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Expert Q&A: Tim Purinton

Having worked on environmental issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter understands the rewards and challenges of nonprofit work from many angles.

By Amy Nelson

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Tim Purinton ©The Nature Conservancy

Tim Purinton has been the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter since 2017. Tim hails from Boston’s North Shore where he was the founding Director of the Massachusetts’ Department of Fish and Game’s, Division of Ecological Restoration. He also worked for the Massachusetts Audubon Society and as a wetland restoration contractor. Tim is a member of the State of Maryland Climate Change Mitigation Working Group, a technical advisor to the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, and on Ascend, Afghanistan board of directors. Tim is a graduate of McGill University and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Tim is married and is a father of four. Julia and Tim reside in Baltimore and have a home in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. In his free time, Tim keeps bees and can be found wading small trout streams in search of an evening hatch.

From 2000-2005, you served as Community Outreach Coordinator for Mass Audubon. What have been the biggest changes in the world of local environmental nonprofit organizations since then?

Environmental nonprofits still have an important role in developing reliable partnerships, building community support, and being trusted local advocates. These qualities have not changed over the past two decades. That’s still where great conservation happens—at the watershed, neighborhood, and grassroots levels.

However, what has dramatically shifted is the pace of climate change. Climate change has made our work more complicated and has put compound stress on communities and natural systems. Fold in the lack of significant progress on racial equality and environmental justice and the job of environmental NGOs is even more challenging in today’s complex world.

Tim Purinton meets with a local farmer during a TNC Board of Trustees trip to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Trip participants learned about TNC's sustainable agriculture program to reduce polluted runoff flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. ©The Nature Conservancy

Based on your experience and your observations, what do you think are some of the most common challenges faced by local environmental non-profits, in terms of how they operate, collaborate, implement projects, and raise funds?

The constant push for reinvention is a common challenge. Funders often look for scalable and innovative solutions to bigger, more complex issues, and the tried and true practices, whether it’s water quality monitoring, convening partners or ecological management, can be harder to fund. The need to constantly innovate can be challenging, especially for smaller NGOs that are resource limited.

I would also say that the diminishment of government power, and the lack of trust in government has also created a thorny challenge. In the past, we could largely depend on environmental regulations to advance good policy. Now, there is a real pushback against regulatory solutions as the primary way to drive environmental conservation and protection. As a result, we’ve had to be more innovative. For example, at The Nature Conservancy we’ve embraced market-based solutions that assist with regulatory compliance. There is risk in creating and standing-up competitive markets around ecosystem services such as nutrient management or stormwater retention in part because these markets are not mature and often are untested.

Bottom line: we are relying on NGOs to solve more problems than in the past and step in where government used to lead. I spent almost a dozen years in government service, so I recognize the power of government to work in tandem with the non-profit and private sectors. If partnerships are organized well there can be a wonderful complementary balance and synergy. If we aspire to scale-up climate solutions and operate at a very high level of impact, we need to continue to forge these innovative partnerships but also become actively involved in government.

How has your background in both the public and private sectors informed your approach to partnerships?

As a former civil servant entrusted with taxpayer dollars and now a steward of donor gifts, I feel where we can maximize conservation impact by leveraging resources is a hallmark of a successful partnership. To provide an example, at The Nature Conservancy we have been hard at work restoring miles of floodplain along the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We are doing this restoration in tandem with federal partners such as USFWS and NRCS. We are successfully signing up landowners to agree to the river restoration because TNC is a trusted local partner in a region where landowners are sometimes wary of the federal government.

