Refuge education specialist migrates north

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, October 27, 2006


  Nicole Gustine helps two students learn about snowflake types during the "Warming up to Winter" Homeschool Discovery Room held at the refuge Environmental Education Center last February. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Nicole Gustine helps two students learn about snowflake types during the "Warming up to Winter" Homeschool Discovery Room held at the refuge Environmental Education Center last February.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge staff says goodbye to one of its own next week. Nicole Gustine, better known to some of you by her maiden name of Johnson, is moving to Fairbanks to continue her work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to be with her new husband, Dave Gustine.

Nicole started working at the Kenai Refuge in June 2001 as a full-time environmental education specialist. Upon starting her job, Nicole was immediately swept up in the summer season rush, when the staff size triples and the workload is very fast-paced and nonstop until mid-September. It wasn’t until seasonal employees began to drift off for winter destinations that some permanent employees realized that Nicole was a new addition to the staff and not one of the seasonal employees. We now know and appreciate what a wonderful addition to the staff she has been.

Environmental education is a Congressional mandate for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Nicole and her staff have worked hard to implement this special directive. Nicole has spent the last 5 years developing and presenting environmental education programs to local public and home-school students of all ages. Through her dedicated efforts, school groups have received high quality environmental education programs on a wide variety of topics.

Each year approximately 3,000 students from Southcentral Alaska participate in educational programs at the refuge. Participants range from kindergarten classes exploring animal senses to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders experiencing snowshoeing for the first time as a low-impact form of winter recreation. School groups, scout groups, youth groups and teacher and youth workshops are some of the more frequent groups attending environmental education trips lead by Nicole and crew.

Most of the programs take place at our new Environmental Education Center and on the Keen-Eye Trail at our headquarters site in Soldotna. Several programs also are taught in the field utilizing the refuge’s unique facilities such as our Outdoor Education Center on Swan Lake Road, at campgrounds near Skilak, Hidden and Kelly Lakes, and on our vast network of trails. The environmental education team has developed nine curricula aligned with Kenai Peninsula Borough School District standards. All of these programs are designed to increase the participants’ awareness and understanding of wildlife and the natural world. They also present ways in which individuals can reduce their impacts on the environment.

Nicole also coordinates the refuge recycling program for our office and shop waste products. She set up collection areas in all the main facilities at our headquarters site where recyclable items are collected and separated. Everything from newspapers and aluminum cans to used batteries, scrap metal and used oil are recycled. About once a month she transports these items to the recycling center at the borough landfill. In 2005, she received a National Fish and Wildlife Service Environmental Leadership Award for her efforts in recycling and reaching out to refuge staff and the public in fostering better environmental stewardship. Only three such Environmental Leadership Awards were given nationally that year.

When the Arctic Winter Games came to the Kenai Peninsula in 2006, the snowshoe event was held at our headquarters site and athletes used refuge ski trails for their races. Nicole again stepped up to the plate and volunteered to be the chairwoman for this event. She spent numerous hours planning meetings, scheduling and coordinating volunteers, supervising the events and dealing with coaches. There were some challenging and stressful moments for her during that weeklong event, but the she came through with flying colors and lots of good memories. Nicole was also chosen to perform in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Arctic Winter Games with other specially selected dancers. She loves to dance and is a student and part-time instructor at Encore Dance Academy in Kenai.

It has been a great experience working with Nicole and to have witnessed some of her interactions with school groups and adults. She strives to educate and promote environmental conservation in all aspects of her life. She has exposed numerous children and adults to the wonders of the natural world and hopefully opened their eyes to a new world that they will learn to respect and protect. The Kenai Refuge staff will miss her, but she will do magnificent things wherever she goes. Goodbye and good luck to a friend and colleague as she begins the next adventure in her life.

Claire Caldes is a refuge operations specialist and the oil and gas liaison for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 28 years, seven of those years on Alaska refuges.

Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on our Web site You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at (907) 262-2300.

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