With snow-capped mountains rising out of a sapphire sea in the background, a row of eight people crept through the brush on their hands and knees in search of leafy invaders. Using sticks and a careful eye, the group systematically combed through a portion at the forest’s edge, uprooting black bindweed plants whenever they were found.
Pulling weeds might not have been how many Southeast Alaskans spent last week’s sunny days, but for a group of environmentally-minded folks, the invasive weed pull at Whitewater Bay, on a remote part of Admiralty Island, provided a unique experience in one of Southeast’s remote wilderness areas.
The group took part in a wilderness stewardship week of activities that included the invasive weed pull, mapping and solitude monitoring. While this was a new collaboration between the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the United States Forest Service, both agencies share the mission of protecting wilderness areas of the Tongass National Forest.
Luisa Sondie, SEACC’s an intern with SEACC’s wilderness stewardship program said the collaboration is part of the USFS’s Ten-Year Wilderness Challenge.
John Neary, a USFS wilderness manager on Admiralty Island, said the challenge began in 2004 as a quantifiable way for the USFS to measure its success in designated wilderness areas based on a defined set of stewardship standards set by each region. The goal of the challenge is to work on meeting those minimum standards by 2014, which will be the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
“The Forest Service manages wilderness all throughout the country and in 2004 we realized we needed to take a look at how we were managing those areas,” he said. “In Alaska, we have clean air, so we collect lichen tissue to try to find out if our air is as clean as we think it is. We also have solitude opportunities, but what does that mean and how do you quantify it? … Because it’s not enough to just designate an area as ‘protected.’”
Neary is the USFS Wilderness Manager for Admiralty Island who accompanied the group to Whitewater Bay. He said a decreased workforce combined with increasing pressures from population growth has made it more challenging for the agency to manage vast tracts of wilderness areas. Hence, the collaboration between pair of organizations was born. Neary oversees the partnership with SEACC.
“This is the first time for SEACC to work directly with the Forest Service instead of against it. In this case, the agencies actually see eye to eye regarding certain areas,” he said. “We’re trying to encourage SEACC and other local groups to be involved in managing a protected area like Whitewater Bay in the long term. Most people think that once you’ve designated an area as wilderness, it is protected forever, but it’s not. It’s only the beginning. Wilderness still needs to be monitored and managed.”
The Tongass National Forest contains 19 wilderness areas, and currently six of those areas do not meet minimum baseline standards. The Forest Service’s partnership with SEACC aims to raise the level of monitoring and management in order to meet those standards. Founded in 1970, SEACC is a grassroots coalition of nonprofit conservation groups located throughout Southeast Alaska whose mission aims to “safeguard the integrity of Southeast Alaska’s unsurpassed natural environment while supporting the sustainable use of the region’s natural resources.” Most of SEACC’s history has involved controversy over the management of the forest and the sustainability of industrial logging. Some of its accomplishments have included the creation of new wilderness areas in the Tongass forest.
During the Whitewater Bay trip, the volunteers focused their efforts primarily on tackling an infestation of invasive black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus).
“This was the third year to be pulling in this area,” Dana White, said.
White works as the invasive plant manager for the Juneau Cooperative Weed Management Area.
“It will take a few more years to completely get rid of the infestation, but it was good this year to decrease its spread by getting the plants before they went to seed,” she said.
Over the course of the week, the group pulled over 40 pounds of bindweed, as well as over 20 pounds of curly dock, dandelion and field mustard.
Invasive plants such as the black bindweed are a non-native species that threaten wilderness ecosystems by out-competing native vegetation. If left to spread, invasives can take over an area and replace vegetation that wildlife and humans depend on for nourishment.
“Down south, some wilderness areas have been overrun by invasives,” Neary said. “We’re fortunate in Alaska that only a tiny fraction of our public lands are affected so we can still control them if we act quick.”
Funding for the program comes from the National Forest Foundation (NFF), a nonprofit that encourages citizen-volunteer groups to participate in forest stewardship activities.
In addition to the invasive weed pull, the group took part in solitude monitoring, which monitored conditions such as the frequency of planes passing overhead or how often other people were encountered.
Dan Lesh, communications director for SEACC, said a vital component to a wilderness area is that it provides solitude.
“The whole week, we maybe saw one recreational boat. It’s encouraging to know that these places still exist,” he said.
Wilderness stewardship trips like these are sometimes tasked with air quality monitoring and other environmental assessments to better understand the ecosystem.
“These areas are unique to the world,” Lesh said. “These places are where recreational users go for kayaking or hiking, and at the same time, where subsistence users go fishing or hunting. These ecosystems protect our water and our wildlife, so it’s important to keep these areas intact.”
Lesh also said wilderness adds to the quality of life to the communities of that it surrounds. The Business Climate Survey prepared in May 2011 by the Juneau Economic Development Council stated that 72 percent of business leader respondents mentioned access to the region’s recreational resources as a significant or moderate benefit to their business.
“Some people view wilderness as a barrier to development, but it can also be seen as what keeps people here and keeps our communities strong,” he said. “Wilderness is part of our identity here in Southeast Alaska.”
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau, Alaska. Contact her at email@example.com.