In Maryland's largest restoration project, TNC and its partners are reconnecting the Pokomoke River with its historic floodplains and restoring the region's wetland ecology. ©The Nature Conservancy

We serve as a technical expert and a contractual go-between. This is a wonderful marriage of public and private interests to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay, as every donor dollar that supports this work is magnified by public funds. It’s an example where a reliable NGO can help temper some of the distrust of government, provide tangible conservation solutions and leverage the power of federal funds. How we partner is also starting to change. In the past, environmental organizations relied on traditional partners, such as corporations, government, or environmental organizations with a similar mission, but now we must think more holistically and with more diversity in mind. If we don’t stretch our partnerships to include environmental, faith and social justice organizations, for example, our conservation efforts will continue to serve a small, privileged portion of the population. In turn, we won’t increase voices for change and achieve the level of impact we want.

Pokomoke River ©The Nature Conservancy

Can you share an example of one non-traditional partnership that you’ve formed recently that you’re really excited about?

Faith communities are important landowners in District of Columbia, and we have had an interesting opportunity at The Nature Conservancy to partner with the Washington Archdiocese to improve the Anacostia River. Specifically, we have been removing pavement and installing green infrastructure at the Mount Olivet Cemetery to capture stormwater runoff.  Going gray to green is generating credits that can be sold to developers through DC’s first-of-its-kind stormwater credit trading market. To date we have been the largest provider of stormwater credits in DC.

Green stormwater infrastructure at Mt. Olivet Cemetery ©The Nature Conservancy

Through this partnership, we also learned that the Mount Olivet Cemetery was one of the first integrated cemeteries in the area. We worked with the Archdiocese and Nature Sacred to create a memorial garden and green space that recognizes the unmarked graves of people – many of whom were formerly enslaved – that were laid to rest at this site, providing a sanctuary for ancestors to pay respects to their relatives.

The prayer garden honors enslaved men and women who were buried in unmarked graves at the Mt. Olivet Cemetery

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change motivated the Archdiocese to work with TNC and that partnership has been uplifting and surprising on so many levels. When you enter these partnerships, you don’t always know where they will lead. That element of surprise and serendipity makes forging new, non-traditional alliances exciting.

Tim Purinton speaks at the prayer garden dedication ceremony. ©The Nature Conservancy

When you were with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, which you co-founded, you were involved with a project that received President Obama’s American Coastal American Partnership Award. The project transformed 60 acres of former commercial cranberry farm into an Atlantic, white cedar swamp. Can you tell us about the Eel River Headwaters Restoration project and the partnership that made it possible?

The Eel River project was a groundbreaking project that started a freshwater restoration revolution that continues today. For brief context, cranberry bogs in Massachusetts were historically located in floodplains. Water levels are surgically manipulated through a system of dams, weirs, and ditches. In the winter, the bogs are sanded to help stimulate cranberry growth, and herbicides and pesticides are applied as needed to boost production. In the early 2000s, the economics of cranberry farming were collapsing, and climate change was shifting the industry to more northern climes. As a result, thousands of acres of bogs were going fallow and coming up for sale.

The Eel River restoration site, seven years after construction. ©Alex Hackman, Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration

A natural wetland system has a complex micro-topography, with pits, hummocks, and coarse-woody debris. But industrial cranberry bogs are flat, monotypic landscapes. Given their landscape position there is an opportunity to re-engineer the bogs and reset the trajectory for natural restoration. This Eel River project was one of the first restoration projects of its kind, and one of the largest freshwater wetland restoration projects in New England.

Cranberry bog projects involve so many interesting technical aspects, including dam removal, culvert replacement, fill removal, native plantings and the use of large, woody debris. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, USFWS, the Town of Plymouth, and The Nature Conservancy were all partners who assisted the state of Massachusetts in the project. Partners were interested in the site because it could be a demonstration site for other cranberry bog projects. A decade later, it has been. There has been an incredible proliferation of former cranberry bog restoration projects, hundreds of acres a year are being transformed, and all these projects have been inspired by the template of the Eel River project. The project helped to provide the science, the practices, and the trust among funders that these projects can be done.

One such project that was inspired by Eel River was the restoration of Tidmarsh Farm, also in Plymouth. Tidmarsh is an incredible restoration project which has turned into an intensively studied research site complete with a native plant species nursery, and an education center run by Mass Audubon.

