165: Colonel Mark Read, part 1: Environmental Engineering at West Point (transcript)

April 10, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Colonel Mark Read

Colonel Mark Read heads West Point’s Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. I met him through another guest on the show Colonel Everett Spain so I recommend listening to that episode as well. Two myths about the military have unraveled in me as a result of seeing West Point from the inside and talking to these generals and colonels and heads of departments. One is that the military practices command and control leadership and someone of any rank could just order people to do something and they’ll get cultural change, let alone compliance. On the contrary, you’ll hear from Mark how people lead with compassionate understanding. Now of course this is outside of combat. This is in a learning environment. But he also talks about how they lead in other countries when they practice nation building and things like that. I think that’s the direction of the military these days. I can’t say for sure. This is just what I’m getting but listen for yourself.

The second is that the military wouldn’t care about the environment or their effect on it. Listening to Mark I hear genuineness and authenticity in his passion for building his department and helping it grow for the missions that he helps people serve outside. So far I think one could say a lot of what they’re doing is fixing what they’ve broken but I think I see that they’re looking forward to sustainability at least in the training areas and certainly in their stewardship in other countries. The military reacts to the nation’s values, that comes from you and me although they also influence us back. I see them as ahead of us in many ways especially compared to corporate leadership. I think a lot of corporate leaders could stand to learn from West Point. It is one of America’s top institutions for teaching leadership. Let’s listen to Mark.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Mark Read. How are you doing?

Mark: Thanks, Josh. It’s great to be here with you.

Joshua: And you are a colonel here at West Point.

Mark: I am. I just want to make sure I’m clear everything we’re going to talk about or my own personal views are not necessarily the views of the army or the West Point or the government.

Joshua: Cool. I appreciate that that was important to cover. And I think of you as the head of the Environmental Engineering department. Do I have that right?

Mark: Well, the full title is the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. So yes, Environmental Engineering is part of it but just a part of it.

Joshua: OK. And that’s not what I think everyone thinks of as what someone come to West Point to study or come to West Point to teach. I presume you went to West Point?

Mark: I did. I graduated in 1992, actually in the very first class along with Colonel Spain, one of your other guests, we were both environmental engineers and we were in the first class that was offered environmental engineering as a major at West Point and both of us opted to major in that.

Joshua: Maybe this is before your time but I wanted to know how the military, how the army decided to make it a major initiative and how you personally decided to go into it.

Mark: Yeah. So I know a little bit of the backstory of really how it became a major at West Point and we had a number of people here at West Point who had studied the environment in various forms. A lot of people looking at water… Our Corps of Engineers has a big emphasis on water, water quality, waterways maintaining, inland waterways dams and river systems, the health of aquatic ecosystems and that’s a large part of what they do, fisheries, things like that. So I think that’s part of the background behind how environmental engineering became an option here but also the army has… In the past we made some messes and we needed to clean those messes up and a lot of times things we didn’t even realize that we were doing whether it was in waste disposal methods or things that we were ammunition, things that we were using, our rangelands and training areas.

And so there you know by the 70s and 80s I think a lot of people looking going, “Hey I don’t know if we can kind of sustain this way of doing business. You know there’s actually… We’re not just degrading. There’s maybe even some human health impacts to the way we’re doing business.” So environmental engineering was really born as a discipline. In many cases it grew out of civil engineering but and here at West Point back in the 80s when some of the senior officers then were looking at well, you know what’s the future, what are some areas that we need to explore as we update and keep our curriculum up to date here. And Environmental Engineering emerged. And there were a lot of people that were kind of naysayers like this is this isn’t going to go anywhere. This is just kind of you know a flash. And interestingly some of those same people a little few years earlier had said the same thing about this new field of computer science that you know what good might that do. So in the mid-80s it kind of put a plan together and offered it as a major and it’s been well subscribed to ever since.

