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Inspiration is the path to nature conservation! I'm an eco-travel startup founder, wildlife biologist, author of articles and the behemoth book, "Art of the National Parks" and a landscape artist. Ask me anything.

Terry Lawson Dunn
May 11, 2018

All of my career paths have led to this point....the conclusion that people need to feel inspired in order to protect wildlife and wild lands. Dire environmental statistics and conservation guilt trips are too overwhelming (really, who has a spare 20 minutes to wash out a plastic peanut butter jar so it can be recycled?). It’s the magical emotional connection to nature, more than the logical, that engages people and drives them to take action.

I launched the startup, EcoTripMatch.com, to help people better connect to ecolodges and eco-tours around the world because I believe ecotourism is one of the best conservation tools. Travel gives people that direct, emotional connection, whether it’s close by or far afield. If I can help someone plan their time in nature by creating an itinerary or directing them to an epic experience, I’m a happy camper. As part of EcoTripMatch.com’s, I also started the annual Best Nature Tour Guide award, that recognizes the work of a remarkable person on the ‘front lines’ of ecotourism, selected by a global, online vote. 

I have a masters degree in environmental communications, have worked for World Wildlife Fund, Smithsonian National Zoo, National Audubon Society, and World Resources Institute, developing and writing educational materials on a range of biological and conservation subjects. I was the catalyst, co-author, and one of the art ‘curators’ for the award-winning (8 pound!) coffee table book, “Art of the National Parks: Historic connections, contemporary interpretations”. I have participated in wildlife field research projects in the Northern Rocky Mountains and the rainforests of Panama. In the past decade, I’ve organized and co-led nature trips to Panama, Botswana, South Africa, Spain and California. And if I wasn’t busy enough, I’m also a professional artist, which is my way of reliving those moments of inspiration that I find outside!

I’m excited to see what you’ll ask me. Bring it on!


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Conversation (62)

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What are your favourite travel websites and why?
May 15, 8:53PM EDT0

Well, I often use Travelocity to compare prices on flights. But, my favorite airline is Southwest, and they aren't on there, so I'll check that website also for domestic US flights. There are a smattering of websites for individual lodges or tour companies that are simply beautiful to look at, but you would need to be specifically interested in going there (of course, I run into those sorts of websites because I have some of them on EcoTripMatch.com). 

I also like the concept behind a new website called, LEEPguru.com. They have built a platform that enables people to communicate with an experienced traveler for advice on a certain activity or location A user can communicate in in different ways for different rates (a certain number of texted questions or creating a custom itinerary, for instance). I have partnered with them so their gurus will have an easier time recommending eco-friendly accomodations and I'm also one of their gurus!

May 16, 9:58AM EDT0
Have you had to make any big compromises or had struggles trying to make a career for yourself in the science world?
May 15, 6:59PM EDT0

Heck yeah. Ha ha. In the beginning, I took volunteer jobs (or created my own volunteer jobs) because there were no 'real' jobs for a recent graduate. I also experienced some bias because I was a woman, but I always approached those situations without a chip on my shoulder and a solid feeling that I belonged there (not a feeling that I needed to prove myself). There was always a dilemma about what to wear for a job interview too.....dress professionally, but then risk being seen as too girly for field work, or dress for field work, but not look professional!

I had grown up wanting to work in the field, and I did do plenty of that and loved it, but also came to the realization that I had more to contribute. I could 'translate' science-speak into language for non-scientists and felt that would ultimately have a bigger impact by delving into environmental communication.  So one big compromise was to be indoors more and at the time, it was an inner struggle to understand why field work wasn't enough for me. But, I look back and fully believe, that the greater the variety of skills a person has, the more unique the work and the more they have to offer.  It also allowed me to combine motherhood and work.

I hope that makes sense. That was a great question.

May 16, 9:48AM EDT0
How is the start-up scene in your local area? Do you see people switching to eco or sustainable ways of doing business?
May 15, 4:10AM EDT0

So, I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA.( I LOVE it here, BTW). We are the biggest city in the region and the cities that are larger are a day's drive away (Denver and Phoenix). The largest employer here is the federal government, so the start-up culture has grown because there are not a lot of opportunities if you have a specialized interest or specialized skills and you don't work for the government. The start-up scene is active, involved and there is a lot of encouragement. I think this is one of the most creative places I've lived, both artistically, but also because of the strong support for doing new things, thinking differently, and unconventionally. But...it's still economically difficult, which is part of the reason why an online business (EcoTripMatch.com), that can reach out to the rest of the world, is a good route for me. 

And your second question. I do see more and more businesses adopting more sustainable choices all around the world. More solar panels, more attention to how materials are sourced and transported, more thought given to the way things are made. I think businesses are recognizing that it might save them money, that they are under more scrutiny and that maybe it's just the right thing to do. 

