My CLM adventure began 17 months ago. At the time I was unsure whether or not I should accept the offer and move to California. I had a couple other things in the mix and having a background more inclined to the non-profit conservation world I suppose I was somewhat skeptical about a variety of things, and most certainly somewhat skeptical of the BLM. Since then, my time as a CLM intern has had two distinctly contrasting chapters, and I feel lucky that my experiences encapsulated much of the reality of what it means to work within federal land management in this day in age.
My time with CLM started out in the Alturas Field Office in northeastern California. I was hired to work with the ubiquitous upland game bird the greater sage grouse – which, as many of you likely know, has become the poster child for species conservation in the intermountain west. I had worked with the bird previously as a telemetry technician in northeastern Utah. I spent the previous summer batting around the brush of the Wyoming Basin for up to a hundred and twenty hours in a ten day work week searching out birds, following them from their winter capture near leks, through nesting and brood rearing seasons. Through the field season I got to know the birds I was following and the landscape they inhabit intimately, but through that experience I also developed a distain for the bird and the political quagmire that surrounds the species.
Working for the BLM in Alturas only accentuated the details of the quagmire. The Alturas Resource Area covers an area on the periphery of the bird’s historic range. The Modoc Plateau contains slivers of suitable sagebrush steppe habitat bracketed by the juniper and fir uplands of the Warner Mountains and the Southern Cascades. Alturas only has three active leks (leks which have had birds present during the past the three years). During my lek count surveys I counted a total of five birds on one lek within the Alturas Resource Area. I found it difficult to believe that the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife (NDOW) and the BLM were operating under a “no net loss” premise regarding the future of the bird. I struggle with this fact since our best understanding of the biology and ecology of the species warranted federal protection some 15 years ago, but that due to other vested interests it is doubtful that the species will ever be listed.
To be quite candid, my first internship was a bumpy ride. I struggled communicating effectively with my mentor and struggled with the lack of acceptance of forward thinking in the office. These challenges were only magnified by the blatant incongruences within much of the data that I was being asked to collect. I say this not to nock the agency, many of the challenges faced by field personnel and field offices are very real and stem from one of the great fallacies of federal land management – which is that its possible to responsibly manage a quarter billion surface acres with one agency comprised of a limited staff – a problem which has only gotten worse due to the sequester and the lack of congressional leadership.
Having the opportunity to work in a remote field office allowed me to realize many of these challenges and experience them first hand. I began to wonder how it’s possible to have long term goals with a short-term budget – or even worse, no budget at all. I left Alturas with a feeling that the system has inherent inefficiencies in the way it operates. I also left at a loss of what to do about it. On my way to Colorado I took three weeks to explore the northwest coast and clear my head with Cascade vistas and chilly ocean breezes. I lucked out though; back in Colorado I was offered a position to resume my status as a CLMer at the State Office working with the botanist. After some back and forth during the government shutdown and frozen funding I started work mid-winter.
I grew up in Colorado, and have spent the majority of my life in the southern Rocky Mountain region. I have studied there and identified with it as my home. Though, my work has always taken me elsewhere – so I was excited by the prospect of working for the state botanist, and to get to work in places that I have grown up with as my back yard.
My experience at the state office was something I couldn’t have predicted. A lot of the pieces fell into place and things started making sense. Being at the State Office allowed me to interact with a wide variety of specialist filling different roles within the agency around the state. Working with the procurement office was an experience that every aspiring land manager or conservationist should have. If you don’t understand how funding works, or the vast sums of money that change hands between federal, private, and academic institutions it is really difficult to understand why or how the BLM operates that way it does. Additionally, working at the state level allowed us to travel around and interact at a variety of field offices.
Since my work began in the winter I spent the vast majority of my time conducting analysis on demographic data from previous years of trend monitoring. I had always been the field technician, collecting data that left my hands for analysis (if it made it that far). Having the opportunity to practice statistical analysis most certainly allowed me to connect the dots to see how data collection affects real land management decisions as well as how to design meaningful research. Most of all though, my co-CLMer Nathan, and our mentor Carol, and myself had a very functional dynamic and were able to work successfully as a team. Having the opportunity to step up to the plate and design my own projects that contributed to the goals of the program was a big step for me, and I owe it to Carol for giving us that freedom.
All in all, working at the state office enabled me to see how to develop, implement, and nurture a program that is based on employing established and accepted methodologies to collect meaningful data that can be used to assess management practices with the goal of conservation in the face of an uncertain future (a mouthful). Working within the federal system certainly has its challenges and it’s most certainly not all peaches-and-cream, but ultimately that is the goal. I suppose in retrospect, my CLM experience gave me a complete and comprehensive picture of the struggles and the solutions to these struggles. The tides are changing in land management (albeit slowly at times) and we are in need, now more than ever, of having effective individuals doing the work of the future within these agencies – a lot depends on it.
As for my future, next week I’ll be beginning an MS program at Colorado State University pursuing a degree in Conservation Leadership. Our research and conservation project will be conducted in the Toledo District of southern Belize.
Until next time, best of luck and best regards!
Colorado State Office – BLM