Joshua: Let me see if I get this right. I would have thought that the interest in Environmental Engineering would be we’ve got to put bridges up really fast and if we’re going to supply our armies and so forth. And now I think from what you said it may be something before Environmental Engineering that was how do we engineer solutions to bring supplies and so forth. But you left messes and so it’s not really a combat thing now but it’s part of the army mission, I guess is not just what happens in battle or you have to prepare for that but also you have a big institution that sustains itself and people… So some people said, “We’re leaving a mess. We can’t keep doing this.” Why not though? I mean you’re the army. Deal with the mess. I mean that sounds like there must have been some internal change or some people thinking about it in a different way than they did before.

Mark: Sure. I think a couple of different things going on. I think first is just sort of a societal awareness as we looked around and things were happening in the 60s and 70s and we looked at some of the damage. You know when things like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act were born that we realized that as population increases and some of our industrial practices weren’t sustainable… I don’t know that we called it sustainability back then. That’s kind of what it’s evolved into now. But I think there was still an awareness that possibly the way we were doing business, not possibly, we had now the scientific evidence to show that the way we had done business whether that’s industry or military it left an impact, it left an imprint on the landscape and that it wasn’t healthy for the landscape, it wasn’t healthy for ecosystems and ultimately it wasn’t healthy for humans that we’re using and we’re dependent on those ecosystems. So I don’t think it was anything the army… Were we out front? I don’t think we probably were. I think we’re kind of just moving along with the times and this awareness that… But we have lots of equipment. We use things that are dangerous whether that’s fuels and petroleum products or ammunition and we needed to be smart about the way that we process those and dispose of them when we’re done using them or when they’re expended.

Joshua: Okay. I was listening to what you’re saying. I hope listeners rewind, go back a little bit and listen to what you just said because I think you could have been a tree hugging hippie and said very similar things to that. Now you’re not. I don’t read you as one.

Mark: Well, I’ve not been called that but…

Joshua: Is there a disconnect between this environment of West Point duty, honor, country, patriotism and care for the land, the joy of the cleanliness and purity of the land and the water. Is there any reason why these…? I am having trouble fitting these together.

Mark: Yeah. On the one level I can understand why you might think, “Well, military you know they don’t really care about…” I mean in our job, really our job, the army’s job is to fight and win our nation’s wars. It’s not always a pretty thing. It’s proven to be a pretty necessary thing over our history. So here our primary mission is not to be stewards of the environment. What we’ve found though, well, let me give you a couple of different examples of it really to kind of where I think we’ve seen this manifest itself. One, maybe in the probably the 50s into the 60s and then one probably has emerged more recently in the past 18 years of conflict that we’ve been in.

So the first example is we increasingly have relied on as our vehicles have gotten bigger, our weapons longer range on large areas to train our military particularly in the post-World War 2 era. There are training areas across the country, many of the bigger ones are out west for obvious reasons now that we have large areas of basin and range land that the government has used or at least controlled for a long time and some of those areas are military turning. But we have areas in the east as well. Some places like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Benning, Georgia. Even here at West Point we have a training area. And what we realized particularly places where we were training using vehicles that we were wearing out the land and we go out and train and train and train and we’re not taking care of that land that belonged to the military, it was government land and what we found is that the training areas were degrading to a point where either… Sometimes we straight up couldn’t use them. That becomes just this soupy mud bath that looks something like the surface of the moon or like no man’s land in World War 2. You can’t maneuver a tank out there.

So, for instance, one of our training had been stationed at one of our training areas in Germany and two times a year we stop, we give that land, it’s a rest area, it’s a pause in training, and we basically go out and we will recede areas, we’ll plant trees, we’ll put in or restate areas that are off limits for vehicular movement and we may change those and we’ll assess and we’ll really look, “Hey, are there areas that we need to put off limits so that it can recover a little bit?” And really we’ve done that across all of our training areas. So environmental management is really kind of land management of our own training areas. And we realized if we didn’t take care of the land that we had, we’re not going to get any more land. I mean the population’s not going down. Population pressures and we have encroachment on many of our training areas as population of local communities increases. We weren’t going to get any more land so we really had to take care of the land that we did have and make it so that it’s yes, we’re protecting the species that are there but we’re also protecting it first and foremost so that the next generation of soldiers has quality land to train on.

