Alumni Profile • Joel Holtrop ex'72
Stewardship: a balancing act

Joel HoltropBy the time he was 11, Joel Holtrop ex '72 was telling people he was going to be a forest supervisor.

His father had died the year before, and one of his mother's responses was to take her family on a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains. There they met a naturalist who guided them on hikes, gave them lessons in natural history and told them stories about life in the U.S. Forest Service. "I was hooked," Holtrop said.

He concedes that had he known all that was involved - such as the natural resource debates he's involved in now, on a national scale - the boy might not have been as enthusiastic. It's a job he's grown into.

After two years at Calvin, Holtrop transferred to Michigan State University to obtain his degree in forestry. Then he was off to pursue a master's degree at the University of Washington and a job with the Forest Service in that state. Moving steadily up through positions of responsibility in the agency, Holtrop then served in California, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and Montana forests before joining the national staff in Washington, D.C., in 1996. By 2002 he was one of four deputy chiefs reporting to the Forest Service chief. In February 2005 that chief appointed him deputy chief of the national forest system.

"It's a big portfolio," Holtrop said. He's responsible for managing all the resources - from hiking trails to oil and gas - in the 192 million acres of national forest land that spreads over 44 states. Practically, that means leading and overseeing some 30,000 employees who deal directly with problems and opportunities on that land. It also means being one of the agency's primary public spokespersons to industry, environmental and recreational groups, regional governmental bodies and Congress. In one week last fall, Holtrop met with groups in Alaska, Oregon, Wisconsin and New York.

Not all the groups he meets are happy with him. "There are always interests wanting us to use Forest Service lands differently," Holtrop said. "For example, there are currently 50 million acres of land completely without roads. A lot of people - timber, oil and gas interests, off-highway vehicle users, hunting and fishing groups - want to see those areas opened up for their access. There are other people who say, 'Can't we leave them wild for future generations?'"

Holtrop has learned that the issues are complex and the answers different for each tract of land. In one forest the timber industry should be allowed in, to clear undergrowth that abets wildfires, for example, while another forest should be left untouched.

"We have social, economic and environmental responsibilities," Holtrop said. "All of them need to be balanced when we make decisions about how to manage our resources."

When the hue and cry over a particular forest resource is especially loud, Holtrop finds reassurance in the checks and balances of the U.S. governing system, a system that makes decisions slowly and with input from all corners.

He also finds help in the worldview in which he was raised and that drew him, as a boy, to the outdoors. "I feel a responsibility to God's creation and to the needs of the creatures made in God's image," he said. "My faith helps me with that difficult balance."