DOINews: I Am BLM: Joe Kurtak, Geologist, Anchorage Field Office

Last edited 09/05/2019

Note: "I Am BLM" stories feature Bureau of Land Management employees whose talents and backgrounds are as diverse as the landscapes and resources they manage under the BLM's complex and far-reaching mission.

Anchorage Field Office Geologist Joe Kurtak conducting mineral surveys on a remote mountaintop in Alaska.

BLM Anchorage Field Office geologist Joe Kurtak is in his element, conducting mineral surveys on Alaska's remote mountaintops. Photo by BLM.

Where do you work and how does your job help fulfill the BLM mission?

I'm a geologist at the Anchorage Field Office and currently work in the Mining Compliance and Mineral Materials programs. My job consists of authorizing and inspecting mining operations on federal mining claims and material sites (sand and gravel and crushed rock). Our group keeps tabs on approximately 39 claim owners and mining operations in a territory totaling 22 million acres across southern Alaska.

Our mission is to ensure that mining operations follow federal regulations and do not cause permanent damage to the fragile Alaskan environment. Many of these mines are small, family-owned operations, providing a livelihood for the owners. The majority are placer gold mines (gold mixed with gravel in a stream bed), which need water to separate the gold from the gravel. Many Alaskan rivers and streams are spawning habitat for salmon. We need to protect this crucial biological resource and, at the same time, allow mining to take place in an environmentally safe manner.

What previous experience or education prepared you for the job?

I grew up at the site of a tungsten mine in eastern California. This experience exposed me to the mining industry at an early age. As a result, I'm comfortable working around mining operations and miners, and know that mining provides a livelihood for many workers in this country.

Growing up in a mining environment led to an interest in the earth sciences and eventually to a master's degree in geology from Mackay School of Mines in Reno, Nevada. After college, I worked in mineral exploration for a few years before entering government service in 1980, first with the Bureau of Mines and, most recently, with the Bureau of Land Management. I ended up at the BLM in 1996 as they needed geologists when the Bureau of Mines was shuttered as an agency.

Joe Kurtak inspects mining reclamation efforts at the NYAC Mine near Aniak, Alaska. (Photo by James Whitlock)
Joe Kurtak inspects mining reclamation efforts at the NYAC Mine near Aniak, Alaska. Photo by James Whitlock, BLM.

What is the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is that it allows me to travel to many remote parts of Alaska to observe a variety of mining operations and associated geology. I also enjoy working with the miners to help them pursue their livelihoods while protecting Alaska's fragile wild lands.

I find myself extremely lucky in that I've had a passion for geology, mining, and minerals since my youth. Even more so, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to exercise this passion during 34 years of government service. This passion has fueled my geologic explorations and discoveries throughout my federal career.

Working for the BLM has also allowed me to pass on my passion for geology and mining to younger generations. I've made numerous presentations to school groups about the geology of Alaska, its mineral resources, and the importance of minerals in our everyday lives. It's a way of giving back after being so lucky in my career and life in general. I've also served as a field-going mentor to a number of seasonal and newly hired employees, sharing my knowledge and passion for Alaska geology and mining history.

Joe Kurtak and James Whitlock showing a group of kids in a classroom a rock exhibit
Joe Kurtak and colleague James Whitlock inspire future rock hounds at Copper Center School in eastern Alaska. Photo by Marnie Graham, BLM.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Alaskans are known for their independent attitude, especially gold miners. The most challenging part of my job is working with the small group of miners who disregard regulations and do what they want without regard for the environment. There are times when I have to wear the black hat and tell miners they have to stop what they're doing. This has the potential to affect their livelihood, but there are times when it has to be done to avoid degradation of the environment.

What is an interesting or fun fact about yourself?

I've been a member of the National Ski Patrol for more than 30 years. I enjoy helping others in Alaska's sometimes unforgiving outdoor environment. I also give instruction in snow and avalanche safety. Many of the interpersonal and outdoor skills I learned through working with the BLM have been applied to my Ski Patrol activities. I'm also an avid runner, skier, and biker, and started an informal exercise group here at our Anchorage Office. There's a system of trails through the woods here which makes it easy to get outdoors, even though the Field Office can be one of the coldest spots in Anchorage during Alaska's long winters.

Joe Kurtak inspecting mineralized rocks in the Aklun Mountains of Alaska.
Joe Kurtak inspects mineralized rocks in the Aklun Mountains of Alaska. Photo by John Hoppe, BLM.

By: BLM National

Feb. 25, 2015

Was this page helpful?

Please provide a comment