Joshua: It’s incredible. Why is the army not…? This should be like shouting from the rooftops because most people, I think most people want to emulate the behavior that the army is actually doing. And I think most people don’t know that the army is doing this. Like so one I hope people listen to this. If you’re thinking, “Should I plant some trees?” Go for it. I mean you guys… Do you actually hire people to do it or you guys are doing it yourselves?

Mark: Both. Both.

Joshua: Ok. The benefit is that you can come back and reuse stuff and it sounds like you’re not looking like this is a sacrifice. Is there any loss in security? Is there any loss in performance in doing this?  

Mark: It’s a constraint that you adapt around. So yes, there are. I mean I can think of times when one of the endangered or protected species that we’ve really kind of struggled with that’s present on a lot of our training areas in the southeast is the red-cockaded woodpecker and you say that word and there will be people that will bristle like “Oh, the red-cockaded woodpecker.” But I don’t know who and the federal government basically said look you know it’s a protected species there are certain things that you can’t do around these nesting trees. And so the army is like well OK, they’re right smack in the middle of our training areas. And I can remember as a young lieutenant at Fort Polk Louisiana addressing this issue and all my soldiers in my platoon we had to know OK, well and what we did is the army went out, we would paint trees a certain color or we’d paint a band around them like OK, if you knew a camera was a red band or a yellow band that’s a red-cockaded woodpecker tree. And then around it there’s a certain perimeter that scientists, environmental scientist or biologists determined that if you did things like discharge weapons or explosions within this, it would disturb particularly at certain times a year on their nesting it would disturb the species.

So basically around this there would be a perimeter of sort of red painted bands around red trees and so you had this perimeter and you just kind of knew it just became part of your operating, your mission when you’re out on a mission like OK, I just have to… It’s a constraint kind of like a rule of engagement that we have and we’re deployed. So you know is it the same as it would be when we’re deployed? No but it’s just another thing that you just got used to and you adjusted to it and adapted to it. Did it degrade training? Well, it could’ve if we didn’t manage it the right way and probably in some cases it has put constraints on us. I know there have been certain areas that you know for whatever reason there may be a protected tortoise species or something that’s you know that will put an entire area off limits and that’s a constraint. But by and large I think you know we try to work around those and adapt and adjust as we would whether it’s environmental regulation that we have to comply by or some other rule of engagement that we have to follow.

Joshua: I don’t know how I’d look to this and listeners can’t see I’m totally fascinated by this because I did not expect to hear that. I feel like this country like regulation so many people resist and oppose regulation. But you guys it sounds like it’s like OK. That’s a constraint we work around, we’re going to battle. If there is a hospital, we can’t bomb around there. I don’t know what the rules of engagement are but just like the Geneva Convention and things like that. And this is like that and I’m sure that internally there was like, “Are we putting the nation at risk by doing this?” and somehow it came out “We’re not.” I guess.

Mark: Well, you know don’t get me wrong, there have been struggles and legal battles and you know it’s not like the army is just going to say, “Well, sure you know we’re going to put this whole area off limits.” We do sort of look you know here and we looked at the cost and the benefits and sometimes we can’t just agree on those or figure out a work around. Sometimes is we do go into sort of the you know a higher system whether that would be a law that the Congress implements or maybe it goes into the courts and the courts have to decide. And don’t ask me to cite any specifically because I’m not happy to get our lawyers in to do that. But even in that area I mean as a cadet, as a young environmental engineer I took a whole semester course in environmental law. So I was aware of these things and understood sort of the history behind them.

