Refuge loses 94 years of experience to retirements


The legacy of World War II continues to play out in strange ways. As veterans returned home to the U.S., including many who homesteaded in Alaska in the 1940s and 50s, they helped give birth to what we now call the Baby Boomer generation. The Boomers have since grown up, had their own kids, and are now rapidly joining the ranks of retirees.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is no stranger to this demographic phenomenon. As many as 50 senior employees in Alaska are retiring next month, about 10 percent of the agency workforce in our state.

Right here in Soldotna, we’re losing five experienced hands including Doug Palmer, Field Supervisor for the Kenai Fisheries Office, and Bill Larned, pilot-biologist for Migratory Birds. But this story is about the three employees who are retiring after many years at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Collectively, they have served the Refuge and our local community, worked to conserve our natural resources, and simply represented the best of civil servants. They embody a wonderful cross-section of committed individuals who work across the country in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Rick Johnston started at the Refuge on New Year’s Day in 1979. With an M.S. from the University of Washington, Rick began a 34-year career at the Refuge that included commissions as a Refuge law enforcement officer in 1981 and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife pilot in 1986. He flew over 4,000 accident-free hours in Cessna 185s and Super Cubs.

Rick is most proud of his search and rescues, his mentoring of literally thousands of seasonal employees, volunteers and interns, and his significant stewardship of the 1985 Comprehensive Conservation Plan that guided Refuge management for 25 years. In more recent years, Rick has served as the permit specialist for the Refuge, ensuring that research, commercial and recreational activities are respectful of the 2 million acres that we all get to enjoy. Rick has never left the Refuge because, as he points out, where else could a guy have practiced so many jobs rolled into one, mixing field work with his professional interests in social science?

In contrast to Rick, Claire Caldes has spent her 34 years at nine different refuges including Monte Vista and Alamosa in Colorado, Kofa and Imperial in Arizona, the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Santa Ana in Texas, Bear River in Utah, and the Alaska Maritime and Kenai. After earning her B.S. in Wildlife Science at New Mexico State, Claire has served as an assistant refuge manager, refuge operation specialist, collateral fire management officer, and a commissioned law enforcement officer. One of her greatest career accomplishments was helping to acquire farm land and convert it to woodlands as a 275-mile travel corridor for endangered ocelots along the Lower Rio Grande.

As the liaison between the oil and gas industry at the Refuge for the past decade, she’s ensured that resource extraction on the Swanson, Beaver Creek and Birch Hill Fields was done in the most environmentally responsible way. Claire oversaw the cleanup of industrial debris and contaminants scattered over 13,250 acres of active leases, working with industry to plug abandoned wells and remove over 6,000 barrels of waste material and 930 tons of steel, concrete and piping junk! She’s always taken the greatest satisfaction from on-the-ground projects that directly benefit wildlife and their habitats.

Pam Ables, the Refuge’s Chief of Administrative Services, is a life-long Alaskan, growing up in Salcha. She’s been with the Service for 26 years, starting as a 19-year-old youngster at the Fisheries and Ecological Services Field Office in Fairbanks, and moving on to the headquarters of the Arctic Refuge.

Pam’s been with the Kenai Refuge since 1995. Picking up an Associate’s degree in computer systems technology along the way, she’s ensured that the Refuge’s computer and phone network is technologically better and more efficient than any other field station in Alaska. Pam’s vision of cutting-edge information technology started several years ago with the laying of fiber-optics to create a campus-like system here at our headquarters on Ski Hill Road. Pam and her staff support the other divisions at the Refuge, allowing our biologists, law enforcement, visitor services and maintenance staff as much time as possible to serve the public and our natural resources.

Despite their very different backgrounds and job titles, what all three of these individuals have in common is a passion for their jobs and what they can contribute to the larger good. Confucius got it right back in the fourth century B.C. when he said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

I’m sure there were many days when it didn’t quite feel as rosy as that, but I’ve absolutely no doubt that Rick, Claire and Pam will be able to look back at their careers with great satisfaction.

As someone who has had a chance to intersect with their career paths for a decade, I can safely say that they will be sorely missed at the Refuge. We wish them well in their next endeavors.


John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at or


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