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Keen on Green: The US Forest Service Holds a Model Sustainability Conference

By Lance Simon and Judith Nielsen


It was a conference with a conscience. The title: The Sustainable Operations Summit. The objectives: Highlight sustainable operations occurring throughout the Agency, integrate more of them into existing programs, and dialogue with other agencies and partners about how to collectively further sustainability goals. The topics: biodiesel infrastructures, the woody biomass, and the industrial ecology life cycle assessment, to name just a few.

And with objectives and topics like that there had better be one more item on your agenda – make the conference itself green.

The United States Forest Service did just that. Although it had been offering environmentally-friendly sustainability summits for four years, this year’s Virtual Services Lead, Jim McGinnis said they wanted “to walk the talk even more.” In the end, they not only walked the talk, they jogged it.

They did that by creating a hybrid conference – a combination on-site and remote meeting with presenters and attendees from all over the country. With help from the virtual learning technology company, iCohere, the USFS produced three days of plenary and concurrent sessions they hoped would not only save them money, but would help save the planet. First, however, came the technical challenges.

“We were limited to approximately 25 sites without overloading our internal network systems,” said McGinnis. “So this new format provided us with internet connectivity, on-demand viewing, all kinds of things.” What made McGinnis happiest was the USFS was also using its own internal technology capabilities to the fullest, while iCohere augmented them – an admitted “sweet spot” for the waste-conscious Forest Service.

The next challenge was to get the employees there – there being their computers. Even though it might seem the Forest Service was preaching to the greenest choir in government, it wanted the biggest numbers possible for the conference, and that meant incentives. So it offered prizes – one to the unit with the largest number of remote participants and one to the unit with the largest percentage of remote attendees gathered in a single location.

It worked. There was 96% virtual attendance and more than double the attendance of its previous conferences.

The conference saved the USFS almost a million dollars in costs, counting travel and accommodations, facility, and other non-expenses. But that’s just the financial ROI. Perhaps most importantly, it saved emissions of 607 metric tons of C02 in air and ground travel, electricity and natural gas. And that’s a low estimate. Factor in more details like types of food, hotel type, waste disposal, and the figure would likely go up.

Organizers said the conference “served as a model of how the USFS can use technology to reduce our footprint. Moreover, the Summit has been an example for others, both within and outside the Agency.”

Says Celisa Steele of online strategy firm Tagoras, “Down the road, USFS might not need connection with a place-based conference for legitimacy or appeal and might be able to realize an even more dramatic environmental benefit through a standalone virtual conference.”

That’s exactly what the USFS is thinking. For upcoming conferences, it’s considering an all-virtual venue, leaner and even greener… forest green, in fact.

For more information on the Sustainable Operations conference, join the USFS meeting team, on April 25th in a webinar discussion hosted by virtual services provider iCohere. http://gov.icohere.com

“This webinar and the above blog are produced and funded by iCohere, Inc. The Sustainable Operations Summit conference is funded by the U.S. Forest Service. Any views expressed in the webinar or blog are for general educational purposes only and do not represent any official views or positions of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Government, nor the Sustainable Operations Summit Core Team.”

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Adam Arthur

I’m glad to see other federal agencies moving into this space! With CDC producing the first hybrid event last year, we have seen an explosion of interest from all of the country. I am currently working with CDC leadership, looking at other centers, offices and divisions who are interested in doing hybrid and/or virtual events. At present, we will be delivering at least 6 hybrid and/or virtual-only events this year alone! I have presented a business case to create a CDC unit for virtual services and I hope we can make it happen soon!

I have been meaning to update everyone on a few analytics from that event, and I will go ahead and post them here:

Of the 1875 virtual registrations, (during the week of the live CDC in-person event – not including the 101 registrations from the archived event), 964 participants did not attend the in-person event. By using the terrapass.com Event Carbon Calculator, http://www.terrapass.com/event-carbon-calculator and inputting a hypothetical scenario of the 964 virtual participants attending the in-person event in Atlanta, GA, their carbon footprint would have produced 1,098,808 lbs. of additional CO2.

By adding in the travel, food and hotel booking costs in our hypothetical example, the impact on the wallets of the 964 virtual participants and/or the federal government’s budget (both would be picking up portions of expenditures) would have been substantial. The 723 people flying would have had to absorb an $867 average cost per plane ticket or a total of $626,841. For those who drove in at an average cost of $3.77/gal, 241 vehicles would have driven an average of 690 round trip miles, getting at least 23 MPG (not taking into consideration wear and tear on the vehicles). The 241 vehicles would have used an average of 30 gallons of gasoline at $.16/mi or $110 per vehicle for a total of $26,606. 916 people stayed in a hotel an average of 2 nights, with an average of 195 people doubling-up in a room for a total of 720 rooms. Taking the average per night hotel cost in Atlanta at $155, the total cost is $111, 600. If each of the 964 participants were to be fed at an average of $5.00 per meal and each eating 3 times a day, the total cost would be $14,460.


These totals are, of course, extremely conservative and would most certainly be much higher.