• The Next 60 Years

    Nature Conservancy President Mark Tercek charts an ambitious course.


e admits to coming from “a different kind

of background.” Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, was a city kid, a Boy Scout in Cleveland whose explorations included the famously flammable Cuyahoga River. After graduating from Williams College in 1979, he lived for several years in Japan, where he began his career in finance and studied martial arts. He then earned an MBA from Harvard University and embarked on a career with investment-banking colossus Goldman Sachs. Fair to say, he knows the art of the deal.

Parenthood heightened his environmental awareness.

“I want to be able to look my kids in the eye,” he says, “and tell them I did all I could to leave the world a better place.” By 2005, Tercek had decided to leave Wall Street to tackle environmental issues in the nonprofit world. Company Chairman Henry Paulson, at that time a Conservancy board member, persuaded him instead to launch Goldman Sachs’ Environmental Strategy Group. It was a great job—basically, scoping out business opportunities that also solved environmental problems. But it inspired him to want to do even more.

The perfect match presented itself in July 2008: Tercek walked away from Goldman Sachs and assumed leadership of the Conservancy. He and wife Amy relocated their family to Washington, D.C.

Tercek breaks the mold of a traditional conservationist. But underneath the business suit is a nature lover who enjoys spending time outdoors with his four kids. A former yoga teacher, Tercek, 54, is also a distance runner who can appreciate the value of patience in pursuing goals.

As the Conservancy celebrates its 60th anniversary, Tercek pauses to reflect on the road traveled and what lies ahead.


Q: You’ve been with The Nature Conservancy for more than three years now. How do you like the job?

I love it. The Nature Conservancy is a great organization.

My colleagues are extraordinary—dedicated, smart, entrepreneurial, great at getting stuff done. Our volunteer leaders and supporters are amazing, too.

What I like most about the Conservancy is our optimistic, can-do style. We’re never discouraged. We always believe we can get the job done. But at the same time, we’re realistic, not Pollyanna-ish. We start by looking hard at the facts, and we take it from there in devising our strategies. It’s a great culture.

Q: The Nature Conservancy just celebrated 60 years. Where are you taking the organization from here?
We’re very fortunate. We have more resources at our disposal than any other environmental organization. We’ve got 60 years of experience, more than 3,500 staff members—including 550 scientists—programs in all 50 states and 33 countries, and we are supported by members and volunteer leaders around the world. We have financial strength, a AA credit rating, a well-deserved reputation for collaboration and a knack for deal making that is very distinct.

Given these resources, I feel it’s our responsibility to lead the charge and tackle the biggest environmental challenges that humankind faces. If not us, who?

Because the fact is that soaring demand for food, water, farmland, energy—driven by population growth—is putting enormous stress on the natural systems we want to protect.

So I see this anniversary as an occasion to really double down on what we’ve learned up to this point and use our strengths to vastly accelerate conservation work. To meet the challenges we face, we’ve got to be very ambitious. That will mean getting more people excited about conservation, building new partnerships and finding new, innovative ways to get our work done.

We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to think bigger and be faster and better.

Q: You used to work on Wall Street. How are you putting your business skills to work for nature?

In many projects, The Nature Conservancy acts like an investment banker. But nature is our client.

In Morro Bay, California, for example, we were getting nowhere with our advocacy work to improve fishing practices. Rather than give up, we bought out trawl-fishing permits and commercial fishing boats. As a member of the fishing community, we’ve introduced fishing techniques that work commercially for the fishermen and help sustain the fishery.

We also helped pull together last year a $57 million deal in Costa Rica to vastly expand the country’s system of protected areas. A significant portion of the funding—$27 million—came from a complex debt-for-nature swap between the U.S. and Costa Rican governments. The goals are to ensure protection for 26 percent of Costa Rica’s lands and to double the size of its marine parks. What’s especially exciting is that the project will help Costa Rica become the first developing country to meet its commitments under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

Another great example is our Great Bear project in Canada, north of Vancouver. It’s the largest coastal rainforest in the world, and it was the epicenter of a war between loggers, environmentalists and First Nations people. The Conservancy helped negotiate a truce of sorts. We helped raise about $120 million [cdn]—half from the Conservancy and its partners and $30 million each from the Canadian federal and provincial governments—to do conservation on 24 million acres. What’s really great about this project is that part of the focus is on pure environmental outcomes. The other part is on sustainable development. We’re working closely with the First Nations communities who live there and whose support we need to make the project a success.
Likewise, in Montana we recently undertook one of the biggest deals in conservation history: purchasing 310,000 acres of land from a timber company to connect millions of acres of vital wildlife habitat. I just visited the heart of the project, and it’s spectacular—one of barely a dozen places on Earth where no species have gone extinct since the days of Lewis and Clark. But it’s also impressive from a financial perspective. Close to $80 million of private philanthropy has already unlocked more than $330 million in public funding. That kind of leverage—both physical and financial—is very exciting.

Nobody but the Conservancy seems to tackle conservation challenges at this scale.

Q: What other kinds of projects are you proud of?

There’s much more to The Nature Conservancy than these types of big deals. I’m also excited about things like our support of state ballot initiatives for conservation funding. Last year in Iowa, for example, we helped build support for a constitutional amendment that will direct $150 million per year of the next sales tax increase toward wetlands restoration, water quality programs, and other projects that will help prevent and reduce impacts from flooding.

