Richie Jones Bolsters His Family’s Environmental Legacy

A du Pont descendant finds his calling as executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware chapter.



Richie Jones has thrived as the executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy

Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Each week, Richie Jones returns to his rural Chester County roots with his three sons in tow. Today, though, he’s on his own. 

It’s the Friday after New Year’s, which also happens to be Jones’ 51st birthday. A single dad dressed casually in a blue-checked shirt, a dark sweater, corduroy pants and hiking boots, he loves bringing the boys—Harry, 8, Holcomb, 11, and Barron, 13—to the farm, a near-300-acre expanse in what was once the heart of the King Ranch territory. Upon arrival, the trio always runs right into the woods. “They don’t need anything artificial,” says their grandmother, Annie Jones, who has just returned from the stables after a ride.

It’s a typical way to start the day in the Brandywine Valley. “Our mom sent us out on our ponies into thousands of acres of territory,” says her son.

From the sunroom addition of her 1745 inn-turned-home, Annie offers me coffee in the morning and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. She’s set aside Richie’s birthday card, and she rejoices over her 10-month-old puppy’s recovery after a recent scare landed him in the vet’s office. 

Just like his parents, Jones has four  kids—the boys and a 21-year-old daughter, Lee Lee, who is a junior at the University of Delaware. Grandmom invented games for her kids, too. “Anything to keep them from  watching TV,” Annie says. 

A direct du Pont descendant, Annie Jones grew up at Oberod, one of the former family estates that dot the northern Delaware landscape. She and her spouse, the late Richard I.G. Jones, were instrumental in the preservation of thousands of the Brandywine Valley’s old King Ranch acres—and in influencing their oldest son. Trained as a lawyer, like his father, Richie lives in Wilmington, where he’s the executive director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the largest nongovernmental, nonpartisan environmental organization in the world. 

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, TNC-Delaware is leading the way in numerous efforts to protect water and land and combat climate change’s effect on sea levels. Other natural-investment projects include First State National Historical Park, land that encompasses 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.

The family farm in Coatesville says a lot about Richie’s midlife revival-, not to mention the principles of protecting land and what essentials it harbors. The legendary Texas-based King Ranch was never able to secure the 86-acre tract from the Elvin family. The Joneses managed to do so in 1966, moving from Wilmington. 

A rumored witch, Ms. Elvin was crippled and childless. She refused electricity and indoor plumbing, and is said to have died of gangrene. “That speaks to the transformation that occurred out here,” says Richie. “In 1966, it was rural, and it was radical of us to move to what was considered the outer edge, but the family was into horses and foxhunting.” 

Leaving his friends behind, Richie saw the move as a disadvantage at first. He had an extreme change of heart as he got older.

Annie and her children purchased the adjoining 160 acres her mother, heralded equestrian Jane du Pont Lunger, owned and eased in the ranch division. Later, they bought another 40. The collective easement for old ranch lands was divided among 20 landowners in 1984. And it has endured since. 

“It was rather important to have grown up here,” Richie says. 

“I enjoyed being out in the woods, or playing in a stream. There used to be a barn, and I put up a hammock and would be inside listening to the rain hit the roof. It all became ingrained in my soul.”

 

In the early 1900s, Lammot du Pont bought up some 4,241 acres in Chester County, assembling what became Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms, named for the two critical feeds of the Brandywine Creek that snake through the property. He fell in love with the expanse, grazing his prizewinning Hereford cattle there.

As a visionary in the face of urbanization and industrialization, du Pont also knew that the land’s resources were vital as the source of Wilmington’s drinking water. He 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,” says a longtime insider.

King Ranch’s Bob Kleberg arrived in the mid-1940s with his signature red Santa Gertrudis cattle, setting up an East Coast headquarters. After Kleberg’s death in 1974, and with shrinking profit margins, King Ranch retreated to Texas. Large chunks of its acreage were sold privately to conservation-minded preservationists with private capital. For what remained, rumors of a northern Walt Disney expansion swirled. That, or a nuclear power plant. Developers lined up.

Then a group of landowners stepped forward, including the Jones family. With the Brandywine Conservancy’s guidance, they divided and sold the properties to 20 like-minded local investors. Collectively, they were known as the Buck and Doe  Associates Limited Partnership, which met a $13 million price tag and established the joint easement in 1984. The move saved 4,596 acres and the 771-acre Laurels Preserve. These “fortuitous events,” says Richie Jones, kept large chunks of land private and protected. 

