ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The manager of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska is retiring at the end of 2012 after 36 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and if the agency serves cake when Paul Liedberg and others retire this year, it will have to be a big one.
The agency is bracing for the Dec. 31 departure of 40 to 50 senior Alaska employees, just less than 10 percent of its work force, spokesman Bruce Woods said.
That's the number of workers who can take advantage of a one-time window to boost retirement pay. The window is tied to changes in the federal locality pay system, which provides a wage differential to employees who work in places with a high cost of living.
Woods said the departing workers represent years of institutional wisdom.
"Hundreds, probably more than a thousand, years of combined experience, largely in Alaska, although some of the people have had careers that have taken them all over," he said .
Refuge managers such as Liedberg and program chiefs are on the list.
Such long-term employees typically come into agencies and spend their entire careers there, said Jim Stratton, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association and the former director of the state Division of Parks.
"People who have grown up in their careers in Alaska implementing the Alaska Lands Act from the beginning - to have people like that leave now would be a tremendous blow to the agency," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is part of a significant federal presence in Alaska. It manages 16 wildlife refuges in the state, totaling nearly 120,000 square miles - roughly the size of New Mexico.
The agency oversees migratory birds, threatened or endangered species, and marine mammals found nowhere else in the country such as polar bears and Pacific walrus.
Liedberg's first job with the agency was as a clerk in Minnesota. He later transferred to Fairbanks for a job with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then earned a resource management degree and picked up a pilot's license, which he put to use in agency posts in Galena and Bethel. He's now based in Dillingham.
For six more weeks, he will oversee a refuge and wilderness area that's home to walrus, two caribou herds and 200 species of birds, including threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders.
The upside to a loss of senior positions is that the departing employees are at relatively high pay levels, Woods said. Their replacements will come in at lower levels and the agency will see cost savings. But for crucial positions, the agency hopes for some overlap, he said.
"We can't make up that experience," he said.