Joshua: And part of what makes me so fascinated about it is also I talk about American culture about these things but also on an individual level I feel like a lot of people feel like, a lot of people think, “These little things don’t make a difference and the big things are too hard.” But you talk about some major big things that a group that you guys have come around, you’re doing things that are challenging and it’s not hurting you and I feel like it’s strengthening the core in some way and I hope that people listen, if people at home are thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. It’s too hard.” Well, the army is doing it. And I think they don’t have to. I mean I think you guys could probably get around a lot of things if you say national security or something like that. And yet is it making you guys stronger?

Mark: Well, I think. So let me now go. I mentioned that there was another area I wanted to talk about in this. Let me touch on that. So I think if we’re careful, it does make us stronger. One of the advantages that we have is that we’re very hierarchical. So if the army, big army says, “We figured out a way we’re going to protect the red cockaded woodpecker.”, everyone else is going to follow suit. So it’s not like my soldiers in my platoon had this sort of this compelling desire to say that most of them didn’t even know what a red-cockaded woodpecker was. We just knew that hey, we have to protect the species and we can’t go in this area and here’s why and here’s what it looks like. So the hierarchy of the organization does certainly help. You know it’s not always just a bottom up thing.

Well, let me talk to you about another more recent area where I’ve seen sort of an awareness of the environment and just this idea of stewardship, stewarding the environment. And that’s when we’re in a deployed environment and we’re doing what we call nation building. When we are in a significant fight what we call a kinetic fight that consumes all of your attention, all of your resources. But in places like, for instance, in Iraq and Afghanistan we have had some pretty big fights. You know you think of things like Fallujah and think of some of the smaller battles that we’ve had in Afghanistan. I spent some time in South Baghdad and it was a dangerous place, not as concerned about stewarding the environment in those moments. But what we found is that pretty quickly in most conflicts especially the conflicts of the past 18 years the majority of your time is not spent fighting per say shooting at each other. There is always some of that going on but the majority of people are involved in this idea of nation building or trying to restore economies and health networks and schools and really help the local population get back on their feet. Why? Because we know when the more quickly the local population is able to get back on their own feet and sustain themselves, that’s kind of key to our exit strategy. That’s when we can go home.

Well, so in order to build a rapport and maintain a rapport with a lot of those locals you know the environment that they live in whether they’re farming it, the water they’re drinking, the air they’re breathing, all of these things are the things that were there using that and having an impact on that depending on the number of soldiers and what our mission is and the length of time we’re there. But it doesn’t really help our effort to sort of buildup and build rapport with initially and then sort of help this local population get back on its feet. If we’re dumping stuff and just polluting their water or sort of not helping them take care of the land whether it’s you know a lot of cases, it’s agriculture in rural areas or things like that. So it helps with our mission there too. I mean it always for us it always comes back to mission but stewarding wherever we are whether it’s our training here as a home or the operating environment when we’re deployed somewhere stewarding the environment is part of what we’re doing and requires both awareness and in some cases it requires actually some action and planning on our part to do that.

Joshua: The word integrated comes to mind from what you’re saying which calls to mind integrity and I feel like that this is infused the army’s culture and behavior.


Joshua: I want to switch to… We have been talking about the army. I’m reading a lot of passion on you on a personal level. And what does the environment mean to you on a personal level as an officer at West Point?

