Recipient Biography

Patrick F. Noonan


Patrick F. Noonan (1943 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2005 "for his national leadership in pioneering and defining the role of nonprofit organizations in parks and conservation for over three decades, especially through his contributions as president of The Nature Conservancy, and in founding and serving as board chairman of both the American Farmland Trust and the Conservation Fund." 


During the past three decades, the role of foundations in the acquisition of land for parks and conservation purposes has shifted from a peripheral to a central one. Whereas three decades ago it was difficult to find examples of park and conservation agencies working with foundations, today it is atypical for agencies not to have experience working with them. Noonan led this shift in roles and in so doing made extraordinary contributions to the parks and conservation fields. 


Noonan is one of today's preeminent conservation leaders. His vision, commitment and hard work have helped protect the American landscape from the fertile valleys of the West to the working forests of the East, from the prairies of the Midwest to the rivers of the Southeast. Thanks to his leadership, future generations will have the benefit of more than six million protected acres of parks and wildlife refugees, community open space, riverside greenways, historic lands, and productive farms, ranches and woodlands. Laurance Rockefeller (Pugsley Medal 2004) stated:


Pat Noonan has spent his entire professional life vigourously pursuing the conservation of lands with biological, scenic, and historical importance. He has emerged as one of the most effective, even-handed leaders in today's conservation movement.


Noonan's early childhood was spent with weekends in the great outdoors on rural lands owned by his family in Maryland. He developed there a deep and abiding love for nature and respect for its beauty. Later he noted, "I had the privilege of transferring the land to the Maryland Parks and Planning Commission to create Little Bennett Regional Park. It was the most satisfying moment of my life, realizing that for all time generations would come to walk the land and experience firsthand the daily miracles of nature."


He graduated from Gettysburg College with a B.S. in business administration in 1965 and subsequently earned a MBA from American University and a M.S. from Catholic University of America in city and regional planning. Noonan started his career in the parks field as a planner with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Noonan had met the agency's director, Jack Hewitt (Pugsley Medal 1967) while negotiating the sale of his family's land. Hewitt hired him as a planning assistant working in parks planning and acquisition. A highlight of his tenure with the Commission was attending a two-day workship on how to secure federal funds for county parkland purchases. This meeting opened his eyes to the opportunity of leveraging multiple public funding sources to acquire parklands and marked the beginning of his life's work in creating public-private partnerships to acquire parks and open space.


After three years with the Commission, Noonan Joined the Nature Conservancy (TNC) as an intern. He became vice-president in 1970, and in 1973 at age 29 he was appointed president of the Nature Conservancy. TNC was growing rapidly with its assets increasing from $3 million in 1965 to $73 million when Noonan became president in 1973. Noonan sustained and accelerated this momentum and made an important strategic decision that guided TNC's future: "Discussion focused on what should be TNC?s place, its niche, in the land conservation ecosystem. Scenic beauty? Open space? It was decided that land protection based on science had been its strength and should continue to be."


Noonan pushed for TNC to decentralize and this proved to be a key factor in the organization's subsequent effectiveness. He initiated a long- range plan in 1974 which called upon TNC chapters to raise money to hire regional and state executive directors, a challenge they accepted enthusiastically.


Noonan popularized the preacquisition role of foundations when TNC protected 60,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina in 1975. At that time, this was the largest ever real estate transaction involving a private conservation group. Noonan worked with two large timber companies that owned the land and persuaded them that they would benefit more from the tax deductions and positive public relations which would accrue from donating the land, than they would from selling it to developers. This transaction launched TNC into the concept of protecting sizeable ecosystems, rather than obtaining unrelated, relatively small pieces of land, and this has characterized much of the organization's subsequent work. 


Noonan established the TNC culture of not taking vigorous public advocacy roles on key environmental issues, but rather achieving conservation goals by negotiating with potential business adversaries to develop win-win situations. TNC under Noonan developed widely recognized high levels of expertise in real estate transactions, taxation, and zoning regulations which affect conservation. This early demonstration of the potential role of nonprofits in conservation was subsequently the role model for many other non-profits that have subsequently emerged.


In 1980 Noonan joined a group of concerned conservation leaders and active farmers to found American Farmland Trust (AFT). First, as a member of the new organization's advisory council, then as board member for ten years including six as chairman, he worked to develop and pursue strategies to save the nation's best farm and ranch land, and to conserve open space, by protecting it from sprawling development. He built AFT into a national organization with numerous regional offices and in this role fostered the widespread use of such tools as the purchase of development rights and conservation easements. He expressed his aspirations for the AFT in these terms:


Nearly all farmland was carved from a wilderness of forests, wetlands and prairie. Biodiversity has declined in the wake of the plow. The greatest challenge facing us then and today is to create an agriculture that is in harmony with the environment. One that feeds us without harming other human and natural life support systems. One that is sustainable, both economically and ecologically.


Five years after forming AFT, Noonan moved on to establish The Conservation Fund (TCF) with its focus on partnerships, and environmental and economic balance. As founder, chairman and since 2003 chairman emeritus of TCF, he has led efforts to safeguard more than 3.5 million acres of America's special places. More than 250 corporations and 300 foundations help support the Fund. Again, he created a national conservation organization with a comprehensive network of regional offices. He has made a difference from the Aleutian Islands to the Chesapeake Bay. In Maryland alone, in his tenure at the Conservation Fund, the Fund completed more than 100 land deals, including the Chesapeake Forest acquisition in 1999 in which 76,000 acres were preserved on the Delmarva Peninsular. The Conservation Fund has conserved over 250,000 acres in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in the past two decades.


In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Noonan was a leader in orchestrating a sea change in the way conservation was viewed. He spoke of "a new brand of conservation for the 21st century" which brought together public and private partnerships that balance economic growth and good ecological science. He observed, "We've been trying to work at the intersection of those two powerful forces." The key to Noonan's success has been taking a market-based approach to big business. 


Through his broad experience in land conservation and belief in the importance of partnerships, Noonan has been an innovative leader in creating relationships among private landowners, nonprofit organizations, public agencies and business relationships that are necessary to protect our heritage now and in the future. He was one of the first to recognize the multiple values of agricultural land and why it was vital to protect the nation's working landscapes. Throughout his career, Noonan has demonstrated that economic and environmental goals are complementary. 


As an early and effective proponent of today's "smart growth" movement, he fostered awareness of the vital correlation between appropriate land use, community development, environmental protection and quality of life. For more than three decades and still today, Noonan has repeatedly demonstrated that one person with a passion for conservation can create a legacy of land that is a gift to all Americans now and for years to come.


Noonan received a five-year "genius" fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1985 for his pioneering work in fostering partnerships between business and the environmental community. In 1996, he co-authored a book with Henry Diamond, Land Use in America, which was widely read by policy makers and used in academic programs. It reviewed the history of land use in America and presented a blueprint for conserving the nation's land and water resources while meeting economic growth needs. It used a 10-point agenda to guide the use of land in 21st-century America. In the authors' words: "This book is a call to action. Its rallying cry is a new commitment to land stewardship, quality development, and environmental progress."


He has served on three Presidential Commissions -- the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (1985-1987); the President's Commission on Environmental Quality (1991-1993); and currently on the President's Commission on White House Fellows. The national Audubon Society recognized him as one of the 100 conservation leaders whose lives and work have shaped American conservation. He is a trustee of the National Geographic Society and vice chair of the National Geographic Education Foundation. He is currently a member of the Board of Visitors of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.