By Thomas Mills
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District, Northern Area, covers 13 lakes, or projects. It is a rough triangle that stretches from Oologah Lake in northeastern Oklahoma, down to Arcadia Lake near Oklahoma City, all the way to the panhandle of the state.
The Northern Area is a swath of land covering approximately 15,000 square miles, and across that chunk of the district a man named Jason Person is the environmental specialist.
Person’s job is to ensure environmental compliance in the Northern Area projects. That includes internal Corps operations like dams, gate towers, power houses and recreation areas, as well as working with contractors and businesses like marinas that lease Corps land.
“I review project development plans, project requests for activities such as fencing, fire breaks, parking lots, roads, new sewer and waterline requests, demolitions, herbicide and pesticide use,” he said. He also conducts inspections of structures and operations for both Corps and private business, on Corps land. There is more to that list, he said, and it’s all based on what Person calls “the big four.”
The big four are the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106, archeological artifacts and protection of those resources, Clean Water Act Section 404, Endangered Species Act Section 7, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
If the Northern Area didn’t have an environmental specialist, Person added, the duties he fills would likely be handed to the Rangers or other staff, who already have a packed list of things for which they are responsible. “They may not be able to prioritize the environmental compliance portion of their job as high as an environmental specialist can,” Person said.
Becoming an environmental specialist for the Corps was a fairly long, and somewhat unusual route for Person.
“I began my career at Kaw Lake as a temporary park ranger during the summer of 2000,” Person said. He graduated from college that December with a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife and Fisheries Ecology and worked part time for his father before seriously pursuing a career with the Corps.
“I went to the Oologah Lake Office and visited with the lake manager at the time and enquired about working the summer at Oologah Lake,” Person said. He was hired as a temporary ranger and was told about a program the Corps had to hire college students, a program similar to what is now known as the Student Career Experience Program. So Person went back to school at Oklahoma State University and was accepted into a position.
After graduating with his second degree, this one a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources-Plant and Soil Sciences, in 2003, Person was placed at Lake Texoma as part of the ranger training program for 2 years. Once trained as a ranger he began working at Oologah Lake.
He’s worked as a ranger and has also worked in the district headquarters in Tulsa before becoming an environmental specialist.
“Person is a very reliable contributor to the Northern Area,” said Allen Ryan, Northern Area Operations Project Manager and Person’s supervisor. “His broad field experience and technical proficiency allows him to be versatile and capable of supporting field staff with their various job duties.” Ryan said he relies on Person for discussion and advisement on all key environmental issues and to make sure his projects maintain proactive compliance with all laws and regulations. “Preferably with no surprises,” Ryan added.
“I also rely on him to be available and responsive to emergency needs that at times arise at our projects,” Ryan said, “such as spills or leaks after normal business hours.”
Person does all of this as the lone environmental specialist for the Northern Area, which is not an easy task.
“The biggest challenge with having an area so large is that I don’t get to visit the projects in person as much as I would like to,” Person said.
While some other areas in the district have two environmental specialists, Person has learned to work with the help of project environmental compliance coordinators. The ECCs at each project are usually Corps Rangers who are trained to be an ECC as a secondary duty.
“I rely on the project ECCs to help be my eyes and ears at the project and to notify me when they see or need anything related to environmental compliance,” Person said.
“Most of the time, the project ECCs will respond to an event and give me the details so I can report the event properly and then give guidance if needed,” Person said. “If the event was significant enough, I would respond as soon as I possibly could.”
Person regularly works with a whole range of organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, across Oklahoma and into Kansas. He works with state and federal organizations and federally recognized tribes, and he has to be attuned to the different laws and requirements in the vast Northern Area.
He also has to be able to work with the public, and sometimes more importantly with lake office personnel who have to follow the environmental laws and regulations. “This can be demanding,” said Ryan, “when you’re advising a lake manager on something that is not within compliance.” Person agreed with that assessment.
“I have someone who is a lake manager and maybe has 30 years’ experience and I’m telling them, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing wrong,’” Person explained. “I don’t say it in those terms, of course, but that was one of the things I was initially concerned about when I accepted the position.”
Person’s 15 years on the job, and building trust and relationships with the Northern Area field offices has gone a long way toward making his job easier. “At the end of the day everyone is going to go with Jason’s advisement and follow the applicable environmental laws and regulations,” said Ryan. “Jason’s professionalism and tact helps everyone get to those points easier.”