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October 13, 2009

Globe Trotter: Mark Johnstad ’94 learned that a law degree could take him anywhere

Developing a full-sized protected areas project for Jamaica; managing a watershed project in Iran; evaluating a five-nation European Union funded conservation project in South America; and finishing up a project for World Bank covering more than thirty sub-Saharan nations.

This is all in a day’s work for Oregon Law 1994 graduate Mark Johnstad.

Johnstad is a self-employed consultant advising international donors on natural resource investment and policy. He works from his home base in Montana, but his job takes him all over the country ’“ sometimes traveling to ten or twelve different countries in a one-year span.

“Everyday, with my job, I wake up with the specific intention and opportunity to hopefully make the world a better place,” Johnstad says of his career path, which originally never included obtaining a law degree.   Mark Johnstad and Family

It takes just one glance at Johnstad’s resume to see that traveling around the globe has always been one of his passions. While completing his undergraduate studies at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, Johnstad spent more than a semester in the Middle East studying at both Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. While in Ramallah, Johnstad also worked as a drama instructor for Palestinian youths from refugee camps.  Johnstad also spent time as a Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University in England before graduating with his bachelor’s degree in English Literature, with a concentration in Middle East studies, in 1986.

Following his graduation from Saint Olaf, Johnstad worked as a processing plant manager in Chignik and Valdez, Alaska; as a horse wrangler for The Navajo Nation in Sheep Springs, New Mexico; and taught underprivileged and academically challenged minority children in the El Paso, Texas, independent school district of Yselta.

Johnstad admits that it was during his time as a mountain guide and ski instructor in Vail, Colorado, during the late 1980s when his eyes were opened to the environmental injustices occurring throughout the country.  

“While I was a ski bum in Vail, I ended up spending summers around the West and I saw the wild being sucked out of the West,” Johnstad recalled. “I was agitated by what I saw and wanted to do something about it.”

So, Johnstad headed to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the Artic National Refuge Conservation Program where he just happened to find himself in the office next to Oregon Law Class of 1961 alumnus Mike McCloskey, the Sierra Club’s first field organizer and longtime executive director.

“Mike McCloskey was a really good influence on me,” Johnstad said. “He was the one who suggested I go to law school and recommended the University of Oregon, so I took him up on his advice.”

Of course, the lead up to law school had to be done in true Mark Johnstad fashion.

“Before going to the University of Oregon I traveled around the world. I wanted to do something crazy,” Johnstad remembered. “You know how you take out a mortgage for a house? Well, paying for law school is like taking out a mortgage for your head. One of my biggest fears was that I’d have to be an attorney to pay back my student loans.”

Johnstad’s law school experience was a pleasant surprise. He was introduced to Justice William O. Douglas’s 1962 National Geographic Magazine cover story, “Journey to Outer Mongolia.” His interest was piqued and Johnstad’s passion took over as he began an in-depth study into the often-overlooked country situated between Russia and China.

By the end of his first year of law school, Johnstad created, and was serving as advisor for, The Altai Project in Mongolia, sponsored by the law school and Sierra Club.

As an advisor, he assisted in the establishment of several major conservation areas (national parks), including field assessment and negotiations with local community members. He reviewed environmental conservation policies and strategies, and advised diverse scientific and environmental organizations and professionals regarding access to international funding and changing roles in altered social, economic, and political environments.

“I am so grateful for all of the support I received from the law school and Dave Frohnmayer during my time there,” Johnstad remarked. “The school helped me secure a lot of funding for the projects I was taking on.”

Following his second year of law school, Johnstad again traveled to Mongolia as part of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, where he directed the efforts of international, multi-disciplinary professionals to create a land use plan for a major watershed of Lake Baikal.

During this time he also participated in the United Nations Development Programme-Global Environment Facility (UNDP/GEF), a program designed to advocate for change and connect countries to the knowledge, experience, and resources necessary to help people build a better life.

While in Mongolia, the UNDP/GEF offered Johnstad the opportunity to actually co-manage the “Mongolia Biodiversity Project,” a multi-million dollar investment in Mongolia.

“I knew I would have to take two years off from law school to complete this project,” Johnstad recalls of being approach about the Mongolia Biodiversity Project. “But this was the opportunity of a lifetime and I knew the school would support me.”  

During this time, Johnstad aided in the creation of a National Park Service, a significant expansion of the protected areas network, and established a locally driven and multi-faceted national biodiversity conservation program. Johnstad’s achievements in Mongolia were recognized as a model for successful GEF programming.

Even with all of this success, Johnstad credits Professors Mary Wood and John Bonine, and former Professor Mike Axline, with giving him the necessary tools to accomplish his goals in Mongolia.

“Mary Wood helped me use the practical stuff from the classroom to develop and implement legislation for biodiversity into the Mongolian legal system.”

It was also during this two-year stint that Johnstad would complete a fete that some might call “incredible,” and other might call “insane.” He completed an independent three-month horseback journey across parts of Siberia and most of Mongolia.

“It was amazing to get to know the country in such an intimate way,” Johnstad said of his expedition.

While it might seem to some that Johnstad’s outside work would hinder his law school career, this is hardly the case. His law school resume boasts not only his time working internationally, but includes a 1992-93 Dean’s Scholarship; serving as a research assistant for the Western Environmental Law Update from 1991-93; and being named to the Student Bar Association’s Committee for Instructional Excellence for 1992-93.

“My memories of the University of Oregon at that time are filled with energy and vision,” Johnstad said. “It was a great class of people to go to law school with. Everyone was supportive and curious about the world. We had a shared vision of confidence that we could do things to make the world a better place.”

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