Let’s Get Educated! Creating a Path to Improving USDA Forest Service’s Climate Literacy

The USDA Forest Service is investing in climate education through a partnership with the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP). The collaborative project, Addressing Gaps in Workforce Climate Literacy, aims to increase the Forest Service’s capacity to respond to climate change by establishing standardized, agency-wide training on climate change and environmental justice. The project just wrapped its first year, where team members Lily Swanbrow Becker, Kristen Schmitt, Rachel Jacobson, and Shelley Crausbay cataloged existing climate training resources, analyzed the climate literacy needs of key Forest Service staff roles, and outlined holistic training programs for those key staff roles. We sat down to talk with Chris Swanston, Forest Service Climate Advisor and Director of the Office of Sustainability and Climate in the Forest Service’s National Headquarters, to hear his motivations for pursuing the project and his hopes for years two and three.

The Need for Climate Change Action

Chris Swanston is firm in his belief that every employee has a part to play in making the Forest Service a climate-positive agency. And he’s clear on how to achieve that, “If we are going to have intentional climate change action in the Forest Service, then we have to start with climate literacy,” Swanston said. “If everyone in the Forest Service understands climate change and how to apply that understanding to climate positive actions in their own work, we can make a difference.” Swanston reached out to ASAP to help achieve this goal, because “ASAP thinks about how to apply climate change and adaptation considerations across all kinds of different sectors. They truly listen and can help people and organizations be effective in different contexts.” He was particularly excited to apply ASAP’s Knowledge and Competency Framework, which was developed by public and private academics and practitioners, sharing that working with “ASAP was the obvious next step in helping the Forest Service achieve its climate literacy goals.”

Designing a Climate Literacy Model for a Complex Agency – on a Complex Topic

While the Addressing Gaps in Workforce Climate Literacy work has been a longtime goal for Swanston, he was quick to describe the challenges for implementing this project. 

  1. “Best available knowledge” is constantly changing climate change is an evolving science, and so are the practices for slowing it down and adapting to it. As the Forest Service responds to this evolution, we need to understand the gaps in education and practice for our employees. 
  2. The agency is incredibly diverse – the Forest Service employs tens of thousands of people across the U.S. who represent a wide range of disciplines, including education, natural & cultural resources, human resources, engineering, business operations, research, and many others.
  3. Employees have limited capacity to pursue climate literacy – we’re looking at a workforce that’s chronically stretched with time and energy. Time spent engaging in training/education has to have an application to the jobs they do on a daily basis. 

The project was designed to address these challenges by creating a model that would work for both assessing and addressing gaps in workforce climate literacy. First, the team identified three types of roles within the Forest Service to organize the agency’s climate literacy efforts: specialists, line officers, and climate coordinators. Swanston explained, “the roles that were defined in this analysis are those that are aligned with helping people understand and plan for climate change or for people who work in resource management and need to understand climate change as a daily part of their jobs.” The team looked at job descriptions and interviewed people serving in these roles to understand what knowledge, competencies, and skills are most important for them to be able to address climate change within the context of their job. 

Next, the team cataloged existing education and training resources and mapped them to the knowledge, competencies, and skills identified in the role-type assessments, using ASAP’s Knowledge and Competencies Framework (K&C Framework) to ground the analysis. Swanston shared, “educational resources need to have clear learning objectives and applications – by linking learning objectives to employee roles and to ASAP’s broader Knowledge and Competency Framework, we’re able to determine that the investments and time spent on workforce training is appropriate.”

Finally, the team conducted a gaps analysis to identify what training and education content was missing. “The gaps analysis,” explained Swanston, “is critical to understand what training and education investments will be most impactful for different types of roles within our Forest Service workforce.”

Addressing these challenges will help the Forest Service to guide discussions about where the climate education gaps are, why they exist, and how to fill them using internal and external resources. Also, what kind of time should be allocated to climate education, engaging with the educational resources among the workforce.

Paving the Path for Universal Application

Addressing Gaps in Workforce Climate Literacy project aims for its outputs, lessons, and materials to be ready for transfer to other agencies and organizations outside of the federal family as well. With this goal in mind, ASAP has released parallel, public-facing resources that other organizations can use with or without real-time guidance from ASAP. The project team is also proactively reaching out to other agencies to encourage replication of this program. Swanston stresses that successful replication requires leadership support at the highest levels. It also requires agencies to have a sophisticated understanding of how climate change fits into their mission so that they can craft the most impactful learning objectives and, ultimately, learning content. Finally, it is vital for agencies to know what materials they already have in use in order to understand the gaps that need to be filled fully.

On Wrapping Up Phase One of the Project

With Phase One of Addressing Gaps in Workforce Climate Literacy complete, Swanston and the project team are excited to see where the project goes and how people engage, as well as seeing learning accelerate in the Forest Service, yielding a gradual but sure spread of climate action arising from climate literacy. In years two and three, the project will include full learning programs for priority roles within the Forest Service, develop any new content needed in collaboration with training managers from across the agency, monitor learning outcomes, and adapt training programs to respond to employee feedback. 

In a final reflection, Swanston shared, “one thing I love about this effort is bringing internal and external expertise and perspective together and applying it to the specific mission of the Forest Service. That’s really exciting to me because then we can take that learning and spread it to other agencies’ and organizations’ missions. This isn’t just about the Forest Service — it’s about society taking a step forward to create change.”

If you are interested in applying this project in your own agency or organization, we’d love to hear from you. Email Mia Dozier, ASAP’s Training Specialist, at mdozier@adaptpros.org