Q: How long have you been the public policy director at NOLS? Please give our readers a little bit of background about the department.
A: I have been public policy director since Labor Day of 2001. When the department was born in 1991, it initially served a function that mostly had to do with access: learning about access to classrooms and maintaining the right permits and the right relationships with the agencies that were involved.
Currently, the policy department at NOLS serves four primary functions for the school. First, we are the body within the school that tracks and monitors national legislative and policy issues that would potentially affect how we operate as a school, so it might be legislation affecting concessions management in parks or how wilderness or recreation is managed. I’m responsible for understanding that, staying on top of it, and then keeping the branches informed.
Second, we have a pretty strong local role that we play in providing support to branches on permit and access issues. We are back-up for our branches in the event that they need help with those logistics. We’re also, more recently, playing a much bigger role in addressing threats to our classrooms. There is just one other person in my department, Aaron Bannon, and he works primarily in this advocacy role.
Third, we develop curriculum that’s specific to public lands policy, say, for example, oil and gas development in Utah, something that’s very specific and timely to a certain operating area that we think is a great teaching opportunity. We produce a lot of that material for instructors.
And then lastly, is this new Environmental Sustainability Initiative.
Q: Could you explain a little bit about the Environmental Sustainability Initiative? What prompted the school-wide effort and why we are focusing on it now?
A: I’m super excited about this initiative because it’s all about doing really good things for the school and for the world. We’re fundamentally an organization with strong environmental values and we have a mission that echoes that, but if you look at the many initiatives under way at NOLS now, and there are many and some of them have been around for a long time, it’s clear that our efforts have been developing for years in a piecemeal fashion.
With input from field instructors, intown staff, and directors, and really just listening to what’s going on in the world around us, we’ve finally realized that although we do some great things, we need a comprehensive, school-wide, long-term plan for how we’re going to reduce our global footprint in a more systematic way.
Q: What are some of the ideas folks have come up with to raise the bar on NOLS’ environmental responsibilities and consciousness?
A: Really good ones, and I’ve been blown away by how many people from all corners of the globe within the school have put creative energy into writing their thoughts into e-mails and attending meetings. I’ve received probably 30 or 40 messages from individuals around the school and input from more than 50 others through focus group meetings and branches, and they all feel really strongly that we can make some really great changes and have a positive impact.
The ideas so far span the spectrum from simple things—turn off the lights, turn off your computer at night, recycle to decrease your waste—all the way to how we can establish incentives for manufacturers to produce a greener product. We are a large enough buyer to hopefully be able to influence some choices that manufacturers make.
Others include how we can use this initiative to educate and reach out to the communities in which we work and live, and creative things like allowing employees to accrue additional paid days off by riding a bike, walking, or carpooling to work x number of days a year. People have clearly thought a lot about our lifestyle at the school and our choices as individuals. This is really about how we can make better choices. We’re already pretty good, but we can get a lot better.
Q: What are the next steps we’ll see with the Environmental Sustainability Initiative?
A: We’re excited to go through an external audit process, hopefully within the next six to twelve months. It really will serve the baseline for where we go from here. We need to take a snapshot of where we are now so that we can gauge our progress. It will also help us determine where the biggest opportunities are for us to make the most significant amount of change and it will help us think about it systematically.
Simultaneously, we’ll go through a goal setting process. We will continue to collect input from all levels of the school, we’ll develop draft goals, and we’ll refine goals and build objectives from them. Meanwhile, we’ll make small changes that make sense as we’re moving through the planning process.
Q: “Green” is such a buzzword these days, as environmental ethics and sustainability become a hot topic. What does “green” or “being green” mean to you? And how does NOLS measure up in your eyes?
A: To me, being green is about how you think, and how you think is reflected in how you live your life or in NOLS’ case, how we run our school. I think it’s fairly easy to do green things, but if you really are green, the choices and the decisions you make pass through a different filter and that’s my hope for NOLS in this process.
NOLS completely measures up in my eyes just based on our curriculum and our mission and what we do in between. We have a lot of progress to make in our day-to-day operations, but I’m not worried about whether we think fundamentally green. I know that there are probably some philosophical shifts that we’ll make as individuals, but I don’t think that the school as an entity questions whether or not this is the right thing to do.
Q: What are some other milestones your department has seen over the years?
A: Actually some pretty neat ones I think, some more subtle than others. My predecessors did a great job at laying the groundwork for raising the profile of NOLS at a national level and helping the agencies and legislative representatives understand that we’re a good resource on public land issues. I think it’s great for us to be able to say that we’re called upon periodically by legislative representatives and agency directors as a source of expertise in backcountry recreation and recreation management.
I also think our expanded public lands curriculum is a great thing we’ve put a lot of energy into in the last five years. We have a site on NOLS’ intranet, Rendezvous, where instructors and program staff can go to download curriculum for the field. Our visibility as an advocate for public lands, protecting the places that we care about, has increased a lot and I think it’s an important role for us to continue to play.
Q: We hear a lot about our wilderness classrooms in the western United States in your regular public policy column, Issue Room, but what are some of the efforts NOLS takes at our international operating locations?
A: For our international locations, we play a supportive role if they need information or a sounding board for ideas, but in general, the international locations are really their own policy shops. They know their places the best. The directors of our main facilities do a fantastic job in learning about the areas in which we operate and connecting and building relationships with agencies, and, in many cases, with private land owners in non-U.S. locations. In terms of international classroom issues, there are more and more brewing, with increasing frequency. I think that as time passes we may play a bigger role in those locations, similar to the role we play here, building bridges, increasing awareness, and supporting local organizing efforts.