Killing for conservation in national parks

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To work for the National Park Service is to undergo a kind of transformation. I wake up in boxers and an oversized T-shirt, and, 20 minutes later, I'm standing outside my cabin in pressed green jeans, a buttoned and tucked-in gray shirt, bulky brown belt and hiking boots. At 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, I'm just a petite version of Big Mike, on the Flush 'n' Brush crew, or George, who greets tour buses, or any of the thousands of unfashionably clad men and women who work in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and the other national parks across the country.

"Hey! Ranger Lady!"

Maybe it's my size that prompts so many visitors to approach me while I work. I'm barely taller than the shovel I use to scoop non-native invasive plants from riverbanks and trailheads. Visitors to the parks -- particularly those in flip-flops, it seems --  want to know what I'm doing.

Hand on shovel, boot on blade, spade in soil, pile of limp wooly mullein by my side --  smile on my face.

"What am I doing? These plants aren't supposed to be here, they're not native to the sequoia forest. So I'm pulling them up," I explain. "They're weeds."

My inquirer shifts his weight from right foot to left. "You got any of the good weed?" he asks with a grin.

I smile back but say nothing. What I want to tell him, to scream at him, is that his precious "good weed" is already thriving, by illegal means, all over the Sierra Nevada wilderness. It's arguably the most detrimental weed in these two parks because it threatens not only the integrity of the ecosystem, but also the safety of visitors. I want to tell this man that his tax dollars pay for the dozen helicopters that search for grow sites and transport confiscated product. And that his money also pays for the bulletproof vests and handguns and insurance for the federal agents who raid those remote pockets of pot. The money spent on marijuana control takes resources away from other, genuinely productive programs in the parks. But you can't say So there! to a visitor in sandals. Not when you're a Ranger Lady in green jeans.

Encounters like these make me wonder: What do visitors really want to know about this place? Why do people come here? Most simply come for vacation in the Giant Forest. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks boast the big: not only the world's most massive trees, but some of its largest blocks of granite, with vast, protected wilderness landscapes and a rich cultural history to boot.

I come here to work, in the name of conservation. I come to help preserve the particulars of this land --  the tiny seeds that make most of all the other existence possible. On a good day, I don the uniform; convene with my crew; double-check maps and data sheets for the day's assignment; pack the parks' radio, GPS, gloves and first-aid kit alongside my lunch and water bottles; load the shovels and sacks for seed collecting into the work vehicle; drive to a site; and hike through whitethorn and manzanita bushes to look for flowers.

Often I find my targets, the invasive bull thistle and wooly mullein flowers, which I bag and hump around with me back through the woods to the Trailblazer. Most days are productive ones, as measured in land area covered, species found, number of plants eradicated. On these days, I come home to my cabin after 10 hours in the field physically and mentally exhausted --  in the best kind of way. The simple, sensual, honest task of weeding satisfies me to the core. I killed 200 bull thistle plants today, each one able to produce scores of flowers, each flower with the potential to set a hundred seeds or more. Millions of possible seedlings that I prevent each day.

"So what?" the visitor in flip-flops might reply. Sequoia and Kings Canyon alone cover 200,000 acres of suitable weed habitat, and abut more of the same to the north and south as well as west and east to the oceans, pretty much. I realized this after my first season, when I learned that disturbed sites with ample sunlight or water provide superb growing grounds for invasive plants. After three months of covering such ground, I'd trampled my blissful ignorance of the immense conservation task at hand. I could see the forest for the weeds.

You might not know it from the faces of visitors from Los Angeles or St. Paul or Singapore, but we've been here before. We human beings have sprinkled weed seed across most of the planet's soil. I arrived at Sequoia and Kings Canyon under contract to erase these marks of man in the Sierra wilderness, plant by plant. These parks bear witness to a great many cycles at work in the world, not least of which is this cultural cycle that includes good plants, bad plants, visitors and employees. I work in vain, and I enjoy it.

Amy Whitcomb yearns to kill the weeds on campus at the University of Idaho, where she is a MFA student in the Creative Writing program.

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