USFS offers wildflower training to local guides

By Diane Jeantet
The Cordova Times, 07/06/2012

A handful of lucky Cordovans recently participated in a wildflower education workshop offered by the US Forest Service (USFS). The workshop was specially tailored for local outfitters and guides as a means of increasing guiding expertise; and also to help researchers raise awareness around the issue of non-native, invasive plants in Alaska.

USFS Prince William Sound ecologist Kate Mohatt provided classroom and field based training to guides. During the morning classroom session, guides were given a Powerpoint overview of the main families to which both native and invasive plants belong. Following a lunch break, the students headed out into the field for observation and to practice identification, including how to distinguish between similar species.

“I enjoyed the outfield work, because the classroom really doesn’t do it justice,” said Wendy Armstrong. “It’s just a whole different world, right below your knees,” said Armstrong while describing the “army crawl” that participants occasionally did with a small magnifying glass pressed against one eye in order to observe the detail within smaller flowers growing close to the ground.

The US Forest Services is particularly eager to train local guides in recognizing invasive species that can be very harmful to plants native to tribal lands. Last summer, a team of eight ecologists working for the forest service scoured the 5.4 million acre Chugach National Forest in search for invasive plants. For approximately eight weeks, the crew walked each trail and road of the Chugach and inventoried as many as 407 different varieties of non-native plants.

While this may sound like a alarming number of invasives, the good news is that research shows this is only a slight increase over the average number of non-native plants in the forest over the past five years. And in the Copper River Delta, numbers of invasives are actually decreasing.

To help sustain such efforts - and the successful results that have come out of it - the USFS decided to reach out to local community members. The initiative was funded by the department itself, through funds collected via commercial guide permits required for guiding and commercial access to forest service lands.

"The invasion of non-native species is a huge problem," says Mohatt, who was part of the team of researchers inventorying the Chugach forest. "Luckily in Alaska, we're constantly working on it so we're not doing too bad."

Mohatt studied biology as an undergrad in Portland, Oregon, and is well known in the region as an expert on fungi, but this was her first time teaching the wildflower workshop. She divided the day into two distinctive parts; a theoretical one in the morning and a more practical one in the afternoon.

The Powerpoint presentation used in the morning introduced students to the plant families found in the Chugach and red flagged the most “nasty invasive plants” that can be found around Cordova such as beautiful orange hawkweed which can invade and strangle salmon habitat and Reed Canary Grass.

Later on in the day, Mohatt put the lesson into practice taking students drove to the Mt. Eyak and Alaganik Slough. “I wanted to show them two different habitat sites. First I took them to the Eyak ski hill, then to Alaganak, to hit more wetlands specific species.”

With the help of a book called Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and a small pocket-size but useful magnifying glass, guides were able to investigate their surroundings and keep a list of all the various flowers they encountered. Mohatt also encouraged students to become familiar with the latin plant names as a more precise way of identifying plants.

“I was very impressed with the workshop, now I understand more about the repercussions of what invasive plants can do to an ecology,” said Wendy Armstrong, before adding she still struggles with latin names. “This will be so useful for families and student groups who come here, they often ask questions about flowers.”

Mohatt told that students the best way she has found for learning the plants is to get out in the field, observe, take notes and repeat - repetition being the key point. For each different spots she goes to, Mohatt says it’s important to get into the habit of writing down and identifying every species you see.

“Otherwise you focus on the ones that you know and you don't get beyond that. You need to challenge yourself, rather than having someone pointing at them for you.” So next time you are out on Cordova’s trails, don’t be surprised if you hear someone quietly muttering “Angelica genuflexa! Angelica genuflexa! Angelica genuflexa!”