What key lessons about partnership did you learn from that project?

It’s important to have partners that are willing to take risks and have enough resources that those risks aren’t going to negatively influence future action. With the Eel River project, the partners had enough resources, time, commitment, and dedicated personnel to get through the tough patches. If you want to do innovative, nature-based solutions, whether it’s ecological restoration or large-scale conservation, you need partners with the stick-to-itiveness and resiliency to bounce back from inevitable setbacks. You also need partners who have the vision to do something big. Having a big picture vision will help carry and energize people through the rough times.

If you want to do innovative, nature-based solutions, whether it’s ecological restoration or large-scale conservation, you need partners with the stick-to-itiveness and resiliency to bounce back from inevitable setbacks.

Big projects can be de-energized by regulatory hurdles. But we found that persistence will often overcome regulatory barriers. Regulators understand the benefits of restoration, but often the rules are written in such a way to prevent direct resource impacts. Being able to underscore the ecological benefits and cite comparable science is important. Whether working with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers or your local conservation commission, it’s imperative to build relationships with the regulatory community.

Having good engineers who know what they’re doing is also key. We had a creative engineering group that had a multi-disciplinary approach that combined ecologists, wildlife biologists, and civil engineers. Having a multi-disciplinary, creative approach and people with a variety of skill sets is so important.

It sounds like having good ecological or environmental engineers, strong relationships with regulators, and partners with the resources, commitment, and shared, big vision is critical to success.

I think so, and it always helps to make sure you have your political support in order, because you may have to deal with people who don’t like what you’re doing. We did a project where the community came out vehemently against it, complete with yard signs and disruptive town meeting articles. This can be the case when you propose to alter cultural landscapes.

The cranberry industry is indelibly etched in Massachusetts culture, just as the oyster industry is in Maryland. Large-scale ecosystem restoration must be sensitive of cultural context otherwise changes in the landscape can feel intimidating. This sensitivity must extend to traditional uses of the land by indigenous peoples.

TNC has done a lot of research lately quantifying the protective benefits of coastal ecosystems. Is your approach to partnerships at all different when partnering with academic institutions to conduct research?

When we partner with academic institutions, we often have an eye towards adaptive management or improving our conservation strategies. For example, we are forging a novel partnership with the University of Maryland to improve our sustainable agriculture program and are working with George Mason University to study wave attenuation in the Chesapeake Bay. We appreciate an academic partner that intimately understands the natural sciences and who is also willing to work with us to deploy solutions informed by research.

Researchers from George Mason University install sensors around a marsh to measure wave energy before, during, and after storms around Deale Island, MD. TNC has partnered with GMU and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on the study, which examines how marshes reduce wave energy and protect coastlines. ©The Nature Conservancy

Partnerships with academic institutions are extremely helpful in quantifying the benefits, and results of projects. Academic partnerships add depth and perspectives that frame your work into powerful narratives that can inspire and result in better practices going forward.

TNC played a big role in the passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act in Maryland. What advice or lessons learned can you share with people who may be working on policy or advocacy at the municipal or state level?

It’s vital to quantify the economic benefits and the ecosystem services of the policy solutions for which you are advocating. If you can quantify jobs sustained or created for investments made—whether in ecological restoration or clean energy, politicians will listen. Be prepared to answer if those jobs will benefit their community. You should also be versed in describing the economic multiplier effects and provide examples of new services that will be created because of a policy change.

TNC MD/DC staff and trustees with Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth in February 2020. ©The Nature Conservancy

Human health benefits are also important to quantify when advocating for sound policy. The Nature Conservancy is doing this with our Green Heart Project in Louisville, Kentucky. The Green Heart project is a long-term medical study focused on the health benefits of nature. We are exploring questions like, “Can you draw a bright line between access to urban trees and improved heart condition?”

