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Montana Profile: EcoPioneer Jim Evanoff

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872, influencing the creation of the National Park Service and helping spark the more than 400 national park units today across the United States.

Encompassing 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone and the surrounding region are one of the largest, nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. With a steady increase in visitation from about 2.75 million in 2000 to a record-breaking 4.25 million in 2016, the park is constantly faced with how to best take care of visitors as well as the environment.

In 1988, Montana resident Jim Evanoff was working in Yellowstone’s administrative division when he made a commitment to bring about a more sustainable Yellowstone National Park. The now-retired Yellowstone employee saw sustainability as an essential part of the public land mission to preserve and protect the park for the future generations at risk.

“It’s something the park still grapples with today,” he says.

Over the course of his 32-year career, Evanoff witnessed Yellowstone’s efforts to adhere to its designation, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but says the mission is a hard one to balance.

“The three to four million national and international visitors that come to Yellowstone expect – they actually demand – that we are preserving the park for their kids and grand kids,” Evanoff says.

Since the late 1980s, now-retired Park Administrator Jim Evanoff has led exhaustive efforts to recycle everything in the park from food waste to used propane tanks. He also pioneered the use of biodiesel fuels in park vehicles and helped eliminate toxic cleaning products.

During his career at Yellowstone, Evanoff took the initiative to tackle sustainability issues and advance environmental stewardship. As a result, the sustainability model used in Yellowstone National Park has now been employed in dozens of parks in the U.S. and internationally, including the Galapagos Islands and Patagonia in Southern Chile.

Thanks to Evanoff’s stewardship, about 1,200 tons of waste was diverted each year from landfills during his career at the park. He put innovative recycling measures into place and helped create a compost system that diverted about 40 percent of the trash generated in the park.

Evanoff championed an effort to switch the janitorial staff’s cleaning products from toxic to environmentally-preferable products, and also notably led the charge to switch the diesel fleet of vehicles to a renewable bio-diesel blend. This reduced park emissions by 52 metric tons annually, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Pioneering Personality

Evanoff has a knack for bringing people together to get important work done, according to Dylan Hoffman, the Environmental Director for Xanterra, a private company operating under contract with the National Park Service.

“Jim has a storied career, not just in Yellowstone, but even in his time beyond. He’s always one to have his finger in a number of pies, and I think that’s a big reason why Jim has been able to see a variety of successes,” Hoffman says.

Evanoff started his career at Curecanti National Recreation area in Gunnison, Colo. He then moved to Grand Teton National Parkto work as a historic preservation specialist before transferring to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Southern Utah. He worked next at Mount Rushmore National Memorial before moving to Yellowstone in 1988.

The last leg of his Park Service career would last 22 years as Evanoff found his niche in sustainability and settled into Montana.

Evanoff says he decided to stay in Montana in 1988 after coming back to work at a park he loved. It also came with a heartfelt plea from one of his two daughters Annie, who was just entering high school at the time: “Dad can we please stay in one place now?”

Evanoff retired in 2012 and now resides in Paradise Valley, just north of the Yellowstone border, with his wife Ren Evanoff.

“We met in Grand Teton Park and we both knew we wanted to go to Yellowstone,” Ren says.

“His love for Yellowstone is just something that’s so deep and he’s always felt that way. It’s not something that he grew into. It’s just always been there.”

Ren says her husband might not be the most polished speaker, but he is so genuine it captures and inspires his audience into action.

“People come up to him and they want him to do this or that, or they want to spend time with him. I’ve never known him to ever turn down taking a person into the park.”

“I mean, you couldn’t drag me into the park that many times,” she laughs.

When Evanoff isn’t educating interested parties about the facts, figures, successes and challenges the park faces, he’s serving on nonprofit boards, consulting parties about sustainability projects within the parks system and serving on a fire crew as a logistics chief with a Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

“Jim never really retires. He’s bouncing around all over the place, not just in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but around the country and around the world these days,” Xanterra employee Hoffman says.

Building a Better Park

The movement, “The Greening of Yellowstone” started in the early to mid-90s.

“We began to have symposiums and conferences and brought in experts from around the country to use Yellowstone as a showcase as far as how best preserve these last best places on the planet – our national parks,” Evanoff says.

Times have changed since bears in Yellowstone National Park were encouraged to feed on waste from the park dumps, a practice that ended in 1970.

Evanoff’s longtime career in sustainability took off when he led the charge in a grassroots recycling effort at Yellowstone in the late 80s and early 90s.

“I started with really simple things in the beginning,” he says.

He wanted to find ways to reduce, eliminate or recycle everything on the front end, so it didn’t end up in the landfill. At that time, the garbage created in the park was being hauled more than 100 miles to a landfill in Logan, Montana.

His team conducted a study to analyze the garbage being produced in the park. They found that more than 40 percent of the trash was food waste – from picnics, restaurants etc. It was determined the food waste would make a rich compost, so Yellowstone National Park and nearby local governments applied for a low interest loan through the Montana DEQ and a $4 million compost facility was built outside of West Yellowstone.

