by Sarah Hill, 2016 GeoCorps™  America Program Participant

This summer I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Washington Office. I rode the Metrorail day in and day out where I would see more people in one day than some cities’ entire population.  I’m from a small town in Georgia, and it was not the norm for me to navigate a public transportation system that also serviced 700,000 other customers per day. While riding to work in my business attire every day I looked around and my mind filled with so many questions about the other passengers. Where did they come from? What were they doing? How did they get there?  Was a building going to catch on fire if they didn’t catch this train, or were they just late for a meeting? It’s D.C., you’ll never really know and the possibilities are endless.

Prior to my final semester of undergrad at the University of Mississippi and until about two weeks before I graduated in May 2016, I envisioned myself moving west. I imagined I would spend my last summer before starting my career as a field camp teaching assistant, park guide, or maybe mapping the geology in National Parks or National Forests surrounded by some of the nation’s most beautiful landscape. I had received the opportunity to do those things, so why did I decide to spend my summer in a huge metropolis when my plan was to explore the West?  

I found my answer by thinking about what I really wanted to gain out of my summer experience.

Besides the wonderful opportunity to gain on the ground experience and work with the public, I wanted a GeoCorps™ position somewhere exciting. I wanted to get paid for sharing my passion about geoscience with others, and honestly needed time to figure out what jobs to apply for. Ideally I thought I wanted a position in a well-known National Park, surrounded by people like me with similar interests. I frequented the Geological Society of America (GSA) website to scout out positions that I thought I could be a competitive candidate for and was always surprised by the diversity in the positions that were posted.

In mid-March after the original deadline, I saw a newly added position. I was initially a bit hesitant to apply for the Direct Hire Authority-Resource Assistant (DHA-RA) at the BLM’s Washington Office, Division of Solid Minerals solely because it was based in D.C. instead of the field. This particular position was for a Resource Assistant specializing in Geology/Mining Engineering where the ideal candidate would have interest in: learning about the policy making process, participating in field work with a Certified Mineral Examiner, and pursuing a career with the Department of Interior. The more I read about the Direct Hire Authority and realized how rare this opportunity was; I got more excited about the possibility of it! The DHA-RA program gives the agency or Department of Interior the ability to hire the program participant after all of the requirements are met (without having to apply and compete for the positions on USA Jobs).

I was lucky enough to go through a several phone interviews for other positions, and got a good bit of practice interviewing. I was even selected for a GeoCorps position in California but the dates, housing, and vehicle situation were not ideal for me.  That same day I got a phone call for the position in D.C. and I really wanted to try and hold out for the DHA-RA position that paid more and of course, the possibility of a permanent position was sounding really great. It all worked out! Fast forward a few months, and by early June I was living in D.C. ready to begin my GeoCorps position as a Resource Assistant with the Division of Solid Minerals. Moral of that story, don’t rule out a position just because it’s not in the right location. Chances are you may love it there!

What does the BLM have to do with solid minerals, anyway?

Knowing the history of the nation and how the West was settled plays a big part in being able to understanding how the BLM was created, and how it received the surface lands and subsurface estate that it is responsible for managing. The BLM administered surface (245 million acres) is mostly west of the Rocky Mountains and subsurface mineral estate (700 million acres) is nationwide, beneath federal or private owned surface.  The BLM’s main mandate is expressed in Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), and gives more explicit directions for the BLM to manage public land for multiple uses while conserving natural, historical, and cultural resources. The goal of the BLM’s projects is take into account and make educated decisions that best satisfy the current and future needs of the people.

I learned about the programs that make up the Division of Solid Minerals. These programs are designed to follow various laws depending on the type of mineral and location.  For example, the Mining Law Administration on Federal lands program is based primarily off of the Mining Law of 1872. This summer, most of my experiences involved the Mining Law Administration on Federal lands and Federal Coal programs. I shadowed the Deputy Division Chief at a congressional hearing and at a public scoping meeting to learn more about the high priority work on the federal coal program. Witnessing the discussions and comments from the congressional hearing and the scoping meeting gave me a chance to see how a small change in policy can affect the way of life of so many. After both occasions, I better understood the necessity for thorough review and feedback processes.

