreation professionals in the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program of the Water Environment Federation. In 2017, Rich was named NRPA’s vice president of strategic initiatives. He continues to seek innovative methods by which NRPA members and the public can meet the greatest challenges that park agencies and the communities they serve face today and will face in the future. These include analysis of the impact of private funding on public parks, the impacts of a changing climate on parks and conservation, the need to create more resilient parks and communities, and the ongoing needs to conserve habitat and natural resources in an ever-developing world.

Throughout his career, Rich has been a prolific writer. In his parks career, he wrote articles in National Geographic Magazine and The Washington Post, among other publications. Since 2012, Rich has contributed no less than 74 feature articles to NRPA’s award-winning publication, Parks & Recreation Magazine. As a thought leader, he has led numerous conference education sessions, webinars, podcasts, and presentations for other professional associations and national organizations. His articles, blog posts, and podcasts are often the most read and listened to of the year, and his annual analysis of the “Top Trends in Parks and Recreation” ranks as the most read article each year in Parks & Recreation Magazine.

Rich’s encyclopedic knowledge and his passion for parks, recreation, and conservation make him a one-of-a-kind voice in his dedication to the cause of parks and conservation in America.