Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the USDA Reflects on Experience at Kinship Conservation Fellows

Patrick Holmes was a 2005 Kinship Fellow and is now the Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kinship’s mission is to develop a community of leaders dedicated to collaborative approaches to environmental issues with an emphasis on market-based principles. Kinship Fellows attend a month-long program focused on market-based conservation. In this Q&A, Holmes describes how attending Kinship affected his professional trajectory.

Q: What is a day like as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment?
A: I’m extremely fortunate to have a job where no day is typical; if there is one constant around here, it’s that days are predictably unpredictable. I plan accordingly by keeping an extra shirt and tie and a good stash of clif bars handy at all times.

The Under Secretary oversees two agencies at USDA: the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The two agencies combined have a discretionary budget of over $10 billion, representing the lion’s share of federal investment in conservation and natural resource management (by contrast, the entire budget for the Department of Interior is roughly $11.5 billion). Our day-to-day runs the gamut of natural resource issues core to our agency missions involving topics such as wildfire, ecological restoration, climate change, environmental markets, water resource management and infrastructure and energy development of all kinds. In addition, we spend much of our time working on a suite of institutional entrepreneurship efforts intended to create efficiencies, address fiscal constraints, measure success and improve program delivery.

Q: In 2005, you were selected as a Kinship Fellow. Describe your experience.

A: Writer Rick Bass defines a job as what we do with time in exchange for money, and a career as that which we surrender the fat, sweet, middle of our lives to—what he calls our marrow years. Kinship is where you go when you are ready to surrender. Imagine devoting a month—taking the time to challenge and affirm and renew your personal and professional convictions and strategies. Imagine surrounding yourself with innovative, collaborative, diverse perspectives that will help you actualize those strategies. Imagine having the space to apply your talents to that one idea that might put flesh on the bones of your marrow years. For me, the experience was intellectual and practical, and immersive and fun. I’d surrender again in a heartbeat.

Q: What do you think it takes to really excel during Kinship?

A: One or more problems worth solving and perhaps some good ideas on how to solve them; the capacity to listen and self-reflect; a good sense of humor.

Q: How has your career evolved since attending Kinship?

A: Kinship was a foundational experience for me—especially so since I was able to participate at a very early stage in my career.  Shortly thereafter I attended graduate school at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where I pursued a particular set of intellectual curiosities that emanated from Kinship. The use of market-based strategies, innovative approaches to conservation finance and the like have become an integral part of my work since.

Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for those considering applying to the 2013 cohort of Kinship Conservation Fellows? Things you wish you had done professionally, opportunities to not miss during the program itself, perspective on rough times working on conservation projects, etc.

A: Kinship naturally attracts people with a certain kind of courage and conviction about themselves—people who often pursue their passions with feverish devotion. My only advice, which I suppose applies as much to Kinship as it does to any other career related endeavor, would be to be sure to carve out opportunities amid your work to enjoy the company of your colleagues, to experience the outdoors that reminds us of the meaning of our work, and to allow for the creativity around you to take you in unanticipated directions.

Q: Describe a project you’re currently working on that you find challenging and/or interesting.

A: Under Secretary Sherman has been leading an effort to expand the use of public-private partnerships as a tool for advancing restoration of our National Forests. Nearly four out of every 10 acres across the entire 193 million acre system is in need of some form of restoration to return natural disturbance regimes and ensure that the forests continue to provide the many values we’ve come to expect of them—including clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and opportunities for recreation. Amid flat or declining budgets we need to find ways to encourage outside investment (both financial and volunteer resources) to play more of a role in conservation and restoration. Principally we’re relying on partnerships as the tool to connect the dots between the services our forests provide and the beneficiaries of those services.

It’s incredibly interesting work requiring that we understand how a host of businesses manage risk, as well as capital and philanthropic investments. It’s also rewarding work, because these partnerships don’t just bring extra money to restoration—they begin to reconnect the American public to the benefits of forest ecosystems.

Q: And our final question, what are you reading right now?
A: At the moment, I’m working my way through “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” by Timothy Egan; “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” by Sogyal Rinpoche; and the latest copy of Orion Magazine.

If you are interested in becoming a 2013 Kinship Conservation Fellow, visit www.kinshipfellows.org for more information and to access the online application.