If you follow me on Instagram or know me in real life, you have probably seen some of the very strange photos I’ve posted while at work, leading you to ask yourself, “What does she DO?” Well, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in asking yourself that because I can virtually guarantee that my friends and family could not tell you either outside of something vague like “she goes outside a lot and writes a lot.” Both of those things are true, but today I thought I’d give you a little peek into the other side of my life – the side that actually takes up the vast majority of my time and has nothing to do with running except when I’m fleeing from mosquitoes. We’re going to talk about my job! I promise not to make it a snooze fest and can virtually guarantee that you’ll learn something by the end, deal? Deal.
Ok, so first thing’s first: my actual job title is Environmental Specialist. Pretty useless in terms of information, right? My job is a combination of three things: environmental planning (the writing part), field science (the outside part), and GIS analysis (the mapmaking part). The background of my position is that the National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 and requires federal agencies to take environmental impacts into consideration when they are making decisions and requires that the agencies look for alternatives that will minimize impacts to the environment. That basically means that your state can’t just decide to build a brand new road anywhere they want without first thinking about the best, least damaging place to build that road. In order to prove that they considered different options and that the new project won’t cause unjustified damage to the environment, they are required to write a document that provides the evidence. That’s where I come in!
I primarily work on transportation projects like road and airport improvements, but we also occasionally work for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. The environmental documents that I write for these projects cover everything from impacts to natural resources, such as wetlands, endangered species, wildlife, and rivers to human resources such as historical resources, neighborhoods, socioeconomic data, and more. Impacts to both the human environment and the natural environment are weighed across many categories to determine which alternative is the best choice. Depending on how involved the project is determines the size and scope of the document. It may take me a week to write a small document or three to five years working with a whole team to write a large one! If you’ve ever wondered why it takes so long to widen that highway near your house that’s backed up with traffic, now you know – the environmental process takes a very long time.
In order to get all of the information we need for the documents, a big part of the work involves going out to the physical project location and flagging out all the wetlands, looking for endangered species, and assessing aquatic resources. That’s where all of my crazy pictures come from! I didn’t know anything about wetland science when I first started working in this field. I had no idea I would ever end up outside. In fact, I was hired strictly as a GIS analyst (making maps on the computer) when I graduated college. Then, my bosses figured out that I’m a decent enough writer and after that, they learned that I’m not afraid of snakes and don’t complain much when I’m in pain, so they sent me out to the field and the rest is history. I’ve now become pretty decent at identifying the different plants and trees and looking for habitat, but I mostly play second fiddle to the guys who do this full time and make sure they don’t get bitten by anything and collapse while we’re out there. I genuinely enjoy going out to the field when it’s below 85 degrees. Above that, not so much, but my boss doesn’t seem to care about my temperature preferences because it was over 100 today at the airport we were flagging. Oh well, better luck next summer.
The documents are accompanied by tons of figures, charts, and graphics that help convey the data in a more interesting and understandable way. Interesting fact: the documents have to be written at an 8th grade level because the public needs to be able to read and understand them so that they can comment on projects that have the potential to affect them. I love that aspect of my job because I enjoy the challenge of taking extremely technical information and putting it into terms that are not only understandable to the average person, but also interesting to read. In order to do that, we include a lot of maps of the project area showing various types of impacts, which is the final part of my job. It’s funny that the field I got my degree in is actually the area I do the least amount of work in, but it’s all still related.
So if you’re wondering why it’s taking so long to widen the highway near your house or build the new metro line that’s been promised, it’s probably my fault. And if you’re wondering if there’s any method to the madness in how government decisions are made as they pertain to the environment, I can tell you that yes, there usually is. I can also tell you that public opinion is very important in what I do, so if there is an upcoming project you hate or one you love, don’t be afraid to stand up and make your voice heard! It really does matter, and I promise you there is someone just like me near where you live that is reading all of your comments and responding to each one. I know because I have to do it too.
I’d be lying if I said that this is the career I thought I would grow up to have, because it definitely is not. I wanted to be a large animal vet until I found out I had to take physics. So while a few years ago I don’t think I would have said I’m living the dream, I can honestly say I genuinely like what I do. It is interesting and challenging and it’s never the same thing two days in a row. It’s nice to be able to get out of the office pretty regularly and hone a variety of different skills. Plus, I’m not afraid of snakes and am very useful for moving them out of the way when running with a group.
LEAVE A COMMENT: What is your job? Can your friends and family explain what you do?