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USDA Forest Service
Sustainable Resource Management
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Sustainable Development e-News

Special Feature

In His Own Words:
A Conversation With Denver R. James
Sustainability Education Coordinator (Retired)
Pacific Northwest Research Station, Northeastern Research Station, and
State and Private Forestry

Operating to Conserve, Educating to Sustain

Denver James WASHINGTON--Increased awareness and commitment to an agency's consumption ethic are gradually making the rounds--and taking root--in the Forest Service. That development is being enabled by "Operation Green," an internal agency initiative. Its purpose is to "green our facilities, fleet and operations, helping us walk the talk of sustainability," as Anna Jones-Crabtree, one of its ardent proponents describes it. Jones-Crabtree is sustainability operations coordinator in the Rocky Mountain Region.

"Operation Green" traces its beginnings to a national sustainability retreat held in November 2004 by National Forest System Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop (then-Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry) who serves as the agency's corporate domestic lead for sustainability. Participants from the Forest Service identified a number of steps the agency could take to better coordinate and advance its efforts to achieve its sustainability mission. The idea of supporting our Forest Service conservation ethic with a strong agency consumption ethic was captured in an "Operation Green" proposal developed during the retreat.

"Operation Green" supports the Forest Service's commitment to building employees' awareness of and support for agency and individual behaviors that promote sustainability, to contributing to employee health and productivity, to developing and providing a market for low-economic-value materials produced in reducing hazardous fuels, and to enhancing its credibility as an agency committed to conservation.

"The Forest Service has a strong conservation ethic, yet our operations, our consumption behaviors do not always reflect and support that ethic," said Denver James, who spoke with SDe-News during a recent visit to the Washington Office before his retirement. "One of the first steps in changing those consumption patterns is to accurately measure what we are consuming. It's a big step, as we often do not track such things as the amount of energy we use or the water we use. If it's not measured, you tend to ignore it."

James said that while the President has issued several executive orders aimed at reducing federal consumption demands, and USDA has taken a number of steps in that direction, the Forest Service could and should be a leader in that effort. "Our very mission is based on sustainability--sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands for present and future generations. Leadership for conducting our operations in a more sustainable manner should come naturally to us."

Q   What is sustainability education? And what is its overarching rationale?

It is education that focuses on the "triple bottom line": environmental health, social well-being, economic prosperity. Its rationale is that all three bottom lines must be simultaneously addressed as we seek to build a more sustainable future, individually, locally, and globally.

Are you comfortable with the inroads that you've made so far in sustainability education?

There's so much opportunity, and there's a lot more we can do. In the Forest Service we are embarking on a two-pronged effort: to build awareness of the need for and the value of sustainability and to ensure that the decisions we make and the actions we take as an agency are consistent with our sustainability mission.

Sustainability education can help a community (or a nation) become aware of the value of sustainable operations and set sustainability goals. When that happens, education can then be used as a tool to help accomplish those goals. Oregon is setting sustainability goals for the state, as are many states, communities and countries. My hope is that the Forest Service will be at the table, helping communities become more sustainable, especially with regards to the natural resources we steward.

What challenges do you confront in implementing Operation Green and advancing sustainability education in the Forest Service?

I see three major challenges. The first is general agency inertia and lack of awareness; however, this can be overcome when people understand what sustainable operations are all about, and begin to align their consumption behaviors with their strong conservation ethic.

The second challenge is to actually reduce our agency's ecological footprint, our consumption demands. We need to establish baselines for resources we as an agency consume annually--for example, the number of miles driven, kilowatts of energy used, reams of paper purchased, or gallons of water, gas and fuel consumed. Then we need to set reasonable goals and timetables for reducing our consumption.

The third challenge is community outreach and leadership for sustainability. We have the opportunity, and, I believe, the responsibility, of helping the communities we serve become more sustainable, especially in regard to the stewardship of our natural resources. We can do this through, for example, by walking the talk of our sustainability mission, by engaging the community through sustainability education, and by participating with the community in developing their own sustainability goals and programs.

How can the Forest Service contribute to sustainability education in the formal school setting?

We have scientific expertise in sustainability that can be incorporated into education curricula developed by our partners, enabling all of us to take full advantage of benefits of multidisciplinary perspectives. For example, earlier this year, our Sustainable Development Issue Team met with members of Project Learning Tree (PLT), an American Forest Foundation program that trains and supports educators in delivering environmental education. PLT is updating its Pre-K through 8th grade activity book, so we were working with them to incorporate Forest Service science and expertise in those activities.

We should find a way to reward Forest Service experts who become engaged in education for sustainability. For instance, how can we better reward our scientists' and professionals' educational efforts, such as those that resulted in the Natural Inquirer, a non-refereed publication for middle-school students?

Are there topics or issues that tend to be of concern to your audiences?

A few of them:

Will I lose my quality of life in order to be sustainable? Will becoming more sustainable be a negative for me? Will I give up my car? Do I have to live in a smaller house? How much will this cost?

When Forest Service employees work in a "green" environment, they are less likely to see "Operation Green" as a threat to their work or lifestyles. When the Bighorn National Forest in Region 2 introduced a hybrid Honda Civic into its operations, a few employees were less than enthusiastic about the new technology, thinking that it would hinder, rather than enhance, their accomplishments. Now, there's widespread interest in driving the vehicle.

In most instances, the agency will save money over the long term by operating in a more sustainable manner. It is true that some actions, such as building a facility that meets sustainability standards may cost more up front, but the energy and maintenance savings over the lifetime of that facility will recoup that expense many times over.

Are Forest Service audiences receptive to the messages on "Operation Green"?

Most Forest Service employees tend to be receptive to our messages. Most of us are in the agency because we value its conservation mission.

A factor that predicts that receptivity is the willingness to look beyond oneself. Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us that once people meet their basic, security, and "belonging" needs, they are then sufficiently comfortable with themselves to be able to challenge established ways of doing things. "Operation Green" is just one example of many employees' efforts over many years to help the agency become a better steward of the resources we use.

Any parting thoughts?

More than 150 Forest Service employees participate in the "Operation Green" listserv. The listserv allows us to share ideas, ask questions and support each other as we seek to improve the sustainability of Forest Service facilities, operations and fleet. Anyone interested in "Operation Green" may join the listserve simply by signing up online at

Denver R. James was Assistant Director for Conservation Education in the Forest Service from 1999 to 2003, and Acting Director from 2003 through September 2004, during which he led efforts to revitalize conservation education in the Forest Service, established standards and guidelines for conservation education programs and materials, increased partnerships with other federal, state and private organizations, and improved the evaluation and reporting of conservation education accomplishments.

During James's 27-year career in the Forest Service, he also served as a National Forest public affairs officer, as a leader of a creative services group in the Pacific Northwest, and as a public affairs adviser to the Chief of the Forest Service. He served for nine years as Assistant Director of the National Office of Communication in Washington, D.C.

The Forest Service National Conservation Education Program was created in 1999 to coordinate the Forest Service's increased attention to its role as an educator. James was on the task force that initiated the increased attention and commitment to education.

James is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Wildlife Federation, and the North American Association for Environmental Education.

He enjoys cooking, gardening and reading. He and his wife, Kristi, a retired middle-school teacher, live in Oregon. They have one daughter, Margaret, who works for an environmental consulting firm in Vienna, Va.

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    Last Modified: Thursday, October 20, 2005