Refuge Notebook: The futures ahead

I’m sure you’ve all looked back at your lives at some point, thought back on decisions, be it with regret or gratitude, and recognized that a choice or event shaped where you are today.

The same is true for the landscape we call home. Anyone who’s been here for a while can tell you that there were choices made or events transpired that shaped it, changed it, made the Kenai the place it is today.

There are many trails one may take in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, be they hiking trails or game trails deep in the woods, but one path we all follow is the path of time.

The path we take is a product of the choices we all make each moment of every day, and at times, this path is shaped by events out of our own control. Either way, with each fork in the path, our futures take shape, rendering others out of reach.

Since the past can’t be changed, I’m of the mind that it’s best to learn from it as a valuable resource and accept the present. The future can also be looked at like the past, as a series of choices and events.

What I enjoy about looking forward is that I can prepare for the wild-card events life may throw my way and actively make choices now to shape my own future.

This is at the heart of my work with the refuge this summer as a Strategic Foresight Planner: Where are we now, and what possible futures exist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge? Seems daunting, doesn’t it?

But it’s an exciting question! By asking it now, we can prepare for events out of our control and inform us of the choices that exist to foster a future that ensures our shared values are protected.

I’m in the process of learning all that I can about the freshwater, boreal and alpine systems of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and how our world is changing.

With a team of other staff, we’ll use everything we learned to build a lens for each of these three systems, answering the question, “Where are we now?”

These lenses are made up of the different elements that impact how these systems change.

Take the freshwater systems that sustain the iconic chinook salmon; some of the elements of this lens may include rearing habitat like wetlands or backwaters, spawning habitat like gravel-bottom streams, or disturbance events like burning peatlands or glacial retreat.

When looking to all possible futures, this lens gives us a map of the paths branching toward them, acting like a prism that splits light into an array of colors. (Think of the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”)

Using what we know about the current state of these elements and how they may change, by choice or by fate, a series of paths unfold that fork and come together like a braided flood plain, directing toward the stream in which we end up.

Going back to the example of the refuge’s freshwater systems, if our wetlands change in a way that we don’t currently expect, how will fish be impacted? If an earthquake changes the way a river flows, how might spawning habitat change?

In a way, this lens is like a prism we can stretch and manipulate, changing the projection of the future as we look through it, showing us the series of choices and events that lead to the future we expect, the futures we hope for, and futures we hope to avoid.

I’m new to the Kenai, in a summer fellowship for undergraduate and graduate students, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to be here, certain that I’m suited to this work.

This isn’t because I think I can learn everything there is to know about the Kenai in the next three months and play weatherman. It’s because I know I’m a good listener and know I’m part of a team that is prepared to ask the right questions.

To help the refuge build this map of its possible futures, I’ll be talking to people who know much more than I do. Truly, I’m just a conduit for the rich knowledge these people hold, distilling it into that lens so we can ask, “What futures are out there?” and, “How can we be prepared?”

This is all exploratory, in the interest of building tools for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that will ensure that management decisions lead to a future for which the refuge is prepared.

I’ll leave you with a quote that speaks to the importance of acting now, making informed choices, and how our futures are hardly fixed or static.

I’m of the belief that small choices lead to big choices which lead to the world we want, so despite Sylvia Plath’s dour vibe, I hope you know that I’m certain the refuge has a bright future.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, […] and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

In my brief time here so far, I’ve been inspired by the people I’m lucky to work alongside. We absolutely will not sit idle and starve, wringing our hands over the loss of potentiality.

The Kenai Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place, a rich ecosystem with inherent resilience. Even in the face of undeniable change, we are well-positioned to prepare, adapt and thrive.

I’ve already found a wealth of knowledge of the past that is a reference for what changes are possible, giving us landmarks as we paddle downstream.

Matthew Morassutti is a Strategic Foresight Planner at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Directorate Fellowship Program member, and Master of Sciences candidate in Natural Resources Management at California Polytechnic University, Humboldt where he studies the genetic diversity of mammals in the redwood canopy. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999-present) at or other info at

Braided flood plain into Skilak Lake. (Photo by Jackie Morton/USFWS)

Braided flood plain into Skilak Lake. (Photo by Jackie Morton/USFWS)