My Perfect Adventure: Mark Tercek

The president and chief executive officer of The Nature Conservancy tells us about the time he ran alongside lions in Kenya, how he first became passionate about conservation, and why good people skills will help us save the planet

Mark Tercek.     Photo: Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

"It was a trip to Costa Rica that really opened my eyes to the growing threats to nature."

My Perfect Adventure

Corporate giants like the Dow Chemical Company or the Coca-Cola Company might seem like surprising allies for eco activists. Their businesses have left huge environmental footprints, for sure, but that's why one of the world's biggest conservation groups, The Nature Conservancy, wants to collaborate with them: to help them change their ways in a bid to reduce their impact on natural resources.

Once known as "nature's real estate agent," the Conservancy first built a reputation for its focus on buying land in order to preserve it, with about 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers under its protection globally. Among its conservation projects, the group has worked to reduce deforestation in the Amazon, restore oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, and launch water funds in Latin America. But after expanding its reach over the past 15 years, with projects in all 50 states and 35 other countries, the Conservancy is also expanding its agenda these days by engaging with industrial giants, including Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola, along with its more traditional allies such as indigenous groups, non-profit organizations, and governments.

The Conservancy has fielded some criticism for working closely with corporate polluters but says failing to do so means missing a major opportunity to promote sustainable business practices and raise money for conservation projects. In Dow’s case, the Conservancy is sending scientists to evaluate the chemical company’s facilities around the world—determining the extent to which Dow depends on its land and water assets, and coming up with strategies to best preserve this “natural capital.” As an example, Bloomberg reported that the Conservancy was encouraging Dow to consider enhancing coastal marshlands, rather than building concrete floodwalls through them, to naturally protect its facilities in Texas from hurricanes.

At the helm of these efforts to demonstrate the value of nature is Mark Tercek, the Conservancy’s president and chief executive. A self-described “city boy” from Cleveland, Tercek is a Wall Street businessman turned eco activist who joined the green group in 2008 after working as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, where he helped the firm develop its own environmental strategy.

Here, Tercek tells us about the time he ran alongside lions in Kenya, how he first became passionate about conservation, and why good people skills will help us save the planet.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
A perfect day for me would take place somewhere that reminds me why I go to work every day: to protect nature. Maybe I’d hike on a beautiful beach or go diving in marine waters teeming with fish and healthy coral reefs. I'd love to go back to Isla Espiritu Santo, between Baja California and mainland Mexico. The Nature Conservancy worked with the Mexican government to ensure the island's permanent protection. It's home to an incredible number of whales, sea lions, seals, fish, turtles, and migratory birds. The landscape is stunning.

Or maybe I’d climb a mountain to get a good view of a gorgeous and well-protected ecosystem. I love Western Montana's Northern Rockies. A few years ago, TNC raised nearly half a billion dollars from public and private partners to buy 310,000 acres of Montana forestlands that were threatened by subdivision and development. Because the lands are distributed in a checkerboard fashion, the deal effectively connected millions of acres of pristine wilderness. I had to visit the area often as we worked on this huge deal. It's really inspiring to stand on a mountaintop there and see protected lands as far as the horizon in every direction.

Of course I’d be delighted if my wife, Amy, and our four kids could be with me, maybe my dog, Taz, too. I've always tried to get my kids away from television and computer screens and into nature. In fact, it was a family visit to the Costa Rican rainforest that first got me interested in switching careers and getting into the conservation business.

I'd also spend time with some of the people who we team up with at TNC. That could be a businesswoman looking to make her company more sustainable, an Aboriginal elder who wants to protect ancestral lands, a nature guide or scientist, or a high school kid doing an internship on one of our preserves. It is energizing to be with people from all over who fully understand why nature matters.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I travel so much for my job that what I'd prefer to do is stay home for a change and visit some of the natural areas around Washington, D.C. We have some great places here. There's Rock Creek Park or Teddy Roosevelt Island for hikes and birding. There’s also kayaking on the Potomac right in the middle of the city. Great Falls National Park is just 15 miles away. I love spending time around the city with my family.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
One trip that stands out recently is northern Kenya. A group of TNC friends and I ran the Safaricom Marathon this June to raise funds and awareness for community development and conservation programs in the area. I've run a lot of marathons, but this one was especially memorable. It was amazing to share the course with lions, giraffes, rhinos, and zebras, and to run through the same grasslands where our ancestors first ran. And it was an honor to run alongside (well, more like behind) ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek, who led our TNC team.

After the race, we visited some conservation projects, including Sarara Camp, on the lands of the community-owned Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust. The lodge generates funds for land management costs, health care, and local schools for the Samburu tribe. While there, our group attended a Samburu wedding celebration in a local village, which was really just a brush-enclosed circle of simple huts surrounded by the villagers’ herds of cattle and goats. The villagers were saying goodbye to a woman leaving for an arranged marriage in a distant village. The young people sang and danced, dressed in their brightest clothes and beadwork. The elders stood nearby chanting and singing more quietly. The bride’s former boyfriend writhed in trance-like anguish and had to be carried off by his friends (I‘m told this is the appropriate response in the culture). It was an amazing scene.