Mark: You know it’s interesting I don’t know. I was thinking about this prior to coming over here to talk with you where my initial interest in the environment came from and I really can’t say. I was in scouts as a kid and spent a lot of time outside. My father and I always you know we like to hike and camp and do things outdoors so I suppose that’s part of it. I’ve always had an appreciation for the outdoors. I was an army brat so I moved around and I got to see you live in places like Alaska and Maine and places where they’re just beautiful parts of our world. I lived overseas for a while and got to hike and ski in the Alps. And so that’s probably part of it too. I think my interest in environmental engineering that’s certainly sparked my interest in the environment and I’ve gone on to while I spent most of my career as an infantry officer I’ve continued to enjoy for recreational purposes spending time outside now with my kids and my family. And so I think I’ve always just appreciated the outdoors and the world we live in and taking care of it. I mean anyone who spends time outside I think would agree sometimes for very different reasons but you know we have limited resources, we have limited outdoor space, we want to maintain a certain level of quality of whether it’s air or water or the land. And so I think that’s my personal interest. And I’ve been able to do that not necessarily as an infantry officer per say except you know we talked about some of the operational and training areas where I’ve been able to do that a little bit as a commander in the field. But now that I’m back on faculty here clearly I have a department that’s full of people who teach this. We have several things in our curriculum here where we get to teach about Earth Science, about the environmental systems, environmental engineering. And I love doing that and I have a pretty diverse faculty here that cover sort of different areas in that from the engineering to sort of the land use planning and things like that.

Joshua: I really like the seamless integration of things that I think a lot of people… I still can’t get off this is like how… From the outside perspective and I’m just one person but it seems like these are not so closely related but for you they really integrated of family and the nation and land and honor and this culture of the military. It really weaves together in a way that I wouldn’t expected so seamlessly. You’re like “Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t it be that way?” You heard my conversation with Everett and I wonder if… One of things I ask is if you’d be interested in and based on what you just talked about what it means to you of doing something to challenge yourself or to just do something that you might not have already been doing to act on the environment. Are you up for doing something?

Mark: I absolutely love stuff like this.

Joshua: Have you thought about it before the conversation?

Mark: Well, I did because I was in here… I heard what you had challenged Everett and Everett and I have been close friends since we were cadets.

Joshua: I didn’t challenge him. I offered him and…

Mark: And he challenged himself. Yes. So I have given a little bit of thought. Actually, one of the things my daughters have… I think I’m going to go a route that my daughters have been sort of leaning so I have a daughter who’s in college and a daughter who’s in high school and they have really been on sort of minimizing waste and I know that’s something that you’re passionate about as well. So hard to do with the family. I have total of four kids and a dog and we have lots of cadets over at our house and so you know that kind of adds some challenges in minimizing waste. But I do want to reduce and I was trying to think of a way to quantify that so I’m open for suggestions. I think going for like a bag of trash, one bag of trash for a year is… That bar is a little too high for me right now.

Joshua: It was for me at the beginning too.

Mark: I think we can measure this if we measure in bags of trash. I would like to not just me but my family, if that’s okay make it a family challenge, if we could reduce our volume of trash by half moving forward.

Joshua: Have you been measuring your trash?

Mark: Well, just only in averaged bags of trash per garbage pickup weekly. So it’s not very scientific but I have actually a pretty good sense and I think we were at about probably three to four kitchen garbage bags a week. I’d like to see if we can cut that in half and we’ve actually already started trying to do it a little bit. Is that a good… I mean does that work? Does that…

Joshua: Well, to me the big thing in management and leadership I think is that SMART goal so specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time constraint so it sounds specific, it sounds measurable. That’s why I asked if you’ve been measuring this stuff. Over what timescale you think would take for this to know if it’s working?

Mark: I think a month we’d probably have a pretty good sense or before garbage pickup. So we at least have an initial indicator and we’re already working on it and we’re much more aware of the packaging in particular. I mean that’s where a lot of it comes from. So packaging materials and trying to buy things that are not as heavily packaged and use things like you know like mason jars are wonderful. I love mason jars.

Joshua: It sounds like one that you’re interested in. One of the things I tell people when they start… I usually warn people about two things. They may come up or they may not but you, you’re jumping right into it. So one is that other people tend to make challenges. When you’re talking to me you think, “Oh, I won’t…” Some people say, “I’ll go for a month without any meat.” And then they go like mom cooks them a stake and like what do you do. You got to think about what’s going to happen. It sounds like your family’s already in it. And also I’ve point out leaders look at other people as part of the solution, not just part of problem but you have to prepare yourself for these things.

