His next challenge: New York. In January, 2009, Bill began work as the state director of The Nature Conservancy in New York. As he prepares to lead the state to new heights in domestic and international conservation success, he’s also preparing, along with his wife and five year-old daughter, to become full-time New Yorkers.
Nature.org recently caught up with Bill to hear his thoughts about conservation in times of economic crisis, international conservation and his adventures in transitioning from Denver to New York City.
"I have been tremendously impressed with the leadership and willingness of staff across the state to look for ways to make a lasting difference in New York, the Northeast and around the world."
Bill Ulfelder, director of The Nature Conservancy in New York
The Conservancy has a long history in New York – more than half a century. Maybe it’s hard to tell where the next 50 years will take us, but do you have any early thoughts or goals for the New York program?
The number one priority of The Nature Conservancy in New York right now is to develop an ambitious conservation vision with clear priorities and goals in concert with a totally focused, stream-lined team that makes the most efficient use of our precious resources in these economically challenging times.
The depth of the economic crisis compels us to be as efficient as possible in the use of our resources, both financial and human, towards the fulfillment of our mission. I have been tremendously impressed with the leadership and willingness of staff across the state to look for ways to make a lasting difference in New York, the Northeast and around the world.
I am confident that we will emerge from these financially troubling times to complete globally important projects in the Appalachian and Allegheny forests, the Great Lakes, the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, and along the more than 1,500 miles of coast and marine waters around Long Island. We must also work with private and public partners to address the challenges that global climate change poses to New York and the world.
How do you think your history and international experience will influence your leadership in New York?
New York City is the most cosmopolitan and globally-aware city in the world. There’s no place like it. We have the opportunity to produce great conservation results in New York and, at the same time, support the work of the Conservancy and its partners around the world.
We will raise critical resources for important projects worldwide in New York thanks to its diverse people. In addition, The Nature Conservancy in New York will continue to provide support through our talented staff and volunteer leaders. Just in the past few weeks I have met staff and trustees who have become engaged in our work in Mongolia, the Caribbean, Africa, China, and Central and South America. One of my goals is to keep The Nature Conservancy in New York a global conservation leader.
The economy is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. How do you think the downturn will affect conservation – and what do you think the Conservancy can offer at times like this?
The Nature Conservancy in New York will become even more focused on the highest priorities for conservation success. As a smaller, more efficient organization, we will explore exciting opportunities to conserve wildlife while promoting economic benefits and sustainability. We must take advantage of the opportunities to conserve and restore our natural world and generate jobs through the national economic recovery plan — restoring sea grass beds and shellfish around Long Island, controlling invasive species and using fire as a management tool are just a few examples. These opportunities bring with them important partnerships with commercial fishermen, local fire departments, and local governments, among others.
Granted, it’s only been a few weeks since you joined the New York chapter – but you must have a favorite program or project. What is it and why?
What has most impressed me so far is the talent of our staff and the commitment of our volunteer leaders. In my first six weeks I have already spent time with staff in nearly all the regions of the state where we work – Long Island, the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley, as well as the Finger Lakes region around Rochester.
I have no favorite projects, but I am excited to contribute to the completion of the 160,000-acre Heart of the Adirondacks campaign. In January I had the opportunity to fly over the Adirondacks at sunset and it was stunning to know that everything on the horizon will be conserved forever.
I am also eager to contribute to the success of the $5 billion Green Bond initiative that we hope to have on the ballot this November. The bond would generate unprecedented resources to conserve wildlife habitat and open space, provide clean water for recreation and human consumption and develop energy efficiency and pollution management programs — all the while generating jobs for tens of thousands of New Yorkers.
The transition to New York City can be challenging. How’s it going? What excites you and your family most about moving to the city?
We are taking the move one step at a time. Selling our house in Denver, figuring our where to send our daughter, Bella, to school, and deciding where to live in the city. But we are excited to call New York home. My wife, Natalie, is from the Dominican Republic and Bella is completely bi-lingual and bi-cultural. The opportunity to raise a child here to become a truly global citizen is a very special one.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., I was influenced by the Smithsonian and the wonderful urban parks in the region, such as Rock Creek. They played a big part in my becoming a conservationist. I look forward to exposing Bella to similar experiences in New York. Who knows? Maybe she will play a role in conservation just as three generations of her family have before her.
Here’s an easy one to finish up: what are the best books you’ve read in the past year?
This past year I served as the Conservancy’s acting Central Caribbean program director, based in the Dominican Republic. The opportunity to serve was special given my family connection to the island. During the year Junot Diaz’s book, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about a Dominican family between the worlds of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, won the Pulitzer Prize. Diaz is an incredibly perceptive, irreverent and funny writer. As I moved back and forth between the two countries, Diaz kept me smiling.
At the end of the year, I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I don’t re-read many books, but McCarthy is a genius. As the real world plummeted into financial despair it was good to read McCarthy’s message of hope at the end of the book. As colors began to appear in the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape you have to believe that the world and humankind will awake to a brighter, better day.
Bill Ulfelder, director of The Nature Conservancy in New York, has been with the Conservancy for 14 years. From Costa Rica to Colorado and now to New York, Bill brings with him a combination of global field work and leadership experience.