How Alum Joel Dunn Fulfilled His Quest to ‘Save Something Important’

“Picture a kid with a jar of live salamanders in one hand and a snake skin in the other, coming home long after dark, covered in mud, ready for  the next adventure.” 

Joel Dunn MEM/MPP’04, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, shares the unconventional path that helped him channel his passion for the environment into a career dedicated to conservation—and the importance of the Nicholas School in getting him here. Follow Joel’s journey—and his hairline—in his own words.

I’d like to share with you a story of empowerment: my story. It’s a story of passion, indignation, education, experience, hard work and results.

Today, I am the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental conservation organization, which currently employs five graduates of the Nicholas School in addition to me (see story, page 28 and 29). We are a dynamic team of 23 staff and 20 board members, pulling off things people never thought were possible.

To advance our mission, we are actively using the skills, knowledge, expertise and network that many of us developed at Duke, in areas like geographic information systems (GIS), policy analysis, environmental monitoring and nonprofit management.

At the Chesapeake Conservancy, we are conservation entrepreneurs: we make parks, wildlife refuges and trails. I believe that we are changing the American conservation movement. And I know that my education at the Nicholas School helped me to fulfill this dream to be a professional conservationist working to protect and restore our great estuary. Mine is a story of empowerment—facilitated by Duke.


Nature has been my passion since I was a little boy. Raised just outside of Boston, I spent a lot of time out in the woods—the same woods that inspired Henry David Thoreau.

Picture a kid with a jar of live salamanders in one hand and a snake skin in the other, coming home long after dark, covered in mud, ready for the next adventure. While I grew up enjoying nature, I also watched my favorite places, those same woods, fields and wetlands, disappear before my eyes. I watched people cut down the trees and pave over the streams and vernal pools to build McMansions.

I’ll be honest with you; I was really angry at what I saw as a great injustice. You see, I was raised in a broken home, and these places were my sanctuary, these beautiful creatures were my friends.

So, at 16 years old, I was an angry, lower-middle-class, long-haired kid who questioned authority and lacked guidance. I had no knowledge, no mentors, no money, no partners and no communication skills. I sure as heck didn’t understand the economy or politics. I just knew that the conservation of nature was important, worthwhile and right. I also thought that I might be good at it, but I didn’t really know what was involved or how hard it would be.

Inspired by Jack Kerouac and Aldo Leopold, I hitchhiked across the country before my senior year of high school to see some of our country’s great places: Yosemite, the Redwoods and Mount Rainier. I came back to Boston more fired up than ever to be a conservationist, which matched up quite well with my natural inclination to rebel and question authority. I went on to Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, a liberal liberal arts school, and studied abroad in the rain forests of Central and South America.


At 21 years old, I was a college graduate. My hair was shorter. I’d gained some knowledge. (Of course, I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did!) I’d had a few mentors. But I still had no money, no partners, and very limited communication skills. I was less angry, but more determined to actually save something important.

Over the next three years, I held a variety of entry-level jobs that contributed to conservation. But even after all of this experience,
I hadn’t directly protected anything yet. I knew I needed to know more. And I knew I wanted to be in charge.

Luckily, I found the Nicholas School. And while some people told me I wasn’t cut out for Duke—that I would never get into Duke, let alone succeed there—the people at the Nicholas School gave me the chance to prove those people wrong.

In addition to getting a wonderful classroom education, while at Duke I spent my summers working in the government relations office of The Nature Conservancy and for U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and his then–environmental legislative assistant, Tim Profeta, now director of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

I had a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” experience when a bill Tim and I wrote, the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act, became
a law. When I came back and told the Nicholas School Board of Visitors about my experience, and how I did it in a thrift store suit, board member Sally Kleberg started a scholarship to fund future Capitol Hill fellows from Duke. I still get emails from students who benefit from that scholarship.


At age 27, I completed my joint degrees in public policy and environmental management. I left Duke armed with the knowledge to Change the World, but what I needed now was an opportunity that would allow me to kick it into gear.

About three months after graduating, something happened that would forever change my life. I met Patrick Noonan, the former president of The Nature Conservancy, founder of The Conservation Fund and then-board member of the Nicholas School. I’ve pretty much been working for him ever since.

Pat is one of the most influential and successful conservation leaders on this planet and the best post-graduate school teacher and mentor I could have ever asked for. He continues to open doors and provide opportunities for me to this day.

So, at 27, my hair even shorter, I knew more than ever, had good mentors, had forged some partnerships, and I was in the trenches of conservation—a soldier working for a great general.

During my first year out of Duke, I put 80,000 miles on my car while pitching the creation of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail—the Appalachian Trail on water—to every mayor, county commissioner, historical society and garden club I could find. Working with Pat and others, in just 22 months we got Congress and the president to establish the Trail, which has become a landscape-scale conservation planning framework for the Chesapeake region.

I was proud of the role I played in helping to establish the Trail, and now I had the tools, relationships and experience to save something. But I still hadn’t actually saved anything yet.

