Installation of culverts in Kelly Lake Road. (Photo provided by FWS)

Installation of culverts in Kelly Lake Road. (Photo provided by FWS)

Refuge Notebook: More than fins, feathers and fur

In the fall of 2010, I found a job opening listed through USAJobs, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a location in Soldotna, Alaska. I was working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., as a facilities analyst.

Having spent over 24 years working in the prison systems at locations across the country and in various facilities management positions, the opportunity to get out of Washington, D.C., to Alaska was enticing.

At the time, I had no knowledge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had never heard of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and had no idea how to pronounce Soldotna. So, I called a friend who is very familiar with the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai River and Soldotna. When I asked about the Fish and Wildlife Service, he commented, “They are the Feds over fins, feathers and fur.”

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is, “Working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish (fins), wildlife (feathers and fur), plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

My friend’s description might also include fire, in recognition of the Funny River, Card Street and Swan Lake fires over the past few years, and friends, as a nod to our many visitor activities, campgrounds and trails.

Yet, the descriptor of fins, feathers, fur, fire and friends still fails to acknowledge a crucial and rarely recognized component of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. While we might use the term “facilities,” most would more readily recognize the term “maintenance.”

As I venture around the peninsula, particularly when wearing my FWS uniform, I am often asked about fishing or hunting regulations, when the salmon will arrive, or if a particular campground is open.

The public’s association with FWS maintenance seems to be generally about road conditions, outhouses that need to be cleaned and boat ramps that are not as smooth as the highway. There is much more.

Yearly, thousands of visitors to the Kenai Peninsula visit Kenai National Wildlife Refuge facilities. Our visitor center provides a fantastic overview of the highlights of the peninsula. The adjacent headquarters building has office space for a host of staff and the center for permits and various research activities.

The nearby Environmental Education Center is very familiar to countless school children and families who participate in the many educational programs. However, unseen and rarely talked about are the over 30 additional buildings that are part of the refuge, from seasonal housing to office, research and warehouse space.

Each building serves a purpose and needs to be maintained. For example, light bulbs burn out, dripping sinks need repair and there are toilets to unplug. In addition, floors require cleaning, walls need painting and broken windows need to get fixed. These duties and many others are the responsibility of the maintenance staff at the refuge.

While I take my pickup to a repair shop for a tire or oil change, all of this is accomplished in our auto shop on the refuge. A fleet of over 40 pickups and SUVs need regular maintenance to keep the many staff moving to their varied responsibilities.

Dump trucks, loaders, graders, skid steers, forestry cutters, boats, snowmachines and ATVs all have a purpose on the refuge. We maintain more than 30 miles of roads during the summer season, plus the associated parking areas and campground accesses.

We plow an additional 22 miles of roads in the winter months, along with access to the airport runway from our airplane hangar. We can’t overlook the fact that each piece of equipment used to maintain all our facilities also needs regular maintenance by the refuge maintenance staff.

Since 2014, three major fires have significantly altered the refuge’s landscape. Charred and downed trees are reminders of the fires, but a less visible result is the impact on drainage and the maintenance that requires.

Specifically, since the 2019 Swan Lake fire, changes in the landscape and soil conditions coupled with large amounts of snow and early thaw resulted in significant erosion and damage to Mystery Creek Road and the access roads to Kelly, Engineer and Skilak lakes.

As a result, the refuge maintenance team has installed new culverts, constructed drainage channels and rebuilt the respective roads.

I don’t anticipate people stopping me around town to ask questions relative to my maintenance duties, and I will continue to do my best to answer questions concerning those aspects of fish and wildlife that I know little about.

However, if your teenagers seek a great job future at the refuge but turn up their nose at the suggestion to pursue a career in biology or wildlife management, perhaps they might want to become a heavy equipment operator, mechanic, electrician, carpenter or custodian. They could find a rewarding career at one of the many areas of the National Wildlife Refuge System located throughout the country.

Remember, someone is responsible for maintaining all the roads you drive, buildings you visit and campgrounds you love. And, though we wish it, the outhouses don’t clean themselves. At the refuge, we all have a part in conserving the fins, feathers and furs, some of us less directly but equally vital. I, for one, am glad that a place I once hadn’t imagined is one I now take pride in maintaining.

Clif Peterson is the Facilities Operation Specialist on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. To find more Refuge Notebook Articles or find us on Facebook

Construction of a drainage channel to divert water off Kelly Lake Road. (Photo provided by FWS)

Construction of a drainage channel to divert water off Kelly Lake Road. (Photo provided by FWS)

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