Destiny, Dirt and Weed Pulling

“EPMT training, day four: Today, I pulled out baby trees by the roots and left them by the side of the road to die. And I feel great about it.” I pulled a mock sad face.

One of the biotechs working in eastern Alaska laughed. “You should totally feel great about doing some good for the ecosystem.” She hefted a bright orange weed wrench and grinned. With mud streaked across her face and her black nylon rain gear, she was rather imposing. “Besides, I kind of like killing plants… it makes me feel tough.”

“I don’t know. It’s kind of weird. Killing trees to save trees?”

“I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”

I’ve been working for over a month at Kenai Fjords National Park with the exotic plants management team (EPMT). Sometimes I still feel conflicted, about our role as “exotic plants managers.” Does it really work to save plants by killing plants?

The answer, in short, is yes. And with an impending invasion of European bird cherry (Prunus padus) in Anchorage, fortunately, there’s still a lot that can be done.

Over 90% of sprouting baby trees in the city of Anchorage were European bird cherry last year. Prunus padus is outcompeting native willow and alder; left unchecked, it will become the only tree in Anchorage as older natives die and only young bird cherry trees succeed them. But Prunus padus is also responsible for the deaths of several young moose this winter—small amounts of cyanide in the cherry pits accumulated in their stomachs, killing these beloved ton-weight browsers.

This week, I’m in Anchorage for the Alaska Regional Exotic Plants Management Training. After three days of intense GPS and plant ID training in the regional office, we’re finally getting our hands dirty and managing (pulling) some exotic plants (European bird cherry) at Chester Creek Park in Anchorage.

The park is a quiet channel of green tranquility, a vein of tree-lined asphalt through the center of Alaska’s biggest, most grimily urban city. Bikers and runners zip by as we pull trees and stack them on the banks of the trail, roots up. The pile of dead baby trees is almost head-high already, only an hour in.

Even in the city, in Alaska, there are trees. It reminds me of Hawai’i in some ways.
And people here seem to be just as supportive of our work, too. Passing bikers along the Chester Creek Trail cheered us on as they whizzed by in the rain. “Thank you!” “You guys are doing great!” “Thank you so much for your work!”

Growing up in Hawai’i, where the difference between a native and a non-native was an integral part of learning who you are, what your landscape looks like (or should look like) and part of what makes the island where you live so singularly ecologically significant and special, I’ve never questioned that invasive species do real damage to an ecosystem—that they’re in the wrong place and need to be controlled.

An invasive species, by definition, is an organism that is introduced from another place, usually on a human (Western) vector, and establishes itself in an ecosystem so well that it takes away resources from other organisms and starts to take over.

Invasives in Alaska are special in the fact that they are actually pretty rare. It takes a plucky plant, or animal, to survive brutal winter tundra, or even coastal rainforest, conditions, and then still have energy to reproduce in the short summer season. As a result, we have the luxury of controlling relatively innocuous (but still dangerously rampant) dandelions and sweet clover, tracking their every move by GPS. Enormous databases of invasive plants have been kept over the last ten years (check out AKEPIC, where you can see every record of every invasive plant in Alaska over the last 100 years, at http://aknhp.uaa.alaska.edu/maps/akepic/)

It’s true: species are being introduced all the time, all over the place. Birds carry seeds in their guts, bears in their fur, the jet stream by wind across the sea. But now, especially in a changing climate, invasion is running amok. It’s a bit like the current anthropocentric age of extinction: on a scale that’s far, far greater than ever historically recorded, or would possibly happen without human intervention.

And there’s the complication that when you start classifying organisms as invasive, you come to the realization that we are probably the most invasive species on the planet, multiplying and using more resources than is sustainable. Historically, human beings tend to do more harm than good when they enter an ecosystem, causing extinction, erosion, and imbalance.

So in some ways, we’re here pulling dandelions, killing bird cherry and plantain, to redeem humanity. Here’s to you; I’m pulling this dandelion, cutting short its life and its ability to take over forest floors, for you.

But what a place to be working in, amidst breathing trees and humidity and the moist breath of the forest…As we wrest more trees from the ground, sometimes teaming up with steel bar weed wrenches to pull particularly stubborn roots from the soil, we leave more space for the forest to breathe, I think. We take space from greedy bird cherry, and make space for birch and willow and alder. We make biodiversity possible with each fistful of soil and root.

At the end of the week, we all part ways, our little band of SCAs and biotechs, and go off to our separate parks in the wildest, rangiest corners of Alaska, from Klondike to Wrangell to Kenai, to pull weeds in pairs and map new invasions. We’ve been given a task, a few tools, the shapes of leaves and the shape of the future. Grasping firmly, we take hold of our destinies as stewards of the forests and pull with all our might.