Meet Fairlawn resident Elrand Dewayne Denson. Although not a household name like pioneers Barack Obama or Jackie Robinson, he too has achieved a few firsts in his lifetime. Denson is the first African-American male to hold (since 2013) the position of national lands special-uses program manager for the US Forest Service in Washington, DC. He was the first African-American to become the uses program manager and realty specialist for the Forest Service in Laramie, Wyoming, about 20 years ago, and the first to become district ranger of the Bankhead National Forest in northwest Alabama.
“I have been with the US Forest Service for 27 years in total and five years in DC come November. I worked in North Carolina, Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and Alabama. Forestry has been in my family for quite some time,” said the six-foot, three-inch, 49-year-old federal government head who resembles NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins.
Denson is a native of Andalusia, Ala., a town about 20 miles from the Florida boundary line and 80 miles south of Montgomery. His great uncle, 83-year-old DC Lee, started a logging company and became a subcontractor for the US Forest Service before Denson was born. Several of Uncle Lee’s sons and daughters-in-law later worked for the Forest Service directly.
Denson developed his love for forestry by assisting his grandmother, Mary E. Lee, maintain her acre of garden and fruit trees. He makes regular visits home to see family including his mother and three younger sisters. “Growing up we did a lot of outdoor activities. Everybody on both sides would go hunting and fishing. It was just a litany of people.”
After graduating from Alabama A&M, a historically black college/university, with a major in marketing, a minor in forestry and pledging the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Denson launched his federal forestry career in Wyoming, where African-Americans make up less than one percent of the population, according to suburbanstat.org. He spent seven years in Wyoming, where he began working in public relations and rose up the ranks to supervisory duties.
He left Wyoming and returned to Alabama, where he became a hydropower program manager. “I basically coordinated the environmental analysis and relicensing of two dams for the Forest Service in the national forests of Alabama.”
Proud Fairlawn Resident
Today Denson, a bachelor with no children, resides in a three-level townhouse he purchased in 2014 in the Fairlawn community near Anacostia Park in Ward 8. “I am enjoying it. I have established some really good relationships with both my older and younger neighbors. It is really soothing,” said Denson with his authentic southern accent while chillaxing at home.
Before buying his home, Denson lived the first few months here in an Arlington hotel while he surveyed the land for the right place to purchase and plant roots. After losing out on a home because somebody else made a quicker offer, he saw a realtor’s sign asking, Why not buy in Southeast? Around the same time, Denson saw the notice of the Fairlawn townhomes being built and thought this would be the perfect place to call home. It was convenient to his job and the area fit him.
“I like the District and I’m not looking to leave. Once you get to DC, this is like the pinnacle. You get to stay here. They can’t make you go. I am a season-ticket holder with the Wizards. I catch a few Nationals games and I have a couple of happy-hour spots like the Fish Market in Clinton, Md., and the Park on 14th Street Northwest that I frequent.”
Denson thoroughly embraces the peace and tranquility at home because of his hectic schedule and myriad of responsibilities at work.
A Demanding Job
A four-time Regional Forester Award-winner, Denson, with his staff, oversees 1,500 communications sites with approximately 4,000 special-use authorizations nationwide. He manages over 200 different types of special uses, a total of approximately 77,000 authorizations, including 18,000 miles of electric distribution and transmission lines, 6,600 miles of oil and gas pipelines, 2,000 reservoirs that provide drinking water to municipalities, 300 hydroelectric facilities that supply power to tens of millions and over 14,000 recreation residence cabins.
“I met Mr. Denson in my final semester at Auburn. We met after my mentor at the time introduced us,” said Maya Solomon, the training program manager for lands and realty management staff of the Forest Service. “He has been a mentor, confidante, friend and sounding board. He is by far one of the most authentic people I have ever met on this planet.”
Besides his impressive resume and extended family, Denson is passionate about lending a helping hand to the next generation and seeing others succeed. He and his staff work extensively with the Job Corps and particularly the Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps Center in Franklin, N.C.
“We are currently getting a program off the ground. We have 24 Job Corps centers nationwide,” said Denson. “There is one non-Forest Service center in Potomac Yards here in Ward 8. We have developed a center of excellence where we teach young kids in North Carolina to coordinate major infrastructure permitting. They will get to work on powerlines, pipelines and communication sites. They then can come out and work with the Forest Service, Pepco or any kind of utility company like that.”
He added, “They just have to have the aptitude and desire. There is a litany of things these young people can do. We take them from ground zero and guide them through different experiences.”
Perhaps Denson is most proud of and passionate about his continued work as a firefighter and the fact that his efforts have helped save lives and property. This commitment must be deep in his family’s core, since his niece and nephew are following in his footsteps, making it four generations of natural resource managers.
“I am a wildland firefighter,” said Denson proudly. “We don’t think of brothers and sisters doing that job but there are quite a lot of us out there. I’ve been doing that for close to 25 years. I don’t get to do it as much in the national office, but I have worked in southern California and over 20 states helping put out forest fires.” He is a recipient of the prestigious USDA Group Honor Award for Excellence as a member of the Hurricane Katrina Incident Management Recovery Implementation Team.