Published: Aug. 17, 2016 By

Dan Whittle

With relations between the United States and Cuba thawing, the island nation beckons a growing number of American tourists and businesses. But not everybody is fantasizing about the Caribbean country’s potential as a vacation destination and profit center. 

Take Dan Whittle (Law’89), for instance, senior attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF): He sees increased tourism and business as a veritable “tsunami” threatening Cuba’s long-standing commitment to natural resources protection. 

“Cubans are well aware of the opportunities and challenges associated with opening up,” said Whittle, who leads EDF’s Cuba Program. “Most Cubans I know see it as a real opportunity to grow the economy. There’s a fierce debate about where to strike the balance.” 

President Obama has pushed hard for normalizing relations with Cuba and in March became the first U.S. president to visit in nearly a century. Americans are traveling to Cuba in record numbers and U.S. businesses are scouting opportunities there. 

All that presents risks to local ecosystems, said Whittle, who has been helping safeguard Cuban ecosystems for more than 15 years and has traveled to Cuba more than 70 times — 11 in the last year alone.

“The health of shared marine and terrestrial ecosystems depends directly on environmental decision-making in both countries,” he said. 

Whittle’s personal interest in the outdoors became a commitment to the environment while he was at CU, partly through a law school seminar about natural resources. 

He joined EDF in 1997 and became involved in Cuban affairs in 2000, while running an EDF program to help fishermen on the U.S. East Coast establish sustainable, profitable fisheries. A colleague suggested expanding the program to include Cuba, given its ecological connection to the U.S. via ocean currents and its exceptional biological diversity. Cuban officials signed on and EDF’s work there has blossomed since. 

One project underway involves protecting a quarter of the island’s insular platform — a nearly 27,000-square-mile coastal region that is home to thousands of species of fish, crustaceans, sponges and mollusks, as well as 1,360 miles of pristine coral reefs. 

Whittle’s work involves convening scientists and policymakers from Cuba and the U.S. to coordinate the habitat assessments necessary to develop and advocate for environmental policies. 

“Both countries have an interest in the environment, and it’s not terribly political,” Whittle said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.” 

Whittle grew up in New Hampshire and Kentucky and studied economics and German at Vanderbilt. An advanced natural resources seminar at Colorado Law with professor Charles Wilkinson helped steer him toward work as a professional environmentalist.

“We spent the semester looking at management of two national parks and five national forests in the Yellowstone area, and the many conflicts around public land use,” Whittle said. “The course taught me about the importance of getting diverse viewpoints around the same table when
making decisions about natural resources. I am still using lessons learned from that experience.” 

Photo by Noel Lopez Fernandez