In the meantime,  Nancy Penn Smith Hannum—lady master of the Cheshire Hunt for 50 years—was quite selective about selling off the adjacent land passed on by her stepfather, W. Plunket Stewart. “She set the rules,” says Jones’ mother. 

The result: Large landowners remained on the same page—loyal and friendly. “That’s why it’s what it is today,” Jones says. “It’s why we’re so blessed. My dad used to say that you could fly into Philadelphia at night and see this black area—this area that wasn’t lit up.”

He remembers the ranch days. As kids, on their ponies, their mother would take them “three hills over” when the boxcars came to transport the cattle from the weigh stations. Today, there’s a bison farm there. Even the railroad tracks are gone. 

“We thought we were driving the cattle,” Jones recalls. “We were just riding aside.” 

“This is what gave Richie the foundation for his job, and now he has the experience and the commitment,” his mother adds. “It’s grown into him—or it’s grown to mean more and more to him.”

Jones sees it as “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, Joens helped form the Young Friends of the Brandywine, and he credits Frolic Weymouth, a second cousin once removed, for keeping up interest among the next generation. By the early 1990s, the Friends had run a $1 million capital campaign and become another viable local environmental entity. Then Jones served on the Brandywine Conservancy’s board for two terms and is still on its environmental committee. And until he started with TNC, was on the board of the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County.

Jones insists that his latest work circles back to that of Lammot du Pont, along with Weymouth and his other du Pont cousins and conservationists who, in 1967, saved the old mill property that now holds both the conservancy and the Brandywine River Museum of Art. He calls all of these things “touch points” in the region’s conservation story.

 

In 1951, The Nature Conservancy was launched by scientists in New York’s Hudson River Valley. 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. With $6 billion in assets and a $600 million annual budget, the Arlington, Va.-based group has one million members and 1,300 trustees.

For years, its motto was “Quietly Protecting the Last of the Great Places.” But, like TNC president Mark Tercek suggests, “Why should we be quiet?” This 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 its capital isn’t exhaustible. “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 sound monetary metrics that can assign value to natural resources. A former investment banker and partner at Goldman Sachs, Tercek 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 the same capitalistic forces that damage nature be used to protect it? Last May, The New Yorker explored the unique partnership between TNC and Dow Chemical Company, which invested $10 million. JPMorgan Chase & Co., for its part, has put in $5 million. At TNC headquarters, a plaque thanks DuPont, among other corporate friends like Dow, JPMorgan and Coca-Cola. DuPont, which co-owns Pioneer seed company, is funding a major TNC project that focuses on two watersheds in the upper Mississippi River, where row-crop agriculture dominates land use.

But not all strict veteran scientists 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. And it might just squeeze out the conservationists, biologists and environmentalists who’ve 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 admits. “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.”

Jones is, of course, a du Pont. And how much damage did those family plants do to the region’s waterways for generations? He won’t give much of an opinion on that. Instead, he offers this: “Human progress comes at a price, and we are where we are. I don’t want to disparage my predecessors. America is an enterprising, capitalistic society—that’s a reality. What’s cool is that TNC deals in what’s realistic and looks for pragmatic common interests. You can argue that people want to make money, but at the end of the day we want to work with the powers-that-be to find solutions. You don’t get far pointing fingers. We say, ‘What’s the common ground? Let’s move forward.’”

Jones’ dad’s life was cut short by a brain tumor in 2007. He was 69. A Wilmington attorney, an avid polo player, a community leader and a Quaker, he bought and sold thoroughbred horses with his brother, Russell, a recent joint master of the Cheshire Hunt.

His father’s mother was a Pyle, the famous Brandywine artist family. In the 1970s Carol Pyle Jones Fry won the American Watercolor Society’s gold medal. Otherwise, his paternal side spanned nine generations of Quaker dairy farmers from Westtown. His dad grew up milking cows.

The du Pont side is avidly equestrian. Jane du Pont Lunger, Jones’ maternal grandmother, broke her leg at the Breeders’ Cup in 1990 in Belmont, N.Y.—but not before winning the prestigious Eclipse Award, the year before. The trophy sits on the tavern table in the sunroom at the farm. Annie’s parents established Christiana Stables in 1937, an era when the national competition included the stables at William and Jean du Pont’s Liseter Hall (later Foxcatcher) Farm in Newtown Square.