James River National Wildlife Refuge Credit USFWS


Finally, at age 32—16 years after I first became committed to conservation—came my first real conservation victory: the permanent protection of a 125-acre inholding at the James River National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and along the John Smith Chesapeake Trail.

I was just one member of a team, but this was technically the first piece of land I ever really helped to protect. I collected a little jar of dirt from that project to remind me of the hard work it takes to actually save something for future generations.

Since then, working with our partners, and now as the CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, we have protected thousands of acres of land along the Trail and in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Recently, we helped to protect Werowocomoco, one of the most significant Native American sites in eastern North America. We also have helped to expand Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, create a national park in honor of Harriet Tubman (the first National Park to honor an African American), establish the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, and develop scores of new public access sites so that everyone can enjoy the Chesapeake and be inspired to vote for it, donate to it, and maybe even commit their careers to protecting it.

Our Conservancy team is now working to establish the Mallows Bay–Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, where you can kayak around the largest fleet of shipwrecks in North America. We are also fighting to protect Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River in Virginia, which has one the most significant concentrations of bald eagles in our country and is one of the few places John Smith and the Native Americans from 1608 would recognize today. This site is threatened with total destruction by a proposed development. It is as beautiful as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, and we are determined to save it.

But that’s not all. This powerhouse conservation organization that we built from scratch is fundamentally changing the conservation movement through the power of technology. The Chesapeake Conservancy and partners have spent the last 18 months working with the Chesapeake Bay Program to produce meter-by-meter resolution land-cover data for the entire 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. This dataset, which will be available for free to everyone working in the watershed, is one of the largest, high-resolution land cover datasets ever produced. Our work was cited in a White House report as a national model and was featured as the cover story of Land Lines (my equivalent of being on the cover of Time magazine).



Here I am today at age 39. My hair is receding. I have a group of amazing mentors. I have knowledge. I have many partners. I know how to communicate. I understand money, the economy and politics. And I can actually say that I have been an important part of a group that has protected something for current and future generations.

I am also now consciously working hard to be a good mentor to the next generation of conservation leaders, just as Pat Noonan has done for me.

Incidentally, having an 18-month-old daughter makes all of this work even more meaningful, because I want her to have the same opportunities we’ve had to enjoy the wonders of this world.

My passion for conservation brought me to the Nicholas School of the Environment where, despite my background or lack of means, they took a chance on me and empowered me to change the world. My story—this story of empowerment—simply wouldn’t have been possible without the school, the expertise of its faculty and staff, our amazing network of alumni and the generosity of so many. I am grateful to everyone at Nicholas who gave a scrappy kid from Boston—who just showed up in his pickup truck—a chance.


Soon after he took the helm of the Chesapeake Conservancy, Joel Dunn began recruiting other Nicholas graduates to help the nonprofit thrive.  “I knew that people going through the Nicholas School would be exceptional and would have the skill set to contribute to our organization immediately,” he says. Since then, five other Nicholas alumni have joined the Conservancy. To a person, they cite the interdisciplinary training they received at Duke as crucial to their success in the conservation field, and say the connections made at the school and through the alumni network have proven invaluable, both professionally and personally.

Jeff Allenby

Jeff Allenby MEM’11, director of conservation technology, manages the organization’s Conservation Innovation Center, where he works on everything from ecological habitat modeling to quantifying the visual impacts of a proposed energy development project. He occasionally finds time to do some GIS work or fly the Conservancy’s drone.


Colin Steif

Colin Stief MEM’15 joined the Conservancy after graduation, having completed a summer internship there previously.  A senior application designer,  he says “the Nic School taught me that law and public policy  are as important as science …  because it enables you to talk  intelligently to stakeholders  outside the scientific arena.”


Joanna Bounds Ogburn

Joanna Bounds Ogburn MEM’08 has been with the Conservancy since 2011. She is currently a consultant and senior advisor on Envision the Choptank, an initiative being done in conjunction with one of the largest oyster restoration efforts in the country, to bring together a diverse network of stakeholders to develop and carry out collaborative solutions to improve water quality and the lives of people living along the watershed.


Emily Myron

Emily Myron MEM’12 started at the Conservancy as a fellow in 2012, and worked on everything from community-based river corridor conservation in the James River to managing government relations and advocating for Land and Water Conservation Fund monies for the Chesapeake. She was back in Durham in October for her Duke Gardens wedding to fellow Nicholas grad Stu Iler MEM’12, and recently moved to Boston where she now is a project manager for the International Land Conservation Network at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.


Cassandra Pallai

Cassandra Pallai MEM’15 joined the team right after graduation. She is a geospatial program manager for the Conservancy’s GIS mapping and analysis staff and portfolio of projects. This includes helping stakeholders across the Chesapeake Bay watershed prioritize restoration efforts and developing data,  as well as research, in support  of regional water quality modeling efforts.




Joel Dunn lives in Annapolis with his wife, daughter and two Labrador retrievers. In 2010, the Nicholas School presented him with the Rising Star Award for his work in conservation. This piece was adapted—with assistance from Durham freelancer Laura Ertel—from a speech he delivered at the Nicholas School 25th-anniversary gala.