In this Q&A we hear from Theresa Pierno, the new president and chief executive officer of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Theresa is the first woman to serve as NPCA’s president in its 96-year history. Here, she shares her thoughts on the state of America’s national parks, her career in conservation, and the women leaders who inspire her.
What is the biggest challenge national parks face?
We must make sure that we have more people—diverse communities, younger people—connecting with nature and understanding that national parks play a primary role in the foundation of our democracy and the future of our environment. Protecting parks is about protecting both of these things that are so near and dear to all of us.
If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this challenge, what would it be?
The funding shortfall is one critical obstacle. Funding has a huge impact on the ability to reach new people. Obviously, if you’re cutting interpretive programs and ranger-led activities and opportunities for teachers and students to connect in parks, you’re making it more difficult to engage that younger generation. Bringing in more people, including more diverse rangers and staff, is essential for visitors to be able to relate to and appreciate these places.
What are you most proud of in your work?
My proudest accomplishment is expanding NPCA’s vision of the core role that national parks play in the health of larger landscapes. For example, we didn’t have much of a water program when I started, but to protect parks and see them thrive, we have to look at the water that runs through them, as well as the air and the wildlife—the larger issues that connect these ecosystems. I established things like the Great Waters Coalition to help people work across different teams to solve these larger problems that impact parks.
What do you think is the most important quality to being an effective leader?
Being able to listen well, communicate ideas effectively, and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Surrounding yourself with terrific people helps, too—including people who tell you things you don’t always want to hear. I’ve had a lot to do with shifting the culture of NPCA—by hiring diverse employees and really empowering our staff to be able to manage their programs and set their own agendas while working together as a team.
What woman environmentalist inspires you/your work? Why?
Many women inspire me, though we might not think of all of them as environmentalists. Maya Angelou, for example, gets the connection between nature and people, but is she an environmentalist?
A more traditional example is Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She led a huge effort to reclaim the Everglades—to save what was left and get people to care about it when so many people just thought it was a swamp. She worked at a time when there was a lot less science supporting why this kind of conservation is so important, but she slogged through piece by piece, defending the park and being a strong voice when it was not easy.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is another woman who inspires me. She’s managed to do a great deal to advance clean air and water issues in a very difficult time while maintaining the integrity of the agency. Her leadership has been powerful.
Theresa Pierno is President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. She joined NPCA in 2004 after a distinguished career in public service and natural resource protection, and has helped to solidify the organization’s role as the voice of America’s national parks. Read NPCA’s press release on Theresa to learn more.