“Every single piece of garbage ends up in that facility. It’s huge, like a football field.”

The garbage is sorted into compostable and non-compostable piles. The compost that comes from food waste in Yellowstone is now sold to local nurseries and used in reclamation projects on public lands.

As loads of garbage were being sorted in the new facility, a visual of the waste stream indicated what needed to be done next, Evanoff said.

“We saw hundreds and hundreds of these little shampoo bottles from hotel rooms were clogging up the whole compost process, so we worked with Xanterra, our major concessionaire, to change all that. Now they have push dispensers for shampoo and lotions,” he says.

Small propane cylinders used for lanterns and stoves were also being thrown out in large numbers.

“People didn’t know what to do with them so they were ending up in the dumpsters and the compost facility. They all contained some level of propane so it was a health and safety issue,” Evanoff says.

“We worked with a Mountain States Environmental company out of Billings to develop a recycling trailer that takes all the propane cylinders – which has the ability to process up to 1,000 a day actually – and purges all the remaining propane out of these cylinders. Then they are punctured and flattened into what can be redeemed as high quality steel at the recycling center.”

Evanoff’s team developed a similar way to deal with disposed canisters of bear spray by purging out the contents and recycling the containers.

The sustainability professional also found ways to make recycling more efficient within the park.

“People look at recycling thinking they are doing the right thing, but what’s really happening with everything we recycle?”

He traced the 45 tons of plastic coming out of Yellowstone and the Tetons and found it was being sent to Belgrade, Montana and then sold to a company in Seattle and shipped to China.

“I couldn’t find what happened to it in China,” he says. “I changed it so the plastics from Yellowstone and Teton are shipped to Georgia – which is still a footprint – but the plastic there is being shredded and used in the backing for carpet.”

Glass generated at the park is pulverized into sand and used to sand the roads, he says.

“It’s not just about recycling. It’s about reusing.”

Evanoff also led a charge to stop using toxic cleaning products at park facilities. He found employees within the janitorial staff to back him up.

“The whole key is to find champions within the ranks. In other words, because I was management, if I came down and said, ‘You will change,’ it would never work. So I sought out people on staff who wanted to make the change,” Evanoff said. “It was a huge change in the way Yellowstone does business.”

“He really carried the water on that, pardon the pun, cleaning project.” says Steve Iobst, who worked 43 years with the National Park Service and retired as Yellowstone Deputy Superintendent. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re not going to use these products anymore.’ But he got people behind it and interested.”

Yellowstone was using 140 different types of cleaning products at the time – all contained some level of toxicity – both for the employees and for the public, according to Evanoff.

They cut down to six different products that were biodegradable and naturally derived.

“These are common household items these days but back then it was pretty innovative and really changed things,” says former Deputy Superintendent Iobst. “To this day, I’m sure Yellowstone, Grand Teton and many other parks are using much safer products that are better for the environment – and that are better for the people who are cleaning and using the bathrooms.”

Expanding by Educating

Yellowstone was the first national park to introduce a renewable alternative fuel and Jim Evanoff led the effort to fuel park vehicles with renewable biodiesel from canola and rape-seed oil. As a result, public pumps popped up in West Yellowstone, Jackson and Bozeman.

“Then many other parks in the country followed that lead and started using renewable non-polluting fuels instead of diesel fuel,” Evanoff reports. “You could see the ripple effect from what we were doing.”

Evanoff’s colleagues say one of the reasons he is successful is because he isn’t afraid to be a “cheerleader” for a cause, and has the ability to connect to every one – whether seasonal employees or the head of a major corporation.

“We had an internship program with different schools including Montana State and Georgia Tech. Jim did a good job working with the interns and took them under his wing,” Iobst said. “He would always have the time to go check on a project or help them understand what they were working on.”

“At the same time Jim had a good relationship with a few corporations like Toyota. He was very good at explaining what we’re doing and why it makes sense, then he could match different corporations to different programs in the park.”

Evanoff worked with Toyota to fund a variety of sustainability projects. They donated eight Priuses to the park and helped fund an educational program in the early 2000s called “No child left inside.”

“When you work with corporations, all of a sudden things change,” Evanoff says. “I made a great partnership with Toyota. They gave millions of dollars to the parks’ sustainability because it was the right thing to do.”

A Legacy of Sustainability

Jim Evanoff made a commitment to bring about a more sustainable Yellowstone National Park and his mission helped protect not only Yellowstone but parks around the world for future generations.

Evanoff says one of his favorite successes while at Yellowstone was witnessing a cultural change with the millions of visitors and employees in the park about how to do things differently.

After his retirement, Evanoff says he worries if some of his programs are falling to the wayside. But he continues to do sustainability work consulting for Yellowstone and other national parks.

“It’s all about education. You need to hit the visitor right as they come through the entrance gate about how to do things right and behave environmentally,” he says.

Evanoff said having the platform of Yellowstone Park made his job easier.

“When people are in the park they want to do the right thing,” he says. “You have a captive audience.”

—Breeana Laughlin

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