Jean Nelson-Dean retiring from Forest Service
Last updated 1/31/2023 at Noon
Jean Nelson-Dean has been working with federal natural resource agencies for close to 20 years. Her journey started in archaeology and quickly evolved into combining her love for the forest and natural lands with her communications experience. She’s now retiring from her position as Deschutes National Forest public information officer.
Nelson-Dean grew up in Helena, Montana and attended the University of Oregon for college. She started studying archeology, something she had always been interested in pursuing, and experiencing growing up in the rich landscape of Montana. During her sophomore year of study, she was enlightened by her professor that there weren’t many archeology jobs.
Always having an affinity for writing and communication, Nelson-Dean applied to the School of Journalism and Communications at the U of O and pursued a degree in public relations and English.
“When I graduated with that journalism degree, all the jobs were in archeology, so my first job with the Forest Service was with the Fremont-Winema National Forest as an archeological technician, as I had studied that,” said Nelson-Dean.
Doing various types of jobs there as a technician, she eventually graduated to a writer/editor position in Klamath Falls, working on the Klamath River Wild and Scenic River plan, which involved getting public comments on things happening in the forest. Nelson-Dean also learned content analysis, looking at where comments apply on big projects and making sure the agency answers community comments.
“In doing that [job] … walking across the parking lot… [I] met the public affairs officer for the Eugene BLM (Bureau of Land Management) [who] asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I had a degree in journalism and basically wanted to do that job. He said he could bring me on in sort of a special position category,” Nelson-Dean recalled.
She received her master’s degree in public policy and planning working for the Eugene BLM office. From there she went up to Montana and worked as a legislative liaison and the public affairs officer for the BLM in western Montana.
Nelson-Dean and her husband, Bill Dean, who also works in public land management, both got offered positions with the BLM in Prineville, and moved to Central Oregon in June 2001.
Shortly after starting her time in Prineville, the Deschutes National Forest asked her to detail in as the public affairs officer.
“That was the time that (President George W.) Bush came to visit, so I very quickly jumped into that job during the B&B Fire for four months,” she said.
The B&B Complex Fire was a massive wildfire that burned 90,769 acres west of Sisters in 2003.
She then went back to the BLM, and Deschutes NF yet again needed a detail in for another few months, so Nelson-Dean stepped in again.
From there, the Forest Service leader at the time asked Nelson-Dean to head up the volunteer and partnerships coordinator position on the Deschutes National Forest. In that job, she worked closely with the inmate work program, and seniors being employed, and various other workforce development roles with volunteers.
The public affairs officer position for the Deschutes National Forest opened, and she applied and got the job officially —and has been in that position for 12 years.
“Through really weird circumstances, if I had made a plan, it would’ve never happened, and I really loved my job on the Deschutes,” said Nelson-Dean. “For me it’s important to try to be that liaison between the media and intelligent specialists, or it’s the public, to help people understand the work we do on the ground. And to be surrounded by scientists in my daily work and connecting to the public is the ultimate dream job.”
The public affairs officer serves as part of the leadership team. Their role is to connect with the media and the press on what is happening on the ground within the forests.
“We work on community engagement and events as well as dealing with legislative officials, and a conduit for them to get the information on what we are doing on the ground as well,” said Nelson-Dean.
During her time with the Deschutes National Forest, Nelson-Dean worked with many collaborative organizations on water projects, forest projects, fire management, and more.
“We really highlight what work is happening on different things where, and help relay that to partners, the public, and the media,” she said. “When looking at my career, Central Oregon is so great because we have, so many partners that are so invested in protecting the lands we have and that’s been a huge highlight of my time here.”
She also highlighted the benefit of such a large amount of volunteer support from Sisters in working with those collaborative partners.
“It makes it really special to have the community be such good stewards and care so much for the land,” she said.
Her decision to retire comes after losing a family member and a member of the fire family for the Forest Service, and wanting to do things that she hadn’t been able to do during her career.
“The spring, summer, and early fall months are our busiest times at the Forest Service; therefore, we can’t get out as much ourselves in that time of year. We get into these careers because we love to be outside, but we often are too busy to enjoy that time of year,” said Nelson-Dean.
She and her husband felt they could retire at this time and start doing some of the things they never could before.
“We both still have firefighting qualifications if we wanted to get back into working,” she said.
Nelson-Dean plans on volunteering for different organizations, as well as traveling and spending time outdoors.
She plans to officially retire in the next month or so, after being delayed due an injury during a visit in Montana and getting surgery.
“This injury has bogged down the process a bit, but I am wrapping things up,” she said.
Nelson-Dean spoke about the future of the natural lands of Central Oregon and the challenges she sees future generations and Forest Service members might face.
“It is a wonderful time of collaboration and change, with writing and seeing the history of the West, but the future holds complex issues,” she said.
Nelson-Dean sees the threat of natural resource reduction, houselessness in Central Oregon, and extreme wildfires as some of the biggest challenges the Forest Service will face in the future.
“Another big thing we see is the Deschutes National Forest is one of the most popular recreated and used forests in the nation. That poses a challenge of how we deal with increased tourism in preserving the natural land and keeping it at a high quality. I think it will be up to the community to decide what is enough on our lands and what it looks like,” said Nelson-Dean.
“I would like to think that Central Oregon is well-poised to be successful long-term, as long as people communicate.”