It is gratifying to know that conservation brings real benefits to people whose lives and cultures are so closely linked to nature. Our work with local partners to reduce poaching and improve grazing practices has brought back wildlife to the area. In turn, increased tourism revenues flow back to the community, to be invested in clean water, health care, security, and education.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
I only recently got to know the late Russell Train. Train was the founder of the World Wildlife Fund and the first chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, and he helped create the Environmental Protection Agency. What an amazing life he led. He really knew how to get important things done in our field. He elevated environmental issues to the highest levels of our government, championed bipartisan support for conservation, and shaped critical environmental legislation—the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, to name a few. I’d love to get his advice and to better understand how he got so much done.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
I hate to admit it, but my BlackBerry. TNC doesn't stop when I'm away. I need to stay connected so I don't slow down the progress of our team.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I head outside to get the lay of the land. That could mean running, biking, or just taking a walk. My sense of direction isn't great, so I sometimes end up on unexpected adventures.

What motivates you in your work with The Nature Conservancy?
The urgency of our mission. Despite all our efforts, the challenges to nature are growing more serious. Everything we want more of—coral reefs, sustainable fisheries, unspoiled natural habitats, biodiversity, clean water—is in decline. Meanwhile, everything we want to reduce—global warming, carbon emissions, deforestation—has increased in recent years. A rapidly growing population and rising middle class will put more pressure on the planet over the years ahead.

Nevertheless, I see big opportunity. At TNC, we have a can-do attitude. Every day, we go to work, we roll up our sleeves, and—working with great partners and supporters—we really get things done.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
As a kid I imagined becoming a journalist. I loved working on my high school newsletter. I’ve always admired great writing. Kurt Vonnegut and Ken Kesey were my heroes growing up. Later, I turned to environmental writers like David Quammen and E.O. Wilson. Jared Diamond has also been a big influence.

Lucky for me, at TNC, I get to do a lot of writing on topics that I'm passionate about. I have a regular column for the Huffington Post, and also just finished a book about the value of nature. I love spreading the word about why nature matters to all of our lives.

When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
I was a late bloomer. I took the occasional camping trip as a kid, but as a city boy in Cleveland, nature wasn't my passion.

It was while raising my own kids in New York City that I really started to get interested in conservation. I wanted to give them the kinds of outdoor experiences I didn't have as a kid. So we started hiking, camping, and taking eco-vacations. It was a trip to Costa Rica that really opened my eyes to the growing threats to nature. We saw beautiful beaches and jungles, but also the threats they face—deforestation, beach erosion, contaminated water. At the same time, books like David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo captured my interest. It seemed to me that there were many practical win-win steps we could take to better protect nature.

I found an outlet for my growing environmental interest toward the end of my finance career at Goldman Sachs. After a mainstream career as an investment banker, I later had the opportunity to lead Goldman Sachs’ environmental initiatives. We pursued opportunities that produced both good commercial results and good environmental outcomes. After nearly 25 years at Goldman, in 2008, I threw my hat into the ring for the position of TNC's president and CEO. It seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity to pursue my passion for fostering public and private sector collaborations that result in important environmental gains. I was thrilled to get the job.

What's one piece of advice you would give to a young environmentalist?
Develop good communication and people skills. Our field has plenty of smart, analytic, scientific minds—which is great, we need them—but to achieve long-term success, we also need to focus on uniting more people and changing the public perception of nature conservation. These things will require more communication abilities, diplomatic skill, and emotional intelligence.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My late dad was an inspiring mentor and a great father. He was always very positive and upbeat. He believed in making the most out of every day. He was devoted to his family. He always put others first. I miss him.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Another mentor, a colleague from my early days at Goldman Sachs, always told me, "Every knock's a boost." Everyone takes some knocks now and again. The key is knowing how to get back up, learn from the experience, and move forward. That’s how you grow.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a setback that made you question your strategy at The Nature Conservancy?
Sometimes I get so excited about new initiatives at TNC that I inadvertently give the impression that we're backing away from our traditional conservation work. But that's not at all the case. Land protection has been the core of our work for the past 60 years. It will continue to be an important tool in our conservation toolbox. I learned that a leader needs to be very thoughtful as a communicator.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I always say that as CEO of TNC I may very well have the best job in the world. But sometimes when I travel the world visiting TNC projects, I imagine that I might enjoy one of our regional positions—say, running our research post at the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific, or overseeing Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, or managing the Montana Legacy Project. I fantasize about how relaxing it would be to spend more time in the places we work to protect. But of course I know those jobs are incredibly demanding, too.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
I just checked off a big one—I always wanted to write a book. My co-author, Jonathan Adams, and I just spent the last year writing Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. The book will be published this spring.

I always wanted to run a marathon in under three hours. And I really thought I would pull it off. I ran a few at about 3:15, and once I finished under 3:10, but, alas, I never got under three hours. With shakier (older) knees now, I'm planning to transition to bike racing.

I enjoy fly fishing, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I hope to work on that over the years ahead.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web