Working to See the Forest for the Trees

It wasn’t always clear to Cindy Dunn ’80-’81m where her career would lead her, but she discovered as a young adult how gratifying it felt to take action and influence change. Dunn grew up in a beautiful valley in Central Pennsylvania with a family in love with the outdoors—tackling everything from camping to fishing to visiting state parks. While attending classes at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, she said a businessman from New Jersey proposed developing a dump in the valley. “I was outraged.”

Dunn worked with her father, who was involved with local government, to organize a group through their church. They hired geologists and a lawyer to plead their case, and they won. “It taught me that you can make a difference. We fought and we won,” she said.

Now the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Dunn said, “I want to guide people to take action, to help open people’s minds and show them that there are things you can do.”

It’s about connecting people to nature. It’s not that hard to do.
— Cindy Dunn

Inspiring action in others has driven her career.

At Shippensburg, Dunn earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. She had considered several different jobs, but couldn’t quite determine where to head. It was Dr. Larry Klotz, a relatively new biology professor at the time, who steered her passion in the right direction. “‘Go somewhere and be a naturalist,’ he said. ‘You like people and you like the outdoors.’ That never occurred to me,” Dunn said.

A connection with a fellow Ship grad led Dunn to an interview with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland. The role involved teaching children about the salt water system, and Dunn admitted with a laugh, “I knew nothing about it." But, because of her willingness to learn, work ethic, and genuine interest, she landed the position over a more qualified candidate.

Her steadfast interest in parks and forests led to her first position with the DCNR in the mid-1990s, where she worked in community relations and trained staff to increase public engagement. She has held several positions within the agency. She also was executive director for Audubon Pennsylvania, which was “too enticing” for a bird lover like herself, developed an environmental urban youth program for the City of Philadelphia, was Pennsylvania program director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and served as president and CEO of the
advocacy organization PennFuture.

To Dunn, “It’s about connecting people to nature,” she said. “It’s not that hard to do.”

Since taking on the role of secretary, Dunn and her staff have developed the Legacy Tree, which has six branches that each focus on a different initiative. Based on the environmental, social, and conservation challenges that Pennsylvania faces, these initiatives build on the core work established at the DCNR.

These strategic initiatives strive to improve access to recreational opportunities, increase the number of energy efficient LEED-certified buildings, reduce forest loss, build a cohesive water strategy, adapt to and reduce the impact of climate change, and create employment opportunities that will establish stronger connections between youth and the environment.

“We feel a sense of urgency in the environment. The changes are so gradual and incremental that people don’t see it,” Dunn said. “It’s a little too late to head off the effects of climate change, but we can minimize it.”

Get out, get close to the outdoors, and understand it. Then do something.

Certainly, progress has been made, Dunn said. For example, regulations have improved air and water quality over the years, but more must be done. People often assume the environment is too big for one person to make a difference, she said. “We have more access to it than most people think.”

The goal is getting the public to embrace something and focus on what they can do, she said. If someone is naturally interested in water, she suggests planting native species to reduce water runoff. Others might be interested in joining the local food movement. Whatever the passion, she said that joining an organization will prove most effective.

Just as Dunn felt the urgency to do something for the environment as a young adult, she is hopeful that Pennsylvania youth will make an impact. She said Millennials appear more altruistic, don’t let obstacles get in their way, and have a desire to live near outdoor amenities. “The students of today are the citizens and professionals who will be running Pennsylvania in the future, and their understanding and engagement with our mission on conservation, sustainability, and outdoor recreation are key to the future of DCNR’s mission, whether they choose a career in this field, or become active citizens in our work.”

Dunn remains involved at her alma mater as a member of the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board. She said it provides an opportunity to give back to “an institution that made such a difference in my life.” It also helps her to keep a pulse on trends in higher education and the needs, challenges, and opportunities students face in their future careers. Shippensburg is one of about twenty colleges that has students involved in DCNR projects at state parks.

“The DCNR touches a lot of people’s lives. We have to move them to conservation action,” she said. “Get out, get close to the outdoors, and understand it. Then do something.”