Orange hawkweed. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB ARMSTRONG/NATUREBOB.COM

Underground wars continue to choke out native plant life

By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
REPORTER

Gone are the days that Soapy Smith and his conmen-in-training would shakedown Skagway men and women to fill their pockets with nuggets of hard-earned cash. Yet for centuries, an underground war, also fed by greed for resources, has been growing into a full-blown brawl – a standoff between the relentless invasive plant species and Alaska’s native flora.

The orange hawkweed (Hieracium Aurantiacium) is a fatal attraction approaching Skagway and other nearby towns in Southeast Alaska. It is believed to be the troublemaker for the dandelion family and is known to plant thick, intolerable roots that stretch horizontally underground and force shared space where there wasn’t room to begin with.

Like Skagway’s 52 other plant invaders, the orange hawkweed is skilled in the art of warfare, vying for weak prey and convincing humans to mow around the patches of spectacular orange-petaled flowers whose leaves circle the base of each stem.

In 2015 the National Park Service identified a patch of orange hawkweed near the reservoir on the Dewey Lake trailheads. Though the Municipality of Skagway has approved a five-year tarp technique that calls for smothering the weeds until they are no longer active predators, there will be no indication of whether or not this system has worked until the tarps are removed in 2020.

According to Jami Belt, former natural resource program manager with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, human intervention is relatively limited. The park must decide what is the best course of treatment, be it plant restoration, smothering or a small application of herbicide if approved by the town.

Spotted knapweed. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB ARMSTRONG/NATUREBOB.COM

With seed machines like the orange hawkweed and spotted knapweed, there is potential to have viable seeds in the soil for at least seven years and it has been proven to last as long as 30 years. That is a major advantage when it comes to forming a deconstructive army of invading plant species.

Along with seed production, species can be dangerous because of the way they displace soil. For instance, reed canary grass, an invasive plant found out by Pullen Creek and in isolated parts of the Chilkoot Trail, can shade out the soil layers by it’s singular root system and act like an umbrella to subspecies. This is harmful because it prevents germination below.

Nonetheless, there are things all citizens can do to help protect inbred wildlife. Above all, Belt recommends not purchasing wildflower packets.

“Never ever buy a wildflower seed mix and throw it out there because they notoriously have species that, while they may not be invasive in the places where they are grown and harvested, are invasive in a new place and they [the seed mixes] don’t always list very well what they have,” Belt said. “The next new invader is kind of always ready to go in those seed packets.”

Other suggestions included reporting invasive species that you find, not planting invasive plants and doing what you can to control already discovered invasive plants.

Belt remains optimistic about Skagway, citing the town’s interest in preserving native species as a major plus for the community. In her words, Skagway is “fairly intact” when compared to other places of Alaska, partly due to the constant landscape change and partly due to the limited soil disruption as a result of a small town.

The National Park Service has already catalogued hundreds of findings in surrounding Southeast Alaska towns and although the map is hardly digital-applicable, it is available to the public upon request.

Whether you’ve seen bird vetch along the train tracks, in assorted strings of violet and blue flowers or the delicate oxidaisies on the roadside of Dyea, it is clear that invasive species are sprouting up and native species are tangled and disarray.

It is nearly impossible to prove whose foot tracked an invasive weed up the trailside or if a strong gust of wind could float some seeds to the coast of Skagway, but in the meantime scientists are doing everything they can to put together a calculated map of invasive species that have been discovered in local areas and surrounding towns in the hopes of finding another piece to the puzzle.