People in Your Neighborhood: La Jollan Mark Laska guides environmental consulting into a ‘new era’

La Jolla resident Mark Laska has won a national award for business leadership in ecology.
(Courtesy of Great Ecology)

La Jolla resident Mark Laska has a unique eye on the environment, helping companies attend to ecological issues and earning accolades for his efforts.

Laska founded the consulting firm Great Ecology 20 years ago to “bring higher ecological thinking to leading governments and companies,” he said. “We try to also repair the world through ecology. … We strive toward habitat restoration.”

Habitats are degraded through urbanization and contamination or pollution, Laska said. Great Ecology works to help companies mitigate environmental impacts, along with facilitating projects that add ecological value to parks and public spaces.

Laska, who also is the company’s chief executive, said the 20-person company has completed more than 1,000 projects in 35 states.

The nonprofit Environmental Law Institute awarded Laska its Business Leadership honor at the 33rd annual National Wetlands Awards on May 19 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t just work exclusively in wetlands,” he said, “but [it’s] a big piece of what we do.”

The Environmental Law Institute is the “epicenter for all current environmental legal thinking,” giving out annual awards in a variety of categories, including research and community advocacy, Laska said.

“To be recognized by this nonprofit independent organization as a leader felt extremely gratifying,” said Laska, who holds a doctorate in ecology but chose to turn away from academia.

Many of the wetland projects that influenced Laska’s award are in San Diego.

Great Ecology has taken on several local projects, like this one to treat surface water runoff from the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Great Ecology has taken on several local projects, including this one to treat surface water runoff from the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Courtesy of Great Ecology)

Laska moved his family and firm to the West Coast from New York City 12 years ago to gain more space for his then-growing family (which includes his wife and their four children) and opened a second office in La Jolla.

Now there is a third Great Ecology office in Denver.

Moving his company across the country was an “eye-opening experience,” Laska said — California and New York have different approaches to environmental issues.

New York receives 40 inches of rain per year, so “a lot of what we do is manage all this water,” he said.

“In California, we have the opposite problem,” he said. “When we do get water, it usually comes in big, strong pulses. And that water picks up a lot of contamination and flows into the ocean. The movement of water here is really important from the environmental perspective.”

“The other thing that’s really critical,” he added, “is we don’t yet know and understand the repercussions of climate change.”

In La Jolla, “we have to be keenly attuned to [climate change] because so much of what we draw people here for is the ocean,” Laska said. “What happens as climate change makes that area more vulnerable and the beach gets washed away?”

Laska said the coexistence of the biotech corridor, research institutions and corporations in and around La Jolla is an opportunity to draw together normally fragmented communities.

“We have just a tremendous volume of brilliant people, [but] getting the cross pollination is definitely hard,” he said.

Great Ecology strives to hire academics from leading local universities whose research “pushes the boundaries of our scientific knowledge” and furthers the consultants’ work in applied projects, he added.

Integrating ecology into for-profit companies not originally founded on environmental advocacy is driven by regulations, Laska said. That gives them “no choice but to address environmental issues.”

Nonprofit organizations like San Diego Coastkeeper — for which Laska used to be a board member — also have helped companies realize they need to take ecology seriously, he said.

A third driver of the increase in companies’ more cohesive approach to ecology is that shareholder value now gives more weight to their environmental actions, Laska said.

Large companies now have a chief sustainability officer, he said, a position that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

“That has made a firm like mine particularly successful,” Laska said, “because we’ve been able to get in under the hood and influence several different companies and the directions they take. Twenty years ago [that] would have been impossible.

“It’s a new climate; it’s a new era.”

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