The other is travel but if you’re talking about in your house and that’s kind of taken care of. I think this is going to be one that… I’m going to send you… There are two guests that I’ve had. One is Bea Johnson who is a role model for me because her family of four produces like a mason jar of trash per year. And like I’m not even close. And Jim Harshaw who went to UVA. He was a division one wrestler. And his challenge was he was going to take up public transportation. He’s got four kids. And he came to me and he said, “I don’t if I can do this because I’m spending too much time away for my family to do the public transportation instead of driving.” I said, “Let’s schedule a conversation 1.5. We’ll do a little problem solving session.” Before that session after we scheduled it and before we actually had it he sat down with his family and he said, “Kids, I want to work this thing out. I want to do this thing but also I don’t want to spend less time with you.” And they sat together and they came with solutions for that instead of take a public transportation he substituted carpooling to the kids events with other families. And they started reducing the amount of packaging for lunch sandwiches stuff. And by the time conversation 1.5 rolled around he’d only solved it. So you might want to listen to that conversation with Jim.

Mark: Yeah. Sure.

Joshua: So yeah I think I want to go back to all the security stuff but I want to wrap up and hopefully we can talk about it more. Anything I didn’t think to ask to bring up or any message to the listeners that you want to put out there?

Mark: There’s so much more we could talk about and maybe we can meet again and discuss. So I would say to the listeners, first of all, I would encourage anyone to come to West Point and you’ve been here yourself a number of times now. And I tell anyone who’s listening, particularly if you’re a U.S. citizen, this is your military academy, it’s the United States military academy and it’s not my military academy. I’m here to help steward it and steer it in the right direction into the future. But I really encourage people to come visit and particularly if you’re in the Greater New York metro area, it’s really not very far away.

Joshua: I took the bus route from Port Authority and it dropped me off right here.

Mark: You can do that, you can take a train metro north up a Garrison and it’s right across the river so your river cross or whatever. It’s not very far. It’s an amazing place. Look at our great new visitor center. So that’s my plug to come see West Point I think the more people that see it and learn about what we do here I think it’s helpful to bridge sort of misunderstanding and understand what we do and why we do it. We have about 40 400 cadets here. And then a small piece of what we do here involves we offer environmental engineering, environmental science, geography, geospatial information science. We have about 200 cadets a year take an Environmental Engineering sequence that it’s a three-course sequence that they’re not environmental engineering majors but they may be humanities or… So bottom line we have cadets who are studying the environment and they are leaders and they’re going to go out and lead their units and lead the army and you know some of the things that we teach them… I’m going to leave you with our curriculum. And you can take a look at that but really we are teaching cadets about the environment that they live in, that they’ll train in and that they’ll be operating in not just here in the U.S. but around the world as we send them out from here. So we do we teach them that it’s important to take care of this really precious resource or the resources that we have so that the next generation has them too to train on or just enjoy.

Joshua: You know I heard that earlier in my life and I took too long to take people up on that advice. So yes, I’ll add to that. The sooner, the better for yourself. Mark Read, thank you very much. I’ll talk to you again in a month.

Mark: Thanks, Josh. Appreciate it.


It makes us stronger. That’s a military leader at the United States Military Academy at West Point talking about environmental stewardship. Who would have expected a top military leader to talk about woodpeckers and to act on it? A major initiative of the military these days is restoring economies and helping local populations. Stewarding the environment is fundamental. Does that sound familiar? Those are difficult situations they face but it looks like a direction for modern militaries. Same with organizations that you’re leading in the face of cultural change. I don’t know what your organization does but I bet its customers, employees and community want more sustainability, not less and you’ll lose market share to a competitor who it does it first. And the person who leads it will get promoted. I hope that civilian leaders learn from Mark’s lead. I can’t believe how much American businesses and other institutions are trailing the rest of the world in environmental stewardship. Let’s do this. It starts with you and me right here, right now. Can you commit to live by a value of yours as Mark did involving his whole family?

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