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In a remote canyon off the northern reaches of Lake Powell, a fourwing saltbush is growing deep roots as part of Ka-Voka Jackson's experimental plots of native plants.
The silvery, sea-green shrub is joining grasses and succulents in Jackson's efforts to remedy ravenna grass infestations that threaten native flora and fauna in the sacred ancestral lands of her tribe and others around the Colorado River.
"Glen Canyon … was and still is a very important place for a lot of tribes, including my own," said Jackson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and member of the Hualapai tribe.
Jackson and her team of researchers have joined National Park Service biologists to identify side canyons of Lake Powell where the enormous, ornamental ravenna grass up to 18 feet tall has taken hold, test means of removing it and study how well native plants reclaim the space.
The group traveled by boat and on foot to Slickrock and Cottonwood canyons, Pollywog Bench, and Llewellyn and Cottonwood gulches to dig up and spray the ravenna grass and choose nearby plants to transplant.
With their scents, colors and textures, the plants engage Jackson's memory in ways that are personally and culturally meaningful.
"We're trying to use traditional plants though it's kind of hard to find plants that weren't used for agricultural or traditional purposes," she said. White sage, bundled into smudge sticks, remains a household mainstay for daily use and ceremonies. Willow baccharis, which Jackson is planting in riparian areas, was used for thatching. Cacti and Indian rice grass were important food sources.
As Jackson moved the plants back to the sites where ravenna grass, from southern Europe and western Asia, had crowded out everything else, she said she was reminded of her childhood, when she picnicked and played along the Colorado River; her family even spent an entire summer camped along the banks.
"I grew up around these plants all the time, and here I am transplanting them, and dealing with them in a scientific way," Jackson said. "It's just a new perspective."
Planting them at Glen Canyon is also significant, she said. The Grand Canyon is widely understood to be sacred to Southwest tribes, but Glen Canyon isn't always given the same reverence outside tribal culture especially since it was dammed and became Lake Powell.
"My tribe's traditional territory extended out toward Page, Ariz., and Glen Canyon," Jackson said of the Hualapai. "We have done a couple of trips before where we have taken elders back there for cultural ceremonies. Before Lake Powell was there, there was no big difference between the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon. It was one. People lived there. There are a lot of ruins there, a lot of artifacts. There are a lot of rock writings. … That whole area is known to be sacred."
Now that Jackson's plants are in the ground, she'll begin observation. In July she'll return to collect the first data that will help show which planting techniques were most successful and whether digging or spraying was most effective in removing the ravenna grass. She also is helping the NPS to map infestations elsewhere in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
"As far as we know, it's not continuous from one end of the park to the other," said Lonnie Pilkington, biologist at Glen Canyon NRA.
Infestations in riparian zones are of special concern, Pilkington said.
"They provide food, water and shelter for a number of different wildlife species," he said. "Ravenna grass is threatening seeps and springs and hanging gardens, where we have a number of endemic species."
It also is hurting hikers' legs and adding to wildfire dangers, he said. The large grasses are growing at higher elevations, where stretches of sparse plants previously created firebreaks between canyons.
"There's somewhat of a concern carrying fire into some of these habitats," he said.
Jackson, who earned her bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Utah, is set to continue her project until May 2019.