Economic success and community health are common concerns regardless of political party affiliation. That’s where TNC flourishes because we work across the aisle, and we let science drive the decision making around our policy.

What advice do you have for private consulting firms that really want to be greater advocates for the environment? How can folks in the private sector better support NGOs in advocacy work?

In Massachusetts, The Nature Conservancy found a nexus between conservation and public safety and pulled together an alliance of engineers and environmentalists around a common theme of climate resilience and public safety.

As environmentalist we know that taking down dams is an effective way to restore floodplain continuity and fish passage. Engineers know that dams fail and that many towns, cities, and jurisdictions were struggling with their dam safety obligations. We found common ground and created an unstoppable advocacy effort that resulted in millions of dollars for dam removal.

The diverse alliance kept going after the legislative victory to help deploy funds responsibly. Many environmental policies require time, energy, attention, and care to be executed, so being willing not only to advocate, but to help implement after the policy change is essential. That helps to ensure the hard reality matches the advocacy vision.

Former agricultural fields at Taylor Farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore have been restored back to wetlands by TNC. ©The Nature Conservancy

Partnerships are not always sunshine and rainbows. From an NGO perspective, what are some of the key challenges or roadblocks to successful collaborations with government agencies and for-profit restoration and conservation companies?

Ensuring that your timescales are aligned. It may be that government agencies have a fiscal year timescale whereas an NGO may have a different grant timeline. The pace in the private sector is usually on a shorter time horizon altogether. Aligning timelines and matching expectations of what success looks like is vital and failing to do so can cause friction.



Tim Purinton at an NRCS event held at the Taylor Farm wetland restoration site.

What are some of the best ways that local, environmental non-profits can collaborate with each other and learn from each other?

I pay attention when I hear stories of how NGOs are diversifying their boards, staff, or conservation portfolios. There’s a lot to learn from each other in this moment of time especially concerning the themes of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.

This is especially true for traditional environmental organizations; we need to do a lot more listening and be more inquisitive about how we can learn from each other on ways to bring equity and diversity into our work. While I’m not aware of any external networks that foster this exchange, at The Nature Conservancy my peers are addressing these issues head-on and I can lean on them to help continue to be more inclusive and just in how we do our work.

In your opening letter in TNC Maryland/DC’s 2020 Annual Impact Report, you mention the racial profiling of birdwatcher Christian Cooper and write that the incident, “…reminds us that racism extends its toxic tendrils into the environmental movement that many of us, especially white people like me, have assumed to be morally pure and built on just intentions.” You go on to say that “social and environmental justice must be woven throughout our conservation agenda.” How are you doing that, and what steps can you recommend to others who are trying to weave social and environmental justice into their environmental work?

It is a work in progress. [Note: TNC is launching an urban conservation program in Baltimore, Maryland.] When we started to conduct outreach to Baltimore organizations to launch our urban conservation initiative, we knew that we needed to do so with humility and a real desire to listen and learn. In the past, groups like ours would say, “We have solutions. We know what to do. We have done this before.” Today we must lead with an authentic willingness to learn and understand that every community is unique and shaped by forces that we don’t always see. And we not only have to listen; we have to forge partnerships that we might not have before.


…equity in conservation is not just an urban issue. It is an issue everywhere.

We also must be realistic about timescales. Equitable conservation work often takes longer, and it requires more patience. There are no easy solutions or readymade partnerships that will immediately bring success especially in places as diverse as Baltimore or Appalachia. It takes time and trust granted by the community. We haven’t always been patient because we feel such urgency to address climate change now, address biodiversity loss now. But, if we really want to work in a more equitable way, we have to go slow to eventually go fast. This is true whether we’re in Baltimore, the Eastern Shore, or western Maryland, because equity in conservation is not just an urban issue. It is an issue everywhere.

Earlier, you mentioned market-based solutions. Can you briefly describe TNC Maryland/DC’s subsidiary, District Stormwater? How does it work?

