Dandelion warriors work to rid Denali park of non-native weeds

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

DENALI NATIONAL PARK (AP) -- On a cloudy June morning, Wendy Mahovlic scrambles up a south-facing hillside in the Savage River Valley, surveys the ground and spies the long, deep-toothed leaves of taraxacum -- the common dandelion.

The lack of sunshine on this particular day has kept the yellow heads of the dandelions closed up tight, making it harder to spot the weeds among the tiny alpine plants growing beside the gravel road.

But Mahovlic, the park's revegetation technician, digs up her find -- roots and all -- with the forked tip of a long-handled tool and stuffs it in a plastic bag.

She and a crew of six volunteers make quick work of the dandelions along this particular hillside, prying them from the rocky soil, filling plastic bags and buckets with the weeds and moving down the road.

Digging up dandelions is, quite possibly, the most mundane of gardening chores.

But when the garden is Denali National Park and the dandelions are a non-native species, weeding takes on a higher purpose.

''I've been coming here for quite a few years and gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it. I'm glad to give something back,'' said volunteer Margie Frichtl, a retired oil pipeline worker from Anchorage.

Like the other volunteers, Frichtl has donned rain gear, an orange safety vest and gardening gloves. Despite the wild beauty of the jagged peaks around her and the sweeping river valley below, Frichtl focuses on the small plot of dirt in front of her.

''Uh-oh. There's a bloomer,'' she says crouching down and digging it up.

This is the second summer that the park has rounded up volunteers for its dandelion offensive.

Dandelions and other common garden weeds are brought into the park in the tire tread of thousands of cars, trucks, buses, campers and small planes that make their way to Denali each summer. They tend to take root in soil that's been disturbed, such as that along roads, runways and at mining sites.

Getting rid of them is a daunting task.

During two weeks in June, two volunteer crews managed to collect 515 pounds of dandelions from the 80-mile park road, despite rain, hungry mosquitos and blistered hands.

For their efforts, they were allowed to camp for free in the park. And they have the satisfaction of knowing that they helped protect a national treasure from some unwelcome aliens.

Dandelions are not yet considered an invasive species in Denali, but they are considered exotic or non-native, said Carl Roland, the park's plant ecologist. Invasive plants are those that threaten to choke off the growth of native plant populations.

''None of the exotic plants we have are threatening native, healthy plants,'' Roland said. The eradication effort is aimed at keeping it that way.

Ecologists estimate that dozens of alien plant and animal species are brought into the United States each year and the nation's parks and refuges have not been spared from the invasion.

''There are some really bad exotic plant situations in the southwest and southeast. In the Everglades, it's water hyacinth and kudzu,'' Roland said.

Denali's remote location, harsh winter climate and short growing season have kept out most invaders. Despite the dandelions, alfalfa, chickweed and a few other non-natives at the entrance to the park and along the road, the flora in most of the 6 million-acre park and preserve is the same as what would have been found 100 years ago.

Roland sees the dandelion eradication project as the beginning of a comprehensive effort to keep non-native species out of the park.

It's still too early to judge the success of the eradication effort. Mahovlic says she's noticed fewer dandelions in areas targeted last year. But she's not sure if that's due to the late arrival of spring in the park or the work of her volunteers.

''We hope it's our efforts,'' said Mahovlic, who greets her crew each morning with tall, steaming cups of espresso and keeps the conversation lively as the volunteers work.

She puzzles over one small plant ''Is this a sedum or a saxifrage?''

Ann Salminen of McKinley Park consults a wildflower guide and soon she and Mahovlic are identifying small tundra flowers.

''It's quite a place,'' said Clint Hamlin as he pauses and surveys the surroundings. Hamlin, a marriage and family therapist from Anchorage, and Marti Barnard, an operating-room nurse, took time off from work to join the dandelion patrol.

''We decided we needed an outdoor vacation,'' Hamlin said. The volunteers are rewarded with glimpses of wildlife -- caribou, ptarmigan, a hare.

As the crew heads down the road for lunch beside the Savage River, Mahovlic jots down notes about the density of the dandelions and the location of the areas weeded.

''We know we can't keep them out for good. We're just trying to stop the spread, or at least keep a lid on it,'' she said.

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