BLM Alaska Public Rooms: A One-stop shop to your public lands
“And then I spilled it all over the floor!” said Scott Hawkins, a 10-year Fairbanks Public Room veteran, in response to an inquiry of the some of the wildest Public Room interactions he has experienced.
Let’s backtrack—working in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska Public Rooms covers a lot of territory. From redirecting people to the Recorder’s Office to researching land status, and of course, to answering everyday questions about BLM campgrounds, trail conditions, gold mining claims, land status, hunting, Native veteran allotments... The list goes on.
No matter the topic, the conversations had in the Public Rooms put an emphasis on the important role that they play in the BLM—and that is to help connect people to their public lands in a convenient one-stop fashion.
Public Room employees are expected to know a little bit about everything. And really, they never know what conversations or interactions will happen next. “I spoke to a visitor from Reno [Nevada,] who said she bought wasp spray instead of bear spray” said Heather Briggs, who has had the unique experience of working as a contact representative in both the Fairbanks and Anchorage Public Rooms. Bringing inappropriate safety and protective equipment is a fairly common occurrence. Considering the wildness of Alaska’s public lands, Public Room staff have had many conversations about safety and awareness in the outdoors and do not recommend alternate sprays to fend off bears.
While the diverse array of conversations might elicit a chuckle and a good story, they also bring attention to a unique set of safety concerns that visitors have when recreating in Alaska. With northern lights viewing at 30 below zero and wildlife watching on remote dirt highways, these concerns are valid. Many who call the Public Rooms have never been to Alaska and rely on Public Room staff to help prepare them for their visit.
“I enjoy helping people plan their trips to Alaska and providing information about the diverse recreation opportunities on public lands,” said Briggs, who helps orient visitors to the unique challenges that come with traveling in Alaska. “Knowing that I have helped someone build a fun itinerary while also staying safe is a great feeling.”
Although it may be a favorite topic for Public Room staff to share, recreation opportunities are only a fraction of what the Bureau of Land Management oversees in Alaska. In line with BLM’s multiple-use mission, public lands in Alaska are as much of a resource as they are a recreational bucket list item.
As a result, Public Room staff must be able to assist and inform customers who come to the Public Room with strong feelings on how the BLM manages the land. Oil and gas, commercial permitting, Native veteran allotments, mineral extraction—nothing is off topic in a BLM Alaska Public Room.
“The BLM Public Room is the ultimate crossroad of our mission and our opportunity to share information with the public,” said Deputy District Manager for the Anchorage District Office Callie Webber. Earlier in her career, Webber worked in a similar BLM Public Room and understands the essential role that Public Room employees play in the BLM.
“I think every BLM employee should spend time in the Public Room,” Webber continued, “We not only learn what people are asking about, but we, in turn, educate ourselves about the complexities of our beginnings with the General Land Office and Grazing Service.” Webber refers to the merging of two different agencies to form the BLM in 1946, which eventually led to BLM’s multiple-use mandate that ensures the BLM manages the land in a way that best meets the present and future needs of the American people.
Hawkins, whose time in the Public Room has helped form a foundation in his current position as a land law examiner, agrees with Webber. “We are serving the public as a whole,” said Hawkins. “I think the Public Room is a great place to start getting people to understand how they can build partnerships with the BLM. It serves as an important gateway into the lesser-known areas of the federal government.”
It’s true—there are many lesser-known areas of the government. Oftentimes, the public sees the results of projects that took years in the making, and don’t always realize what went into making that project happen. Multi-agency restoration efforts, policy making, sensitive species management, or even keeping waysides open and available for the public’s enjoyment and use are often time-intensive and multi-faceted projects. That’s the beauty of the Public Room. It’s a place where people can come to get answers and learn about their public land, and all that goes into managing them.
Still wondering what was spilled all over the Public Room floor? The Anchorage and Fairbanks Public Rooms serve as a place for miners to come and pay their annual fees to the BLM. Sometimes, they show up with a jingle in their pocket.
“A lot of [gold] miners that we work with carry around their treasure just in case someone asks…there’s always a story to be told,” said Hawkins, who asked the miner to see his “pay dirt.” After years of building rapport with miners, Hawkins explained, it is not unusual for them to share what they have found when coming to the Public Room to pay their annual mining claim fees. “Obviously, when a miner hands you their gold, you don’t want to spill it everywhere. That stuff is worth money. So, of course, after opening the vial, I spilled it [the gold] all over the floor!” After pausing for dramatic effect, Hawkins assured that he and other Public Room staff worked diligently to pick up each tiny flake of gold off the Public Room floor until it was safely back in the vial and in the miner’s hands with no hard feelings.
Be it wayward lost souls who wander into the Public Room looking for the Recorder’s Office, gold miners coming to stake a claim, or an avid outdoors enthusiast gearing up for their next trip, Alaska’s Public Rooms remain a one-stop-shop to Alaska Public Lands.