Richie attended what’s now the Tower Hill School, outside a brief stint at a Massachusetts boarding school. He was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, then attended Widener Law.

Before joining TNC-Delaware, he spent 18 years practicing corporate litigation, most recently at the Wilmington firm of Ashby & Geddes, where he became a partner. That gave him a keen understanding of corporate America, But he’d also been involved in the organization and management of environmental nongovernmental organizations. The Nature Conservancy job marks a convergence of professional skills and personal interests.

When his father took ill and began losing communication skills just months before his death, Jones had an exchange in the farm’s library that set him free. He asked his dad 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. “I didn’t want to end up saying I wish I’d done something else. It was a form of permission to pursue something different.”

Still, it took time to figure that out. He went on sabbatical from the firm, working as an independent screenwriter. He even hired a consultant and joined a writers’ group in Philadelphia. Then it was back to Ashby & Geddes. 

Nine months later, The Nature Conservancy job crossed his desk. He started there in March 2012.

 

While Delaware has the smallest Nature Conservancy unit, Pennsylvania has one of the largest. TNC-Pennsylvania director Bill Kunze grew up in Paoli “loving nature.”At 13, trips with his Tredyffrin/Easttown Junior High School classmates to Hawk Mountain and what’s now the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the Jersey Shore fueled a passion for birds. In the summers, he’d leave the house in the morning and not come back until dinner.

A Conestoga High School alum who went to Yale University, Kunze returned to the region in 2005 from a job with the FCC to take his current position. It was his answer to a midlife crisis. “I made myself a deal that I’d find something to do with the second half of my life that connected to what I really cared about,” he says.

While TNC-PA’s main office is in Harrisburg, its staff is scattered around the state. Kunze’s Conshohocken office is the Philadelphia-area base. From there, as in Delaware, he shares five focused initiatives from a 2012 TNC national initiative to align all state units, chiefly securing healthy water for people and nature, protecting land, offering climate-control and coastal-resilience strategies, working with sustainable fisheries and marine spatial planning, and generally engaging people in nature.

TNC-PA focuses on basin-scale programs for all three major regional river basins and works closely with the City of Philadelphia on storm-water control. It’s something Philadelphia excels at—even utilizing vacant lands to control runoff with TNC’s help. 

While there aren’t any TNC-PA projects specific to our area, there is a trickle-down effect. “The Main Line is well served by other excellent local and regional conservation organizations,” says Kunze, who lives in Penn Valley. “TNC’s focus is larger-scale projects no one else can do. We look at the entire Delaware River Basin, or the entire tree canopy of a region. But we collaborate with these other groups all the time and help build up similar groups around the state where they’re not as established.”

The William Penn Foundation invested $35 million last year into a Delaware River watershed initiative that aims to improve water quality in eight major tributaries to the Delaware River. The tri-state’s TNC chapters are involved. Because of Jones’ background in Chester County and his previous association with conservation groups here, it made sense for him to take the lead for TNC in the cross-border work in the Brandywine-Christina watershed, which received $2.5 million of the total.

Locally, Stroud Water Research Center, the Brandywine Conservancy, the Brandywine Valley Association (Jones’ grand-father was a founder), Natural Lands Trust and UD’s Water Resources Agency are also conducting targeted conservation in the Brandywine-Christina watershed, which includes the Red and White Clay creeks. 

The foundation figures there’s a 10-year completion window. In theory, that could equate to a $350 million commitment to Delaware River watershed.

Specifically, TNC-Delaware and UD were awarded a $140,000 grant to study the feasibility of creating the Brandywine-Christina Healthy Water Fund, essentially a sustainable business model 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. At its most basic level, it’s a financing mechanism that facilitates investments in upstream conservation measures by downstream beneficiaries of fresh water. “It’s a business proposition,” says Jones. “The lowest cost solution to water pollution turns out to be conservation.”

Perhaps most crucial to the conversation has been Jones’ ability to capitalize on his understanding of how the city and countryside are connected. “In the old days, conservation was done where the people weren’t,” says Kunze. “But Richie is an articulate spokesperson for the idea that we’re all connected.”

To learn more, visit www.nature.org.

Edit ModuleShow Tags