Theresa Pierno just took the helm as NPCA's president and CEO—the first woman to serve in this role in the organization’s 96-year history. Learn more about her distinguished environmental career, her accomplishments since joining NPCA, and her passions and priorities for national parks on the verge of their second century.
Theresa first joined NPCA in 2004, and in that time, she doubled the organization’s field program, led the development of strategic water and land use initiatives, and helped to ensure NPCA’s financial health through improved fundraising efforts. She accomplished all of this while also helping to recruit diverse staff members and cultivate a fun and respectful office culture.
I asked Theresa to share more about her passions and priorities for NPCA and the national parks as she prepares to lead the organization at this critical time in its history.
Q: How did you form your first connection with nature?
A: I was very young—literally four or five years old—and we had a forest in our neighborhood in suburban south Jersey. I would go in those woods and play. I climbed trees, created forts, and did all of the kinds of things that kids did.
Then our parents moved to Philadelphia and lived in an apartment, and I missed nature. I started going around with my wagon, digging up rocks, collecting bugs, and looking for a space that could replace those woods. That’s when we discovered Pennypack Park, a local park that to me was paradise. I had never seen rocks and trees that big. It was the place I felt most comfortable. Later in life, we were able to go to places like Shenandoah and Gettysburg, and I continued to connect with parks as magical places with natural beauty that told stories of our past.
Q: At some point you took to the water as well.
A: On family vacations in the Poconos, we went to Lake Harmony and I learned to sail. I found it thrilling to be in control of a boat, though of course, you’re not in control of the wind. You have your mishaps and you learn to fend for yourself. It taught me to appreciate and love the water. Ultimately, I was able to parlay that into a career, working to protect the Chesapeake Bay. I knew early on how intrigued I was with the Chesapeake and its tributaries. I would take my children every chance we got to a local stream or river. It became an important part of my adult life.
Q: In addition to working at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, you also served as an elected official on the Harford County Council. How did that influence your path as a conservationist?
A: I did a lot of volunteer work as a community activist and the county executive decided that if he put me on the planning board it might shut me up. It backfired in a large way! Within a year, they made me the chair. The men I served with were farm community conservatives who understood the importance of land conservation. Eventually, I was propelled to run for office against a local councilman who was trying to put a landfill in the back yard of an African-American community. I wasn’t expected to win, but I beat a 16-year incumbent. When I got to govern, the very first thing I worked on was a forest conservation bill, which was adopted in my first six months in office. I went on to do a lot of environmental legislation that would protect a county that was growing and changing every day under extreme development pressure. The landfill was never developed, and I sponsored legislation that became a model for siting future landfills in the state of Maryland in a more responsible way. A huge victory.
Q: Now, you are the first woman to lead NPCA in almost 100 years. What took so long?
A: Hopefully someday we won’t even notice these things because it will just be so ordinary. But I do take it seriously that I am the first woman. I’m going to do everything I can to further empower and encourage women conservationists and historians. This is a lifelong personal goal of mine, to lead a national conservation organization. Now I am focused on how I can help others.
Q: Is female leadership a trend in the environmental field?
A: I think having tremendous female leadership in politics and corporate America helps. There’s a cultural shift happening. When you look at the field of conservation, there were very few women serving as chief operating officers or executive vice presidents at the national level in the past. Now, we have more and more women in senior leadership. We’re cultivating that pipeline, and other organizations are, too.
Q: How do you think NPCA can make parks and park advocacy relevant for a wider audience?
A: It starts with our youth. Since my grandson Jack was very young, I would take him to our local park in Annapolis, Quiet Waters. It’s beautiful—about 800 acres or so with lots of trails. Now he always asks me, when are we going back? Getting children and grandchildren into those parks makes a huge difference.
As an organization, NPCA’s Find Your Voice initiative is an important way that we are connecting more and more young people, families, and Millennials with these important places. Then, through our Civic Voice Lessons, we are helping them ultimately become advocates. We have opportunities for people of all ages to be able to engage.
Q: I know Find Your Voice is just one of many initiatives you’ve spearheaded since you joined NPCA 11 years ago. What has been your proudest achievement to date?
A: Expanding NPCA’s regional staff and the reach of our field work has been an important achievement for me and for NPCA. I also think I’ve had a lot to do with shifting the culture of the organization—by empowering our staff to be able to manage their programs and set the agendas for what is important as part of a group instead of in individual silos.
I also expanded our program work. 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 landscape. Encouraging the organization to look at these parks as a core piece of a larger ecosystem is probably my proudest accomplishment. I established the Great Waters Coalition to help people work across different organizations and teams to solve these larger problems that are impacting parks.
Q: What are your biggest priorities moving forward?
A: For me, it’s really about making sure that we have more people—diverse communities, younger people—connecting with these places and understanding that national parks play a primary role in the foundation of our democracy and the future of our ecosystems. Protecting parks is protecting both of these things that are so fundamentally important to all of us.
Q: You are leading the organization on the eve of two major anniversaries: the Park Service’s 100th birthday in 2016, and NPCA’s 100th birthday in 2019. What is your vision for these centennials?
A: I am so fortunate because the groundwork has been laid. We have a couple of great initiatives that build on the Park Service’s Find Your Park initiative—including Find Your Voice and our Civic Voice Lessons to engage young people and diverse communities. We want to use the increased media attention to leverage our message, which is: Now that you’ve discovered these places, find your voice to do everything you can to help protect them. My role will be to amplify that message every chance I get and encourage a broader constituency to step up and protect our national parks for the future. People will be able to experience so much through the stories that are going to be told over this next year, whether it’s IMAX movies or television shows like Rock the Parks. We’re going to do everything we can to leverage each one of those opportunities.
Q: What NPCA staff know but many readers may not is that you have a fun-loving spirit. Do you have a memory at NPCA that stands out as the most fun of all?
A: I started the tradition of ending our annual staff retreats with a sing-along. I’d bring people up on stage and encourage them to sing, which then led to dancing. I do believe that music is a great connector and a way to get people more committed—it touches your heart. I use song as much as I can—even though I’m not a very good singer! It’s never stopped me.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.