Student Stories: Alaskan national park offers northern exposure

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When recent Penn State graduate Mary Susan Sherman applied for several internships through the National Park Service, she never dreamed she would co-develop the foundation for an Alaska-based weed-management program.

Last summer, Sherman -- who now holds a degree in Environmental Resource Management from the College of Agricultural Sciences -- and another student intern were based in Coal Creek Camp in central Alaska near the Yukon River.

The camp housed researchers ranging from historians to soil surveyors. While stationed there, the two interns focused on exotic-plant management and invasive-species removal. The two eventually generated a report, titled "Invasive and Exotic Species Management for Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve."

The weed program started by Sherman and her fellow intern was the National Park Service's first in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The students hiked, camped, traveled on ATVs and even floated in an inflatable canoe around Alaska, conducting plant inventories in highly used areas, such as trails, cabins and river banks. They recorded the locations of infestations using GPS units.

Among the areas Sherman, of Ligonier, Pa., inventoried was the beautiful and scenic Arctic National Park. Often she and the other intern would simply pull out the weeds.

"But in some places, invasive-weed growth was out of control, and we had to record the data and move on," she said. "Among the species recorded were narrowleaf hawksbeard, bird vetch and shepherd's purse."

According to Sherman, invasive plant species are more controllable in Alaska because of their remote location and the rare human interaction they experience. "Due to Alaska's remoteness, there are limited vectors of invasive-plant spread compared to high-use areas in the lower 48 states," she said.

"As a result, the growth in Alaska is still in an early stage, and it is possible to bring it down to a manageable level."

Every moment in Alaska was an adventure, said Sherman, who is headed to Duke University in North Carolina this fall to pursue a master's degree.

"We had many opportunities in our free time to explore, encountering moose, caribou, grizzly bears, snowshoe hares and other wild animals," she said. "And we were professionally trained in various disciplines, including safety and survival tactics in the wild, CPR and shooting a shotgun."

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Last Updated August 11, 2011