Fireweed earned its name because of how easily it adapts to scorched lands following wild fires. In Europe during World War II, it was known as bombweed because of how quickly it grew and spread in bomb craters.
Fireweed also flourishes in moist, gravelly fields, which is how Juneau got its “Field of Fireweed” in the first place.
Long before it was known as that, there was a gravel extraction pit along Egan Drive between the wetlands and airport. The gravel pit wasn’t considered an iconic view, nor was it a place that encouraged visitors, inspired photographers or nurtured wildlife. It was a gravel pit much like any other.
Fireweed grew there because it could, because the land wasn’t suitable to sustain much else than the wide-spreading plant. Even though it’s classified as an ornamental, fireweed is known to be an aggressive species that flourishes easily in harsh and inhospitable areas.
The fireweed field now at the center of rezoning debate sits on private land. It’s not the city’s field, or the public’s. Ownership falls to Bicknell, Inc., and whether the fireweed field stays or goes will ultimately be up to them. If Bicknell wanted to chop down the fireweed it could, and with no recourse from anyone. Eventually the land will be sold or developed. Regardless of which the fireweed will likely go away.
How much is a field of fireweed worth? Or more specifically, how much is this field of fireweed worth?
Is it worth attracting a new business to town? Preventing the creation of new jobs and services? A lawsuit against the city if Bicknell decides to sue because zoning committee members vote to keep private land for public use?
Not far away are the wetlands and Airport Dike Trail. Both are available to the public and are places where residents can enjoy nature. There’s more wilderness beauty surrounding Juneau than most of us will ever be able to experience in our lifetimes.
The area may be big, but only the portion on solid ground could actually be developed, meaning a lot of the land would remain natural and untouched. Laws and regulations would protect surrounding wetlands.
The Mendenhall Glacier is an iconic location, as is Lena Point, the Shrine of St. Therese and many, many others around Juneau. These are the areas worth protecting; worth conserving. It’s time we treat the “Field of Fireweed” what it is: an overgrown gravel pit that should have been developed into something more long ago.
• Editor’s note: The Juneau Empire’s Editorial Board weighed both sides of the “Field of Fireweed” debate and believes both arguments warrant consideration as the issue progresses.