May 15, 8:42AM EDT0
If you could tell others to take one action in their lives to help create a healthier environment, what would it be?
May 14, 5:04AM EDT0

I think it would be finding ways in your own life to conserve energy....turning off lights, selecting light bulbs that use less energy, chosing your transportation with energy conservation in mind, installing solar panels where it's reasonable, learn about how your purchases (food, packaging, manufacturing) use energy, etc. It's really one of our larger impacts on the environment and one where we as individuals have some control.  

May 14, 10:47AM EDT0
What is your advice for new entrepreneurs and travel startups?
May 13, 6:07PM EDT0

Make sure you love what you choose to pursue, because it's so much harder and will take so much longer than you predict!! I can't imagine hanging in if you don't feel very strongly. It's a rare day that I don't wake up afraid, honestly!! To keep my fears at bay, I have a special photo by my bed...a baby elephant, surrounded by the females in the herd, all walking on golden water at sunset in Botswana, (taken while I was there a couple years ago). It reminds me that I also want to ensure that the baby grows up!

May 13, 7:57PM EDT0
How do you combine your busy life as an entrepreneur and your private life?
May 13, 4:38PM EDT0

Well, they sort of play off each other. I find that daily exercise, particuarly outside, helps to reboot me (I hike and mountain bike, which I can do right out my front door). So that may seem like part of my private life, but it really helps with the flow of my ideas, problem-solving, and re-committing myself to the reasons I do what I do. Also, having discussions with friends and family about their travels is SO interesting (and people love to talk about their travels!), which is partially social, but also keeps me learning about the places they are visiting and any obstacles they may find.  

May 13, 5:34PM EDT0
How do you like your coffee in the morning?
May 13, 2:00PM EDT0

Shade grown!

May 13, 5:27PM EDT0

What advice would you have for someone who is unable to travel but who wanted to learn more about nature?

May 11, 1:33PM EDT0

Hello Patrick, 

Well.....it's hard not to find nature right where you are, wherever you are, and I think that's the best way to learn about nature. Even if it's a single tree. Really, if you just watch a tree for a while, see what birds or bugs are visiting it, take a close look at the bark to see if something is living on it, you will learn a lot just by taking a bit of time to do only that. But, I'm assuming you may have access to more than a single tree and could spend some time there, just tuning  into your surroundings. 

Here are some other ideas....I lived in Florida for a couple years, taking school kids on environmental education field trips, teaching them about what they were seeing. But we also did a couple exercises with them that always had suprising results. One was to stand together, perfectly quiet for a few minutes and count the number of sounds were were hearing on our fingers.  The other exercise was to spend 10 or 15 minutes in the forest, separated and facing away from each other, sitting completely still. When animals don't realize you are alive, interesting thing happen! And oh, the insights you get, just sitting in nature with no other agenda!

May 11, 2:00PM EDT1
What is your favourite means of transportation when travelling?
May 11, 9:59AM EDT0

My feet!! I really like hiking/walking as a way of immersinig myself in a new place.

But, if you are talking about actual transportation, I like trains because I can walk around inside, unlike airplanes, and I can see the countryside without having to concentrate on a road. 

May 11, 11:24AM EDT0
What things do you look for before you pick a place to travel to?
May 11, 9:35AM EDT0

Well, I'm not normal. Ha ha. When it comes to nature-related travel, I am all about the wildlife and scenery I'll get to see there. I love watching wildlife, seeing new or familiar creatures and watching their behaviors. That's the biologist side of me. But, then there is the artist side of me, and people who have traveled with me have found that I'm taking photos of scenery for future paintings. (I also have an art website: www.tlawsondunn.com). So, I look for places that inspire me in both of those ways.

That said, I also like the cultural aspects of going to places where things are done differently and I really enjoy meeting new people. 

May 11, 11:21AM EDT0
What are the pros and cons of ecotourism and why is it important?
May 11, 6:29AM EDT0

Now there's another good question! I think the biggest con of ecotourism is that so much of travel of all kinds still involves using fossil fuels. That's a hard one to get around. Also, if some fragile places get too many tourists, then if can be a problem (again, that's the case with all kinds of travel). In terms of the pros of ecotourism, I'll repeat what I said in a prior question: I really feel that ecotourism can address the economics behind wildlife and wild land conservation (if people are willing to spend money to see wildlife and intact wild lands, they are more likely to be protected) while leaving people in the equation. Ecotourism is not perfect, but it's a more promising conservation tool than some other in my book! 