There’s also our Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program, which matches urban high school students with summer internships on Conservancy nature preserves across the country. It’s a key component of our efforts to close the gap between nature and people—especially among urban and youth audiences—and build the next generation of conservation leaders.

Q: How are you going to scale up those kinds of successes, given your concerns that The Nature Conservancy needs to do more?

To borrow a term from my banking days, we need to maximize our conservation return on investment. That will require a relentless focus on priorities and measuring the effectiveness of our work.

And we need to get more people involved in our cause. We need to build more support so that we have more clout to get the regulations the environment needs. We need to engage more with nontraditional supporters. We need to reach young people who don’t spend the time outdoors we did as kids. I think we need to beat the drums more loudly.

Q: What messages do you want to send with those drums?

We need to help people more fully understand that nature is an essential underpinning of human well-being. There are so many reasons why each of us loves nature. And we need to shine a spotlight on all of them. We all depend on nature for our health, for our livelihoods. So it makes sense that people should identify with protecting nature—they’re protecting their future.
And we have to do a better job explaining that we are protecting nature for people, not from people. One of my early trips when I started at The Nature Conservancy was to our Pine Butte preserve, a former dude ranch in Montana. I had dinner there with a rancher named Dusty Crary, who told me that he and his buddy used to use our Conservancy sign outside the ranch for target practice. And sure enough, it was full of bullet holes. That’s how poorly they regarded the Conservancy when we first arrived.

Then they saw us doing things like working closely with local ranchers to help protect lands from being subdivided and developed, by keeping ranching families in business.

Today, Dusty Crary is a Conservancy board member in Montana.

We need more Dustys. To be successful going forward, we must connect with people we don’t usually talk to.

Q: How?

Well, for one thing, we need to keep building global support for conservation. And I think we’re making good progress.

For example, in China we’re now backed by a board of trustees that includes some of the country’s most influential private-sector leaders. We’re one of the most prominent and successful nongovernmental organizations in China.

Likewise, in Latin America, we just announced our Latin America Conservation Council. The group brings together a real who’s who of the region’s top business and political leaders. They’re going to work on conservation projects in the areas of water security, food security and infrastructure development—the big challenges in that region.

Around the world, there’s a surge in the understanding that conservation is important. Capitalizing on this trend is just one way we can really help sow the seeds of global change.

Q: Speaking of change, tell us more about The Nature Conservancy’s work with the private sector.

I’m a true believer in the potential for private companies to be a powerful force for social good. I think we have an enormous opportunity to help businesses incorporate the value of nature’s services—clean water, productive soils, protection from storm surges—into their core business strategies.

For example, we are currently working with Dow Chemical to determine how the company’s operations rely on and affect nature. Dow’s factories are enormously dependent on water supply. They also depend on mangroves and other natural systems to provide buffer from coastal storms. Our goal is to demonstrate how conservation science can be applied in new ways in a business context, and to create tools and methods other companies can test and apply.

I think working with business is essential if we’re to achieve our mission. Some folks ask why we would work with companies that have a big environmental footprint. I say, why wouldn’t we? If we can change the way big business values nature and conducts business—and I think we can—the impact can be huge. That doesn’t mean it’s easy work. It’s not. But I think it would be irresponsible of us not to try.
Q: Where does traditional land acquisition fit with these new approaches?

Buying land will always be an important tool for us. Conservation easements, too—hugely important. We’ll continue to work wherever we can be most effective—especially in places where we can get the most conservation bang for the buck.

The simple truth is, we can’t afford to buy all of the lands and waters that need protection. So we look for the biggest challenges and the most important problems to solve. We look for situations where we are uniquely positioned to get things done. If another organization can do it, we’re inclined to let them. We take on projects that we think can be real game-changers—either by changing public policy, through replication or by influencing others. Of course we’re famous for taking on the largest projects.

Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

The most difficult part is making choices. We’re overwhelmed with opportunities to take on worthy projects. There is so much work to do. But if we take on too much and spread our resources thin, we won’t get our most important goals accomplished. We have to pick our spots. We need to think hard about what we will and won’t do.

Q: What does your family think of your job and of The Nature Conservancy?

My family loves The Nature Conservancy. We have staff and the board over to our house for dinner from time to time. Amy and our kids have really enjoyed getting to know the team.

Like most families these days, we’re very busy. But we love being outdoors whenever we can. Amy goes on Conservancy bird walks, and my first week on the job, I took my son Luke to Great Falls Park, which the Conservancy helped create. We were excited to discover such a spectacular natural area just 15 miles from our house. And my son Rex joined me when I gave a speech at the National Mall before a huge crowd on Earth Day. I spoke right before the band The Roots began their show. Rex thought that was very cool.It’s a great feeling to know that my family is proud of me and of the Conservancy.

And if we do our job well, in another 60 years my kids and yours will be talking about how The Nature Conservancy and our members made a huge difference for the world.

"We need to engage more with nontraditional supporters. We need to reach young people who don’t spend the time outdoors we did as kids. I think we need to beat the drums more loudly."

Mark Tercek, CEO and President of The Nature Conservancy