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Wilderness surveys shed light on human impact

SITKA, ALASKA

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“For a long time wilderness was thought of as an area that was not managed, this is wilderness, we leave this wild, and leave it be, and it’s not a place we manage. But increasingly over the last 10-20 years the Forest Service is saying, yes there is management that’s needed, but instead of an active management it’s more of a stewardship.”

That’s Andrew Thoms, Executive Director of the Sitka Conservation Society, or SCS. He says, nowadays, there’s an increasing demand for wilderness experiences, making these surveys especially important.

“How do we make sure that, one, we don’t love this place to death, and, two, how do we understand what’s going on in these ecosystems and monitoring the changes that happen here over time.”

 “I’ve just landed in wilderness, I’m standing here on the banks of Rust Lake in the West Chicagof Jakobi Wilderness, there’s a lake with a receding water line, some campsites that the crew has cleaned up and an old hunter’s cabin. It’s overcast and the only real sound is the sound of my crew, and the sound of the wind.”

Our team is small, two botanists, one wilderness solitude surveyor, and a member of the forest service—Five tiny dots in the middle of 265,000 acres of raw Alaskan wilderness.

We’re hiking what should be 7 miles or so from Rust Lake to Patterson Bay documenting signs of human impact, and any invasive or sensitive plants along the way. But, because wilderness has no road signs we get a little turned around, and take 11 long wet hours before finally setting up camp to wait for our float plane on the edge of a grizzly-infested estuary.

Adam Andis is the Wilderness intern for SCS, who has the job of wilderness solitude surveyor. Our first afternoon in the field, he leads me across a marshy maze of streams and explains how to quantify solitude. He’s got a checklist.

“Everything from jetliners to renegade cabins to footprints really, I suppose. We’d like to find a baseline to see how much use this place really has. At this point, we’re not really sure, could be just a couple dozen people that visit these areas in a year. And there could be lots more, so I guess in the end we’re really just looking for zeros.”

Scott Harris is also with SCS, and helps to oversee Wilderness Surveys in Southeast Alaska.

“The key thing what we’re doing is collecting base line information, A lot of these areas we’re visiting in the field have been poorly studied, primarily solitude.”

Wilderness, he says, not only allows for solitude, but can also be used as a barometer for change- a way to measure wilderness areas against managed, or more developed land.

Jay Jensen is the US Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. With over 193 million visitors to the entire system, he says keeping wilderness pristine isn’t as easy as you’d think.

“These wilderness areas are meant to be the more untrammeled parts of that system, but with that kind of usage you can imagine that it becomes a little bit harder and harder to maintain that untrammeled character and nature.”

Because of this delicate balance, Jensen says wilderness can no longer go un, or undermanaged:

“It is a kind of an interesting, I wouldn’t say conundrum, but a juxtaposition these areas are meant to be untouched and untrammeled, but they do take some care taking, it’s not about just drawing a line on a map and calling it good.”

And that’s exactly why the Forest Service is working on a ten year wilderness stewardship challenge, culminating in 2014- the fifty year anniversary of the wilderness act- and focusing on 10 basic goals, including, monitoring air quality, opportunities for solitude, and the tracking and eradication of invasive plants.

These goals, says Jensen, reach beyond wilderness into their borderlands—a place where invasive species and damaging environmental threats often establish themselves.

Jensen says tracking changes in Alaskan wilderness and its boundaries offer a special window into global climate change.

Back in West Chicagof-Yakobi Wilderness, I’m starting to get the feeling that there’s a lot to think about when it comes to wilderness management, but right now I’m thinking about bears, devils club and place to camp tonight.

In part two of this series, KCAW's Lily Mihalik ventures deeper into the West Chichagof –Yakobi Wilderness, to study invasive and sensitive plants with biologists Kitty LaBounty and Matt Goff.

 

 

 

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