Robert Miller grew up hunting and fishing on the Olympic Peninsula in Quinault, Washington. He always knew he wanted to work outdoors, and he is now a Fisheries Biologist for the Supervisor’s Office on the Tongass National Forest. In his off time, he enjoys his subsistence way of life, which is important to him, his family, and his community in Sitka, Alaska.
What do you do with the Forest Service?
I do fishpass enhancement, restoration, and a lot of work with salmon. That's what I love.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is working with the Student Conservation Association volunteers and teaching them how to work and how to see a project through from beginning to end. For me, that's more of an accomplishment than building the fishpass itself. It's teaching this younger generation how to work hard, follow through and meet their goals. And at the end of the summer they look back at me and thank me every time. I'm lifelong friends with many SCA interns.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
I was in third grade, and I hunted a lot for elk and deer. I was hiking in the woods with my father, just tagging along, and we saw this guy in the stream wearing chest waders, and he was wading in the water up to about his hips. My dad didn't see him. I pointed at him, and to my dad I say, ‘Dad, what's he doing?’ And he stopped to look, says, ‘Oh, he's a fisheries biologist. He's counting salmon to make sure the populations are healthy.’ I looked at my dad in that moment, and I said, ‘That's what I want to do when I grew up.’ That was the moment that defined my future right there. And I'll never forget it.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
Hunt and fish. That's what I do. I go out on my boat, and I hunt, and I fish. I live my subsistence lifestyle and harvest seals and give away the meat to the elders in town. I hunt sea otters and make clothes for my company. I go moose hunting, provide meat for the family. I go deer hunting and get meat for many people in town. I give most of my deer meat away to other people because my freezers are full.
If I could go back in time, I would go back to the early, early days of Tlingit-hood and be a hunter-gatherer. I would just live my life subsisting, and that's what would make me happy. That's what I try to do now these days.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
There is not one, there's not two. There's not 10. There's all kinds of factors and maybe two or three of these factors combined won't do much, but when you get eight or 10 or 15 or 20 factors combined, that one extra factor might be the tipping point where you're done. So I feel like, by going out and restoring salmon habitat, and getting these streams as pristine as we can, that's what I can do to put my footprint on this planet.
What's a professional or personal achievement that you're particularly proud of?
Teaching young people and becoming lifelong friends with them. Teaching them how to work, and just sharing what I know. Not necessarily how to build a fishpass, anyone can build a fishpass if I teach them how to hold a hammer and pour concrete, but teaching them how to work as a team and complete your their goals in a timely and safe manner. Also building that camaraderie amongst your peers, from your SCA interns to your uppity ups. Because that's important too. If you don't get along with somebody, something's not going to go right. That team spirit, that team atmosphere--I grew up playing basketball and continued through college. If you didn't have the team building part, you were going to fail. So that's where I got that from.
Describe a recent, current or upcoming project that you're working on.
Two years ago, I built a fishpass on Mitchell Creek with a crew of SCA interns. We blew the old fishpass up and built a new one, in one summer, with a crew that was just phenomenal. It was the highlight of my Forest Service career. Working with that crew, now, all the other crews were great, but this by far was the biggest project I'd done with a crew like this. To be able to pull it off and at the end of the summer everyone's still just loving each other like brothers and sisters out there -- probably even better, because there weren’t the brother-sister fights. It was like a family atmosphere. We lived in the wall tents, and we stayed on the job all summer, and we worked hard, and we worked long hours, and the crew got along great. I'm still in communication with all of them today.
How would you like the public to perceive the work that we do?
I would like the public to know about what we do, because we're busy in the woods all the time. I think public perception would be much different if they knew everything going on in their forests. We have 71 fishpasses on the Tongass National Forest that produce an abundant amount of salmon for commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries in Southeast Alaska. People don't know that story. If they did, it could be huge.
What are your future career goals?
To retire and still be physically capable of living the lifestyle I want to live afterwards. My job is construction. I'm doing concrete and lifting boulders, and running crews, and carrying plywood on slippery wet surfaces in the middle of nowhere, and staying in tents all summer. I think about that a lot more, every day. I'm going to be 48 pretty soon, and retire in nine and a half years. How hard do I want to work in this next nine and a half years, physically? But at the same time, do I take another job and get stuck behind a desk and be absolutely miserable? Nope, I ain't doing that. I have to find a balance.