Bureau of Land Management Employee Describes ‘Gorgeous’ Nature, Experiences in Ecology

The sheer size and scope of Alaska is difficult to understand unless you have been there. This is an aspect that stands out for the state which is known by explorers, hikers, land excavators, and even average Americans as “the last frontier.”

“The state of Alaska is just so vast, so vast, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend how big it is,” said Bonnie Million, a field office manager at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Anchorage, Alaska Field Office.

Bonnie Million

“I’ve been up here since 2017 in my current position and I worked up here before between 2009 to 2012 with the National Park Service. Alaska is such a unique state. I hesitate to say that because every state has something just really beautiful and special about it. For me, Alaska just has so many of those things.”

Million, originally from the east coast where the states are somewhat small, began her career in public service with the National Park Service (NPS) in the Washington, D.C. area. She recalls how someone could drive for four hours and get from Washington, D.C. to New York City and pass through four different states. “In Nevada, in four hours, maybe you would get across the state. In Alaska, four hours isn’t going to get you anywhere. Then also, there are hardly any roads to speak of. That scale is just something really amazing. Then of course, the more obvious items: the mountains, the tundra, the wildlife, the bears, the wolves, the caribou. Those are all incredibly special,” Million said.

The Anchorage Field Office is the BLM’s largest field office location, managing most of Western Alaska – nearly 24 million acres of just BLM land.

“What I find the most amazing and the most meaningful: in the area that I manage, I’ve got over 150 federally recognized tribes on the Western side of Alaska (the entire state has 229 federally recognized tribes). Most of those communities are not on the road system and they are practicing a subsistence lifestyle, in that they are truly living off the land. Because they are so remote, you can’t just pop down to the corner store for a gallon of milk or for some hamburgers for dinner. They are truly living a subsistence lifestyle, and I think there is a great deal of cooperation and a great deal of partnership that we have out there in working with folks on subsistence issues, on wildlife populations. If there are wildfires in the area, finding out how the plants are regenerating in the area, or how wildlife is utilized in the area, or how fisheries run.

“That’s one of the things up here that is really unique. It’s the level of how folks up here truly live off the land and use the land. There are not that many communities like that in the lower 48, I would say, so that’s something that I find incredibly special about Alaska.”

“After having lived in the D.C. area for a while, I wanted to stretch out a little bit. I wanted to see the Western U.S., and so I moved out west to an NPS job and while I was there, a good friend of mine forwarded me a job announcement. It was for Ely, Nevada, which I believe still stands as the most remote and incorporated town in the lower 48. It was for a job that was right in my field. It had great room for potential for improvement, and so I was interested from that standpoint. But it was for an agency that I had never heard of up to that point. I did a little research and talked around. The more that I talked to folks, the more that I learned about the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple use mission, and the broad range of resources that the agency manages,” Million said.

Million became increasingly interested, applied for the job, and got it.

“It was super eye-opening, especially after having worked with the NPS which is a very compartmentalized agency. To work for an agency like the BLM – everybody works together. I was there as an ecologist, and to be able to work with the wildlife biologists on sage grouse or to work with the wild horse and burro specialists on gathers, or to work with the wilderness specialists on looking at newly enacted wilderness areas, I immediately felt at home.”

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, Chief of the Office of Communications in BLM’s Alaska Field Office, emphasizes the ability of employees at BLM to move around, do different things, and challenge themselves.

“As a federal land management agency, the BLM is the only one that is tasked with multiple uses,” Ellis-Wouters said. “All of the other agencies have a specific focus for their agency, and the BLM, because it’s multiple use, might just be the most difficult agency to work for. On any given day, you might be analyzing natural resource extraction like oil and gas development, in concert with protection for surface resources, in concert with a recreation project. You can come into the BLM as an ecologist, and eventually, throughout your career, you may end up in budgets or you end up in support services.”

Million likes to look at it from the perspective that it’s an exciting place to work at.

“It’s definitely challenging, but for me and my personality, I like a challenge in a job,” Million said. “That’s what makes the job appealing is having something that is going to test my brain and make me think creatively; to make me try to fit all of these puzzle pieces from these multiple uses, and all of these different resources, to try to figure out a way to fit them all together where we can. It can definitely be difficult, but for those of us who enjoy a challenge in a job, it is a really fantastic agency to work for.”

Advice for New or Prospective BLM Employees

Million’s advice is to be flexible and to be open to learning new things.

“In the BLM – especially in the BLM – there will be an opportunity for you to participate in any number of activities that you may be interested in,” Million said.

“When I worked in eastern Nevada, I got to wake up before the crack of dawn and go out and see sage grouse lekking surveys. They would go into these areas, these leks, and they strut and make these cool little drum-like noises with their throats. I got to go help out the recreation program in Southern Oregon do some permit-monitoring along the Rogue River. The opportunities are there for you get out and experience things that are maybe outside of your education. It provides such a breadth of experience. It just creates a much richer understanding of land management. I really encourage folks to stretch, to reach out, to be flexible, and try some of those other resources and fields that are maybe outside of where you got your education in.”

Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation. Photo by Bob Wick (BLM)

James Hart, a Public Affairs Specialist at the BLM Alaska Office of Communications, encourages veterans who are currently using the GI Bill and going to college to “look very hard at BLM.”

“[BLM] has a lot of very great missions, and a diversity of missions,” Hart said. BLM employees come into a field of expertise and may apply for a different job throughout their tenure. “They may get a different degree while they’re in or change fields altogether. It’s wonderful and it’s very portable at BLM. Plus, BLM field offices are all over the Western states which is where everybody wants to be. If you are a veteran, definitely look hard at the BLM. It’s a great occupation!”

Diverse Work Experiences

For Bonnie Million, an average day for a field office manager is fairly diverse. “Over this last week (at the end of February), I had a tribal consultation one day, where I got to meet with a tribal president and some council members to talk about some land conveyance concerns that they had in their area,” Million said.

“Yesterday, I got to hear a presentation from some folks who are looking to do a hydrologic study in a stream that currently has a dam across it. They are starting to explore, with the State of Alaska, opportunities at increasing stream flow to try and bring back some salmon populations in the area. Before that, I had a meeting with some mining folks to look at some stream reclamation opportunities – this is way out in Western Alaska in an area that has been continuously mined since before World War II. Imagine that breadth of history in that area, the opportunity for stream restoration in that system.”

Million and her team are preparing for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race that happens in March. The Iditarod National Historic Trail runs from Million’s office, and her staff members are getting ready to do fieldwork associated with the race. “We’re starting to review safety plans and some of the logistics for when they go out on snow machines and hit a couple of different spots on the way.”

The Iditarod Trail cuts through western Alaska’s wilderness. Photo by Kevin Keeler (BLM)

Million worked for the BLM throughout Nevada and then in several locations across Western Oregon. Whenever she and her husband, who also works for the BLM, venture out to recreate in nature, Million says they go to BLM lands.

“The BLM has some of the most gorgeous areas I think I have ever seen in the Western U.S. What’s crazy about it also is that because everybody’s just going to the national parks, BLM lands don’t usually get as much visitation. If you are looking for some really good, quality, ‘re-connecting with nature’ quiet time, BLM has got some amazing locations and opportunities! We don’t get as much visitation, I would say, as some of those marquee locations that a lot of folks think about.”

Best Memory at BLM

“At one of the offices in Southern Nevada, it was an interdisciplinary team field trip out to a wilderness area,” Million said. “There was a project where the Nevada Division of Wildlife was going to be putting in what’s called a ‘guzzler.’ A guzzler is like a remote rainwater catch-mitt system that then provides a water source for wildlife. They wanted to install one in this newly designated wilderness. The rules for wilderness are somewhat strict. You’re supposed to use minimal tools. You’re not supposed to have anything in there that’s really intrusive, that shows human impact. We had this interdisciplinary team of wildlife biologists, state wildlife biologists, and wilderness specialists, while I was there as the ecologist.

“We had to hike about seven miles to the actual guzzler site where they were proposing install it, and I just remember the route that we took. We had to hike up these crazy canyons. I’m not a geologist but there were these amazing rock formations. You could see the strata, the stripes in the rock. It was just so amazing to hike up from the valley bottom through this canyon, walking through these strata of rocks. What was really cool was several of the strata had fossils in them. Not like dinosaur fossils but sponges or little ammonites, the little swirly shells.

“Then you’d walk through another layer and you could see different types. That was really neat, to hear the wilderness specialists while we were hiking this seven-miler, talking, and giving an overview of the Wilderness Act and the importance of it. Why this area, in particular, was designated as wilderness, and getting that history. Hearing from the state wildlife biologists about the guzzler that was being put in for the bighorn sheep, to hear about why it was important for that bighorn sheep population in this area. How the population had been fluctuating over time and hearing about the different impacts on why that had happened there because of wildfires in the area.

A day at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, BLM District: Southern Nevada. Photo by Michael Balen

“As an ecologist and someone who has an ecology background, we’re very ‘big picture’ kinds of people. We like to see all of the pieces of the environment, how they all work together, and how that web comes together. It was a great day because it was a great team. We all got along, the weather was beautiful, and to hear all of these facets of land management come together, from the geology in the area to the wildlife, the ecosystems with the fire and the wilderness, it was just a very fulfilling day. It made me love working with my team that much more, and at the end of the day, we talked through some of the conflicts that were associated with the project and came to a resolution. Everybody left that day with a path forward, where their resource got what they needed in order to move forward and to feel solid and comfortable within the rules that we’ve got to play in. We had all came away feeling like we had all learned something from each other that day.”

ABPA Institute has a partnership with the BLM to place students into internships. To learn more about the BLM internship program, also visit their website.

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