The goal was to stand up the first in the world stormwater credit market. To do this we created District Stormwater, LLC. [Note: District Stormwater finances, designs, installs, and maintains stormwater management projects that generate D.C. government-certified Stormwater Retention Credits.]

Globally, billions of dollars are available for impact investing and we want that money to work for nature – whether through carbon, stormwater, or nutrient trading markets. The District of Columbia was aware of this and set up a stormwater credit program to offset development impacts. From the perspective of a traditional conservationist, this has been a fascinating way to energize and excite a conservation outcome through a new source of revenue.

NatureVest, which sits alongside The Nature Conservancy, helps to advise us, and brings impact capital to these nascent markets. The stormwater credit market works like this: a developer or landowner can purchase credits on the DC market to offset their construction impacts. TNC builds green infrastructure in the places that have the biggest environmental benefit and receives credits for every gallon of stormwater treated. These credits are certified and become available for sale based on the current market price. Developers purchase these credits to meet their regulatory obligations.

If a local non-profit in the DC area had a potential restoration site, could they make a project happen through District Stormwater, or is it limited to projects initiated by TNC?

District Stormwater is for TNC projects, but any organization can come to us and ask about our experiences. One of the benefits of being a non-profit involved in this work is that we want other groups to enter this market. If other organizations, whether private or non-profit, adopted this work and scaled it up, we might step aside, declare victory, and create new conservation solutions.

That’s a goal and ambition around our stormwater work in DC: to prove the market and then transfer those skills to others so they can scale it up and make a real impact in their city.


Speaking of scaling up, the UN has declared this the beginning of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Where do you see the greatest opportunities for scaling up restoration and what do you see as the role of local environmental non-profits?

There is incredible opportunity for nature to mitigate climate impacts through natural climate solutions, especially with large-scale forest carbon sequestration. Most forest carbon projects require ecological restoration and management. It’s not just protecting land, it’s also doing the restoration and management actions that help to enhance forest carbon capture potential such as selective timber harvest, mimicking old-growth conditions, prescribed burns, controlling invasive species, etc.

There are many different ways the restoration industry can contribute to our ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. It is estimated that natural climate solutions can provide up to 25-30% of our greenhouse gas reduction targets, in terms of ability to capture and secure carbon. We’re talking about restoration and protection that are akin to  [the Cumberland Forest Project] in Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky where we’ve secured and are managing 250,000 acres of primarily forest land.  I also see phenomenal opportunities for nature-based solutions to assist communities adapt to climate change. There’s tremendous need for green solutions to temper extreme weather. Nature left alone and ecological restoration can play an enormous role in reducing risk and for preparing us for dynamic weather events.

A mountain spine in Campbell County, TN. May 2019. The Cumberland Forest Project protects 253,000 acres of Appalachian forest in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, and is one of TNC's largest-ever conservation efforts in the eastern U.S. ©The Nature Conservancy

Any final words for Leaf Litter readers?

Despite the dark skies around our climate future, I still feel optimistic. The public’s understanding and appreciation of nature is getting stronger. Maybe COVID has helped to bring that home and get people to truly appreciate their backyards.

Whether it’s the explosion in renewable energy, the recognition of the power of nature to capture carbon, or the burgeoning environmental markets, I feel extremely positive that we are experiencing another green revolution.

I started in the environmental field over 20 years ago, and there is so much new and interesting work happening and economies emerging from nature-based solutions. You rarely hear pundits saying, “It’s environmentalism at the cost of jobs” anymore. It’s not true and we can now refute that tired old adage many times over. We are proving that there are many co-benefits of protecting nature and new vibrant economies are one of them. Progress is no longer at the cost of nature. That has been a wonderful shift that I’m sure we will see grow even stronger over time.

[Note: To learn more about the Maryland/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy, or to support their science-based conservation projects, please visit their website.

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