Distinguished Alumni Award • Joel Holtrop '74

There are nearly 200 million acres of National Forest System land spread across 42 states and Puerto Rico, and while Joel Holtrop '74 hasn't personally experienced every bit of that land, there are some very large plots of this country that Holtrop knows very well.

"If you blindfolded me and set me up on a ridge in northwest Montana or in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I bet that I could tell you where I am," Holtrop said.

Joel HoltropHoltrop's familiarity with forests and land comes naturally. In fact, at age 11 he was so enthralled with the stories of a National Park Service ranger that he decided then and there on his future profession. "I remember that nature walk like it was a week ago," said Holtrop, now 55. "I walked away from that experience saying, 'That's what I want to be.'"

His mother encouraged his interest, taking him to Forest Service offices in Whitehall and Cadillac, Mich. And upon coming to Calvin, Holtrop focused on biology for two years before transferring to Michigan State University to earn a bachelor's in forest management.

From there he went on to the University of Washington for a master's and a job with the U.S. Forest Service. Holtrop's career took him to forestry positions in California, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and Montana. He moved to the national office in 1996 and later was named Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry. In 2005 he became Deputy Chief, National Forest System, overseeing all 155 of the United States' national forests, including wildlife, range, timber, watershed, recreation and minerals management.

Rising through the ranks from forest worker to Deputy Chief has altered Holtrop's focus from local concerns to much more global issues, but his mission has never changed: "The basic values I learned at Calvin about creation and about people affects everything I do every day of my life," he said.

Earlier in his career, Holtrop's decisions were more site-specific-whether or not to harvest a particular stand of trees or whether or not to develop a new campground. Now his are broad policy decisions such as developing recreational opportunities in the eastern United States to connect young people to the outdoors or stressing wildlife habitats in the northwestern United States.

All of these decisions-great and smaller-necessarily take into account the mission of the Forest Service, which is the sustainability of natural resources for this and future generations through balanced management.

It's the balancing act that makes decisions difficult at times, Holtrop admitted. "I have significant responsibility for and can make an impact on God's creation," he said. "That needs to be weighted with the fact that people need these resources for economic and material use, quality of life and recreational opportunities. That's what makes our mission one of the more difficult, compelling and fascinating missions of all federal agencies."

Joel HoltropAnd this is where his faith helps define what he does. "It's easy to apply Christian values to the work that I do," he said. "It's much harder to reach the balance and personal comfort about the decisions that I make; being able to work those decisions through the sieve of a Christian perspective makes a difference."

And while Holtrop believes there has been an upsurge in public awareness surrounding issues of sustainability, particularly as it relates to climate change, burgeoning populations and scarcity of resources continue to put pressure on the decisions that he makes and work that he does.

"The current generation might be the last in which significant numbers of people have spent significant time outdoors," he said. "Young people now spend hours and hours indoors on computers, iPods and Game Boys," he said. "They have spent a lot less time walking through the woods, climbing trees and splashing through creeks. Part of my responsibility is to make sure that people who don't have as much experience with the outdoors understand the importance of wildlife habitat."

Sustaining the health of forests for future generations is also part of Holtrop's responsibility, he said.

"This is not a short-term thing," he said. "It's not sufficient if I've helped accomplish sustaining forests during the length of my career; I've only done my job if I've set the stage for the generations beyond my career."

Holtrop is sure that he has passed on his passion to at least some members of the next generation, though. His and his wife's (Julie Dice '75) daughter Laura, who graduated from Calvin in January, is working in Rocky Mountain National Park doing research on bison and elk grazing, while her twin sister, Jessica, who is a May graduate of Calvin, has been hired as a wild land firefighter on a hot shot crew in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Their eldest daughter, Katie '04, a nurse at the Spectrum Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids, is living on Calvin's campus as the wife of resident director Grant Schoonover '03. The Schoonovers also revel in outdoor adventures, such as hiking and climbing.

In fact, Holtrop has climbed Colorado's two highest peaks-one with Grant and one with Katie and Laura-the last two summers.

"Because of all my ties to Calvin right now, I can't think of a more meaningful award for me at this time in my life," Holtrop said. "The award has been causing me to reflect more on what my time at Calvin meant to me. Calvin formed this bedrock foundation for my upper education that has guided me well for many years in my career. To receive this award from an institution that means this much to me personally, I don't know how to put it into words."

More on Joel Holtrop from Spark: Winter 2005 >>