OREGON—During her first week with the USDA Forest Service, Miriam Smith found herself suspended 200 feet in the air, inspecting the underside of a bridge.
“The UBIT bucket, that was pretty cool,” she said.
Viewing a forest canyon from the UBIT, an under-bridge inspection truck, was only one of many stand-out moments that came to mind when Smith, a college junior, was asked about her two-week experiential internship with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest and Alaska regional engineering team.
Smith is majoring in environmental engineering at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Her interest in National Forest System lands was first piqued by her experiences living in the Pacific Northwest, when her father was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“I know the forests up here are pretty amazing, and I figured if ‘I am going to go with the Forest Service (it should be here),” she said.
For the past five years, the Forest Service has hosted cadets for two weeks during the summer as part of the academy’s Academic Individual Advanced Development program. The program introduces junior and senior cadets to non-Department of Defense government agencies and organizations to provide different training and experiences.
The two-week learning opportunity is offered as a broadening experience to future military officers who are training for Army commissions while earning bachelor’s degrees at the academy.
The Forest Service’s commitment to cultivating relationships with future professionals is both broad and deeply rooted, said Amy Thomas, deputy director of engineering for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska regions of the Forest Service.
The Forest Service invests heavily in growing future conservation leaders, she said, and her team has embraced their charge to steward the whole through a variety of efforts to reach out to and support all kinds of natural resources professionals as they embark on their careers.
“The long-term angle we always have is that investment in STEM,” Thomas said. “It’s that long-term opportunity, (our) outreach exists to enrich the pool of STEM grads, even though we know it may be 10 years before we reap the benefits, it’s important that we do that.”
As Smith’s two-week internship experience unfolded, she travelled hundreds of miles to visit various engineering projects on some of the 17 national forest-managed sites in Oregon and Washington.
One day, she was looking at erosion in temperate rainforest on the coastal lowlands west of the Cascades. The next, she saw how the same issues play out in the high desert or on a subalpine slope—an entirely different ecosystem—with different challenges and different opportunities.
“Her first day was at the regional office, that was probably the most boring day for her. She had an office call with the deputy regional foresters, a director stand-up and meet-and-greets. Then, we started going out into the field,” Aaron Eklund, the regional engineering partnerships program leader, said.
He coordinated many of the educational encounters Smith experienced—tours of vegetation restoration projects in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, restoration work at a Forest Service and National Park Service visitor center located in a historic building on Fort Vancouver, and a $4 million road work project on the Olympic National Forest.
“People don’t always think engineering when they think Forest Service, but it really is one of the most unique engineering opportunities out there,” Thomas said. “I think we raised her (Smith’s) awareness of the complexity of the work we do managing public lands.” The academy offers broadening experiences like Smith’s in an effort to better prepare cadets for their future military careers.
As a commissioned engineering officer, Smith will need to consider the impact of military operations on the environment and the impact of the environment on operations in complex situations. She could be called on to ensure troops have access to drinkable water, build defensible combat outposts, support efforts to use or improve civil, or repair damaged facilities. Thomas and Eklund said they jumped at the chance to host a cadet, in part because of their own experience as former cadets themselves.
“The goal is not only to help her, but grow relationships,” Eklund said. “It really is a professional development tool for the individual, not just the military.”
Eklund has continued his military service as an Army reservist—he’s a lieutenant colonel and the Army’s regional military liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Military academy graduates are required to serve for at least five years after graduation. Nearly all will someday pursue civilian employment, and when that happens, Thomas hopes Smith—and others who hear about her experiences—will consider working for the Forest Service.
“We’re looking for people with that outside perspective. Diversity of experience is important,” she said.
Thomas said she looks forward to maintaining her office’s connection with Smith as she continues her military and environmental engineering career, and that she hopes Smith not only learned a lot but tells everyone about experience.
She also hopes her office can host another cadet this summer and have similar opportunities to broaden their experience and put that knowledge to work in serving the public over the course of a successful military and engineering career.
The academy pays the cadet’s salary, while the Forest Service pays travel and per diem. Forest Service units interested in hosting a cadet should contact Bill Dauer at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.