Justin Lotak graduated with his MBA from the School in 2011 and has been working in the power generation industry since 2006 on a variety of medium- to large-scale wind, solar, and natural gas power plants, both in the US and Scotland. His latest continent-hopping venture is taking him around the world to discover the different approaches to conservation.

Copyright Justin Lotak
Photography by Justin Lotak

“When we think of conservation of biodiversity, we often don’t think about significant positive impacts to the economy,” says Justin. “But when you start looking deeper, there are many ways in which wildlife and wild places can bring benefits to local communities as well as to national economies from increased consumer spending, employment and tax revenue, not to mention ecosystem services.”

Justin’s organisation, Conservation Atlas, is working to find these links between conservation and the economy, especially those that come from sustainable tourism.

He set up the US-based company in late 2016 with his partner Andreea. The non-profit organisation has a mission to ‘support the protection of wildlands and biodiversity by expanding the public’s awareness of conservation efforts around the world.’ It promotes responsible travel which it sees as one of the greatest methods of connecting humans with the natural world, ensuring that the long-term value of conservation will benefit local communities, biodiversity, and future generations.

For the first two years, their aim has been to visit as many conservation projects around the world as they can, to learn about ways in which private individuals, organisations and governments are working to conserve various ecosystems throughout the planet. They’re amassing a wealth of photographs, interviews and films to share the stories they’ve come across and ways in which interested travellers can get involved.

You start to realise that most of us do spend a lot of money on being in the great outdoors.
Justin Lotak

“The earth has an abundant amount of species and wild landscapes for which a growing number of people are choosing to use their precious holiday time to go and see and experience each year,” he says.

“As people use extra income to buy mountain bikes, trail-running shoes, fishing poles, or a new soft shell jacket, the economy takes notice. In fact, the 2016 report from the US Outdoor Industry Association estimated that consumers spent $887 billion on outdoor recreation for the year in the United States.

“This may seem high, but when you include everything from airfares, lodgings, groceries, gear, and lift tickets, you start to realise that most of us do spend a lot of money on being in the great outdoors. In fact, this puts outdoor recreation as the fourth highest consumer spending category in the country.”

All this spending means jobs. The same study estimates that 7.6 million Americans rely on outdoor recreation for their livelihood. This isn’t just park rangers and fly- fishing guides; this includes scientists, gear designers, entrepreneurs, and individuals working in transportation, retail, and manufacturing among others.

Over the last two years, Justin and his partner have travelled to 13 countries to learn about specific conservation projects, meet the teams that have worked hard to protect important habitats, and better understand the threats that various ecosystems and species are currently facing.

Examples of the projects they’ve visited include several new or future national parks that Tompkins Conservation has been creating over the last three decades in Chile and Argentina; a river rafting company that has worked with upstream communities to stop deforestation and protect an important river in Fiji; and grassland conservation in Kazakhstan where you can visit one of the largest remaining intact grasslands, approximately the size of France.

Conservation Atlas’ first short film, Conserving Iberá, was premiered in New York in October and is doing the rounds on the film festival circuit before being made available online. Three more films are in production covering long-distance hiking in New Zealand, underwater conservation in Indonesia, and the creation of Europe’s largest forested national park which will also be Europe’s first wilderness designated for the conservation of large carnivores (brown bears, wolves and lynx) in Romania.

Over the next few years, Justin and Andreea are aiming to start an annual conservation festival in Bellingham, Washington, where they will bring photographers, filmmakers, authors and conservationists from innovative projects across the planet to inspire the audience with the work they are doing to conserve the planet’s species and remaining wildernesses.

“Through education, awareness and inspiring content,” he says, “our goal is to become a leading source of information for those who want to explore the world differently and to contribute towards the betterment of biodiversity.”

As governments around the world begin to analyse the impacts of conservation to their economies, which include tourism, outdoor recreation, and the enormous benefits from ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, pollination, soil stabilisation, flood control, and carbon sequestration, Justin hopes that conservation of wild places and of biodiversity is not taken for granted.

“When we sit at the table with other industries that are looking to use land on a large scale, we should ensure that we understand the entire picture of what large scale conservation has done to date and what it can do for our future,” he explains. “Sometimes it takes decades or generations to notice, but the positive impacts on not only our health and environment, but also the economy, are there.”