Joel Holtrop, Deputy Chief, USDA Forest Service Addresses January Recreation Exchange

(Washington, D.C.) - Joel Holtrop, Deputy Chief, National Forest System, USDA Forest Service, addressed recreation community leaders at the January 2006 Recreation Exchange. Since March 2005, he has overseen the management of 192 million acres of National Forest System land and all the programs and policies for the National Forests and Grasslands throughout the United States. Mr. Holtrop noted that Forest Service’s 100-year anniversary in 2005 was both an opportunity to remember past successes and a time to devise strategies for keeping the Forest Service relevant over the next 100 years. Central to this goal is an understanding that the Americans the Forest Service serves today are very different from national forest visitors of the past whom, he said, were largely white, middle class and lived in rural areas close to the forest. Today, 77% of America’s population resides in cities or suburbs and the fastest growth in rural population is among Hispanic and other ethnic minorities for whom, he suggested, connections to public forests and natural landscapes are not as understood. Mr. Holtrop said that the Forest Service must reposition its current recreation and forest priorities to respond to the changing composition of our population, ”serving as a bridge between traditional visitors and the new faces of America,” and offering recreation experiences that better appeal to a diversity of values and cultures. The Forest Service can only achieve its mission to sustain healthy forests, he believes, if people, especially children and teenagers, are socially connected to them. He cited a recent book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, which warns of the price society will pay for the disconnection of children from nature. If we fail to communicate the value of healthy forests to future generations, Mr. Holtrop believes, “healthy forests left in the hands of these future leaders may wind up the losers.”

Building on the theme of relevance, Mr. Holtrop noted that as competition for federal funding intensifies, recreation programs that address current national crises in obesity and diabetes, for example, present an opportunity for public and private recreation interests to join forces with healthcare leaders in linking fitness to our forests. In addition to “marketing Forests as beautiful GEMS, maybe we should be promoting them as accessible, inexpensive GYMS,” he suggested. This change in dialogue could foster effective new partnerships and more broadly targeted federal appropriations which support national health priorities. He particularly noted proposed partnership legislation that would lead to progress in this arena - by cutting red tape and creating consistency in executing agreements. But staying relevant alone is not enough, he suggested. Forest Service recreation programs in the future must also be financially sustainable. His agency is “making significant progress in shifting recreation funds and activities so they better respond to market demands,” he noted. This will be accomplished by: first, matching recreation opportunities to conditions within regional and local economies; second, prioritizing investments in facilities based on resource capability; and third, exploring funding options through work with the private sector that could allow private investments in campgrounds and other facilities.

In summary, Mr. Holtrop identified three benchmarks for positioning the Forest Service for success in a rapidly changing political, social and budgetary climate: maintain strong ties to traditional supporters, increase forest relevance to changing constituencies and develop financially sustainable programs. “This makes good sense for us and for the recreation and tourism industry,” concluded Mr. Holtrop.

Following his remarks, Deputy Chief Holtrop was asked how deeply the Forest Service is committed to the changes he outlined. He responded that “up and down the line” Forest Service employees are committed to a strategic plan which recognizes that fostering social interaction and economic opportunities is key to achieving its mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests for future generations. Asked for his perspective on the public’s perception of “seamless public lands,” he noted that, while there are some very special places with wide public recognition, the public expects a seamless experience across agency jurisdictions, and the Forest Service is “working to remove boundaries.”

An audience member raised the issue of the impact of the recruitment, retention and retirement of Forest Service employees on the institutional memory of the agency. Mr. Holtrop stated that there is a need to take stock of leadership at all levels within the Forest Service in the face of a new wave of retirements. He noted a particular concern in the research-oriented branches of the agency, and invited input from Recreation Exchange members on “what we need to do to ensure we are recruiting the right people.” Mr. Holtrop supports the recognition of “Outdoor Recreation Planner” as a professional category by the Office of Personnel Management as a way to improve professionalism in recreation management. However, he cautioned that developing a niche focus does not lessen the importance for staff to understand the multiple interests of the Forest Service.

In answer to a question about the need to renew the importance of urban national forests like the Angeles, which is adjacent to metropolitan Los Angeles, Mr. Holtrop agreed that the Forest Service needs to “redouble its efforts” to forge the vital connection he had spoken of earlier between healthy forests and Hispanic and other minority youth, and to support communication among urban forest supervisors who are critical to this effort. Addressing the issues of increasing populations and multiple use demands on public land, he stated that he believes that public dialogue over time will help us “to find the balance we are looking for” to accommodate multiple uses. He also stated that some adjustments in roadless and wilderness designations are in order.

Recreation Exchanges are hosted in Washington, D.C., by the American Recreation Coalition ten times annually, featuring guests who are influencing recreation policy in America. Information on past and future programs is available at www.funoutdoors.com.

If you would like to contact Mr. Holtrop, he can be reached as follows:

Joel Holtrop, Deputy Chief, National Forest System
USDA Forest Service
201 14th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250
(202)205-1657 Fax: (202)205-1758
kwalton@fs.fed.us