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Wild plants may show signs of changing climate

SITKA, ALASKA
“I value wilderness is because they’re where those ecological areas are least impacted by people. So there’s always some impact, whatever we are doing to climate or big scale events can obviously effect wilderness as well. They tend to be areas where we’re not going move in and build houses and roads and things like that, so those processes that have been going on since last ice age or before are free to go on.”

That’s Kitty LaBounty, a botanist who has worked in the Tongass National Forest since the early 1980s, classifying vegetation and keeping an eye out for unusual, invasive and sensitive plants. 

On this trip into the wild, LaBounty, and fellow naturalist Matt Goff were on a mission to collect baseline data for wild vegetation, as well as invasives.

“We’re up above rust lake and what we’re doing here is really it trying to do a biological inventory, what plants are here, we’re looking, mostly we kind of prioritize, we’re looking for sensitive plants, for invasive plants, things that seem like there is some bio-geographical interest.”

This biological inventory she says is a sort of canary in a coal mine—A way to monitor ecosystem health over time. Because wilderness and non-wilderness areas have similar vegetation, LaBounty says her field data can be compared with other more intensively managed land.

“In the rest of the Tongass National Forest there’s actually been some pretty good inventories, and mostly that was driven by management activities, so any areas set to logged, or there was mines or stuff like that did pretty good surveys. The wilderness areas weren’t doesn’t extensively because there is not a lot of management activity. So it’s kind of like triage.”

LeBounty and Matt Goff say this triage plays an invaluable role in collecting information about wild flora, even if sometimes the process isn’t all too scientific.

“Here’s a squished plant – and then you have sorts of different things in the top of your pack- there’s a few different mosses in here. I guess this isn’t the idea way to collect, stuffing things in the top of your backpack, but if you remember to sort them pretty often and we mark them with GPS, then you can go back. “

Jay Jensen is the US Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, he says the study of wilderness flora and fauna offers unique perspective on global climate change.

The types of trees, where the stands of these tress start and stop are changing, and so we need to understand without the touch of man, what is naturally happening within climate change on it’s own, to  help us figure out the best steps forward as we unravel the great big mysteries around climate change.
Jensen adds beyond an indicator of climate change, areas like the West Chicagof-Yakobi Wilderness may offer possibilities we haven’t yet considered.

“There’s plenty of plants and animal and species that we are yet to discover and unlock their secrets; and so, not only from a simple standpoint of trying to get what these plants have in terms of their perhaps uses in science and medicine,and other pieces, but to help us unlock the connectivity and biodiversity between species and the land really help us to figure out how to manage other business of the lands out there.”

This whole effort is in response to a ten year plan to improve wilderness stewardship practices. And with the 2014 deadline for improvements just around the corner, there’s still a lot of ground to cover, plants to count, and solitude to measure.
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