Jobs at DOC: James Willcocks, Volunteering Manager

Department of Conservation —  20/06/2014

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile James Willcocks, Volunteering Manager, National Office.

At work

James standing in front of the Tarawera Falls.

Tarawera Falls

Some things I do in my job include:

Cheerleading the fantastic and funky Volunteering Team.

Listening and learning about what is going on for people working with volunteers, where the issues are and how we can best deliver what’s needed as a team. This is about really trying to stay connected.

Celebrating and sharing what our people are achieving through working with volunteers.

Bringing conservation to new audiences through national partnerships and opportunities for others to participate.

Where things are working well, actually endeavouring to stay out of the way.

Unfortunately, I also spend a fair amount of time in meetings which is the inevitable yet less inspiring part of the job.

This helps achieve DOC’s vision by:

Raising awareness and creating opportunities to involve more people in conservation in new ways because each and every one of us has some role to play in achieving this massive vision.

Making it easier for people to work more effectively with volunteers and for our volunteers to work more effectively with us.

The best bit about my job is:

Being relatively new to this job I am constantly amazed at some of the incredibly innovative ways our people are working with others. From having people volunteering remotely from home in an overseas country to develop technical solutions, to having students launch their careers contributing their thinking and energy to new design projects, to groups of specialised fire fighters ‘Hotshots’ from the States coming to NZ in the off-season as self contained and highly capable work crews, the list goes on and on.

Stepping back and just considering the immensity of who’s out there willingly contributing their time, energy, enthusiasm and commitment to this thing called conservation, it is very humbling.

James with his nephews Leo and Luca— before chopping off his dreads.

My nephews Leo and Luca—little legends. Moments before the big chop in 2012

The strangest DOC moment I’ve had so far is:

Getting a call out to Ashpit Road Camp Ground on the shores of Lake Rerewhakaaitu to retrieve ‘some meat’ that had been dumped along the lake shore as it was starting to exhibit signs of decay.

Being somewhat dubious as one is when receiving calls of this nature (never quite knowing what to expect), another Ranger and I loaded up some waders and were off.

Upon getting to the campground we were confronted by the relatively grim site of what appeared to be the entire contents of a medium sized butchery floating in the azure lake shallows, this was not someone’s freezer contents.

There was everything from strings of sausages, rolled roasts and chops to leg roasts and steaks all bobbing along in various states of decomposition.

Left contemplating a certain career decision and the value of that hard earned university degree, I suited up.

In any case, after a solid day’s toil we had retrieved the necessary product and trundled back to town. None the wiser as to the who or why to this very day.

As strange as this may sound, it is the unpredictable nature of operational work that I still miss the most.

The DOC (or previous DOC) employee that inspires or enthuses me most is:

I’ve worked for and with so many incredible people in my 11 years with this fine organisation but in terms of choosing just one it would have to be the mighty Reg Phillips, my first boss. He taught me the value of bringing other people on the journey, supported my development implicitly and was the first person to take a chance on this simple lad from Rotorua, employing me in my first job as a Visitor Assets Ranger. He taught me a lot about leadership and really made everything else that has followed possible—so massive thanks and respect Reg!

James standing in front of Lake Tarawera.

My happy place – windfall runs on the lake shore tracks of stunning Lake Tarawera

On a personal note…

The song that always cheers me up is:

No Rain by Blind Melon, a double dose of positivity if accompanied by the video.

My stomping ground is:

Our nation’s cultural capital and birthplace of tourism—Rotorua. With its multitude of lakes, steaming hot pools, forests, endless recreation opportunities and geothermal heartbeat, all interlaced with a sweet sulphurous scent, how could one want for anything else. Proudly Vegas born and bred!

James and his brother in Aspen, Colorado.

Me and my brother taking a break from doing some damage to the Highland slopes in Aspen, Colorado last year

My best ever holiday was:

I took a good wedge of leave without pay from DOC and spent close to a year wandering through Central/South America including a long stretch volunteering in Mindo Cloud Forest in Ecuador.

It is a stunning place and amazing opportunities to see the complexities inherent in conservation play out in the everyday lives of a small community.

This was a challenging reality check for an idealistic Kiwi boy seeing both local environmental protection and wider development aspirations collide in such a confined and confronting setting.

In my spare time:

I spend as much time getting amongst it in the outdoors as possible usually riding, skiing, tramping or being in/on/under the water doing my best to harvest a feed.  I love to travel, it’s a lifelong affliction wandering through strange and colourful places, experiencing cultures so profoundly different to my own and of course all of the people.

Other than that I try and spend as much time with my whanau as I can, that’s where I draw both strength and identity. We’re spread throughout New Z these days so time together is super precious.

My secret indulgence is:

I do have a solid appreciation for decent tequila and an unholy alliance with German trance music.

James off for a tramp with work colleagues.

Off for a tramp with the Capability Development Team (my last team)

Deep and meaningful…

My favourite quote is:

We lose much by fearing to attempt” I’m not sure who it’s from but it has always served me well in those moments of intrepidation.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is:

“Son, life is not a straight line” – My Ma

In work and life I am motivated by:

People that believe in something and are prepared to back that up with action. It’s easier to be critical of something and do nothing about it than stay the course. When I see people doing the hard yards it becomes a little harder for me to moan about trivial things that just don’t matter.

My conservation advice to New Zealanders is:

I am a massive advocate of experiential learning so I would say if you haven’t afforded yourself the opportunity to go and do something in nature, then get out there, it’s good for you.

And if I was afforded a ‘soap box’ moment my advice would be: remember we are part of the environment, we are most definitely not separate.

James drinking from the cup after winning the Wellington Dragon Boat Festival.

Rehydrating after winning Gold in the Social Final of the Wellington Dragon Boat Festival as part of our mighty Doctopus Dragon Boat Team

Question of the week…

What did you do with your dreadlocks?

Someone once told me I’d be able to sell them to a wig maker, so I still have those ones and their predecessors. I still haven’t found this person!

One response to Jobs at DOC: James Willcocks, Volunteering Manager


    Hey James – great to read a bit of your story. My name is Pip – I’m the manager of volunteers in Tasmania for Parks and Wildlife Service – currently relocated to NZ –
    Mount Maunganui as my brother is very crook. I’ll be here for a wee while – so if you happen to ever get up to Tauranga email ahead – it would be fun to meet and hear bits about what each of us do from one side of the Tasman to the other. Cheers Pip