At the public scoping meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I was able to meet BLM Director Neil Kornze, Deputy Director Linda Lance, also pictured is Deputy Division Chief for the Division of Solid Minerals Al Elser.

I experienced some of the challenges of the mining law program by traveling to Colorado to assist and learn from Certified Mineral Examiners. We worked on reconnaissance field work for a mineral validity examination. It was difficult for me to keep up with the complexities of the varying past and present land designations and mining claims as well as learning the geologic history of the area. For the first part of the week, I mainly listened to learn the history of the region. I asked questions and received very thorough and helpful feedback. By the end of the week I was starting to keep up and understand their conversations.

Kirby Bean, BLM Certified Mineral Examiner showing me the boundaries of a mining claim

This field work helped me solidify that if given the opportunity, I did want to pursue a career with the BLM. I enjoy the nature of the field work, learning about the land and geologic history, working with the public and especially working towards solving the challenges that many of these projects present. I also really liked the idea of being able to go through the training to become a Certified Mineral Examiner.

These Certified Mineral Examiners have gone through a course designed by the BLM to provide on-the-job training. The course is now called Solid Minerals Academy, and is an intensive training course offered to BLM employees who work with geology and mining engineering in Solid Minerals mostly in the field, district and state offices. It prepares and trains the students (employees) on mineral report writing, field and mapping techniques, and mining law. After successful completion of this course and proper experience, the employee can be part of the BLM Certified Mineral Examiner team to assist the Bureau in some of the more challenging projects involving solid minerals.

I also worked on a project this summer that involved tailings storage facilities (TSF). A TSF includes all of the dams and ponds associated with the main embankment structures on or near a mining operation. TSFs are designed and constructed to hold water used in the mine process by providing a settling area for the mine tails, the fine-grained and unwanted byproduct of the milling process. The TSFs are used to separate the fine materials from the water and to eventually repurpose the water. My work this summer is intended to help outline the agencies (state and/or federal) that are involved in regulation, permitting, and inspection of tailings storage facilities where the land surface is managed by the BLM. This project helped me learn about different engineering structures that are used in mining operations, possible environmental concerns and structural concerns with the facilities, and the relationship between state and federal agencies where several agencies share the regulatory authority.

Being located in BLM’s Washington Office allowed me to learn from, work with, and meet other DHA-RA program participants from other programs such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). The DHA-RA program coordinator for the BLM organized several opportunities for us tour the White House, and visit the Department of the Interior building.

The DHA-RA program participants at the White House

The Washington Office building is only a block away from the Nationals baseball stadium, so we would often meet up after work and enjoy a Nats game or have dinner on the Navy Yard waterfronts which were all just a few blocks from the office.

One of my favorite things about living in D.C. was being able to get anywhere within the city for under three dollars, the public transportation there is definitely the best way to get around. I did my fair share of getting lost while trying to find museums or exiting the metro at the wrong station and deciding to walk a mile or two instead of just getting back on. Probably my favorite thing about D.C. is that I never felt like I was stuck in a city. I had no trouble finding a quiet place on Theodore Roosevelt Island or at the Waterfront Park which really made the city living this summer an enjoyable experience for me.

As I hope you can tell, I personally and professionally benefitted from my GeoCorps position in the Washington Office within the Division of Solid Minerals. With the guidance of my mentor and project coordinator, I felt more confident and professional about my work and knew that the work I was doing was appreciated. Overall, I have had a positive experience using the Direct Hire Authority to transition to a career conditional appointment with the BLM Southeastern States District Office. Everyone that I have met in the BLM has been very eager to offer their assistance and so many have even gone above and beyond to help me successfully jumpstart my career, and be a part of the Solid Minerals Academy. Looking back now, I could not imagine a better experience to serve as my foundation.