May 11, 11:14AM EDT0
What is the impact you are trying to achieve with your start up?
May 11, 6:22AM EDT0

I really feel that ecotourism can address the economics behind wildlife and wild land conservation (if people are willing to spend money to see wildlife and intact wild lands, they are more likely to be protected) while leaving people in the equation. If travelers are frustrated, to the point of giving up on finding an ecolodge or ecotour that suits them,  then ecotourism is not going to work. That's the issue I'm hoping to solve with EcoTripMatch.com

May 11, 11:07AM EDT0
How does your website work? Does one need to create an account? Are there any costs involved?
May 11, 6:14AM EDT0

Hi Eric! You don't need to create an account and there are no costs involved in using EcoTripMatch.com. Lucky you! You can take a look as much as you want, hit different buttons, make diiferent choices (although I can tell you, if you select a rainforest ecosystem as well as 'Antarctica', in that Travel Style Quiz, you aren't going to get any matches!). There are several ways you can use the website...to find a short tour somewhere you plan to go, find eco-friendly accomodations, be led to someone who can help you find a local nature guide, etc. 

May 11, 11:02AM EDT0
What are your tips for planning an eco-friendly trip on a budget?
May 11, 5:53AM EDT0

Oh, there are so many options! The tips are not so different for budget travel of all kinds....travel in the off season, find places where your money stretches farther than where you live, wait for airfare sales, chose where you eat with your budget in mind, reuse your water bottle, ha ha.  I have some inexpensive places on EcoTripMatch.com. (Go to the Travel Style Quiz and check the box under the question having to do with money, here: ecotripmatch.com/ecolodge-and-ecotour-search-questions/).

There are currently 23 budget ecolodges/eco-tours on the site. 

I have found some creative ways to travel in my past., which might get you thinking. Once I traded a landscape painting of mine for a three day trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a trekking company. I went to the Amazon twice and covered my expenses by selling articles I wrote about the area. The group trips I plan and co-lead are covered. Think creatively...perhaps there is something you can offer that will enable you to travel on a budget and have a deeper experience because of it!

May 11, 10:55AM EDT0
What’s the most exciting thing you, your company has achieved so far?
May 11, 5:17AM EDT0

I just LOVE the EcoTripMatch.com annual "Best Nature Tour Guide" award process I started. I've done it two times now. The affection that comes through the written nominations I get are so heartwarming. And then, to be able to introduce the finalists to the rest of the world through the online vote, watch the votes come in from all over the place, then announce the winner feels like spreading glitter on the earth! My future goals are to build that program into something bigger and find a sponsor to enable me to deliver the award in person, wherever that might be in the world each year. Know anyone? :)

May 11, 10:42AM EDT0
How has the eco-trips been received by those who have had a chance to use it to date?
May 11, 4:02AM EDT0

Do you mean how has the website been received? I'll answer that, and if you meant something else, please ask me again.

I have made some changes to the website since the original version based on many customer interiews. Not big changes, but I added several new paths to help lead people to the type of experience they are looking for. 

I think people enjoy using the website to see what types of places may be good fits for them, but it may not be at a time when they are ready to book a trip. So, the trick is to catch people when they are really ready to make a plan. I think that's fairly common within the travel industry.

May 11, 10:37AM EDT0
If you could connect with one person, company or organisation in responsible tourism, who would it be, and why?
May 11, 2:34AM EDT0

That question made me think! Thank you. Here's what I realized....there is not a particular company or organization or person! I managed to connect to hundreds of people working in responsible tourism, around the world, as I built EcoTripMatch.com. I found so many individuals, in so many places, that have created small businesses based on the principles of ecotourism. It's a humbling feeling. I value those relationships, with average people doing wonderful things, far more than I would with a larger organization or high-level person. 

May 11, 10:22AM EDT0
When did you first hear about sustainable tourism and why is it important to you to travel sustainably?
May 10, 11:25PM EDT0

I think sustainable tourism has been around in one form or another before it was given a name, so, my memory about when I heard the term for the first time is not clear.  Before I heard about 'sustainable tourism' I was seeing people come away inspired by their time in nature, what they were being shown by a skilled guide, and eco-friendly practices they were introduced to while traveling (being urged to refill their water bottle, rather than starting with a new bottle each time it was emptied, for instance). The visitors were struck by the committment of this particular ecolodge and took that message home with them and made different choices because of it. That's one reason why sustainable travel is important. 

May 11, 10:02AM EDT0
What is the most interesting or unique behavior you have observed while out in the field?
May 10, 10:24PM EDT0

I'm assuming you are asking about animal behavior, not human behavior! Ha ha. 

It's not unique behavior, but it is funny....when White-faced capuchin monkeys (Central and South American forests) feel threatened, they rock the branches they are sitting on, then throw leaves and twigs. If you don't back off, they will urinate on you. 

May 11, 9:55AM EDT0
In what ways should the government and the tourism industry engage in promoting ecotourism?
May 10, 12:44PM EDT0

Interesting question! That's sometimes a 'push-pull' situation. I have heard from ecolodge owners in some parts of the world who want to be doing more, but government regulations, or obstacles get in the way. And, I know some practices wouldn't be implimented if it were not for government regulations mandating them. What I do know, is when travelers drive the change with their choices, governments and the tourism industry are more likely to follow suit. 

May 10, 1:27PM EDT0
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