As Ka-Voka Jackson knelt among the streams and wild plants of Arizona’s Glen Canyon and tilled the earth with her hands, the UNLV student thought of the generations of Hualapai tribe ancestors who had done the same before her.
Out came the invasive ravenna grass weeds that had grown over the years, posing a wildfire risk as they squeeze out native plants central to the culture, religion, and history of Jackson’s Native American forebears.
In went white sagebrush, a medicinal plant that Jackson’s family uses in traditional ceremonies to this day, and whose leaves and stems are boiled into teas or used as a poultice; Willow baccharis and arrowweed with lush green branches that, when not being used to treat bruises and wounds (the former) or added to honey (the latter), were woven into baskets and thatched roofs; and food sources, such as prickly pear cactus, protein-rich Indian ricegrass, sand dropseed, and four-wing saltbush.
Jackson’s graduate program research — conducted in collaboration with the National Park Service (NPS) in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Arizona/Utah border — attempts to perfect methods of invasive plant species control and re-establish native flora, preserving the beauty that the area's earliest inhabitants enjoyed.
“The Colorado River is so sacred not just to my tribe, but to so many others. It was their traditional range before the Europeans came,” said Jackson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. “This project is important to keep the culture alive. And it’s not only the plants: When you have animals that survive on plants and humans survive on the animals, it’s this domino effect.”
“It’s an interconnected ecosystem,” she said, “and it’s very delicate.”
Jackson’s connection dates back 24 years, when she was born on the Hualapai Indian Reservation in Peach Springs, Arizona.
Her childhood was spent outdoors, camping and playing along the Colorado River’s edge. Her mother spent 25 years as director of the tribe’s cultural resources department. She’d bring Jackson along on Grand Canyon river camping trips, in which Hualapai youth and elders would spend as many as two weeks sculling with teams of scientists as they combined science and culture — conducting prayers, researching water quality improvement, and conducting ethnobotany projects.
It was natural that Jackson was attracted to biology college courses. She experimented with botany, entomology, and geology. She worked as a hydrologist’s assistant and in an ecosystem ecology lab researching how nitrogen isotopes can be used to trace and eradicate sources of water pollution. But eventually she realized her true calling lay in general ecology and plant interactions.
So, Jackson thought it kismet when her mother heard about a position in UNLV ecologist Scott Abella’s lab seeking students to incorporate culturally important plants into their research. Despite having no restoration ecology experience, Jackson was drawn to the Native American aspect of the project as well as the university’s proximity to her hometown.
"We were delighted to see Ka-Voka's application to the UNLV graduate program because she is from a local tribe and it is a special opportunity for her to work on her tribe's ancestral lands," Abella said. "The Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon area is a special place and as a protected national park unit, we want the area to be in a reasonably natural state. We are facing a major challenge with non-native species and resulting unnatural fires disrupting native ecosystems. Given that the climate is dry and this is truly a desert, finding even one or a few techniques that restore native ecosystems would be a huge success in this type of difficult environment."
Since her fall 2016 move from Salt Lake City, Jackson has juggled three classes and raising her now-8-year-old daughter with her boyfriend. For the Glen Canyon restoration project, she recruited three UNLV undergraduates to drive nearly five hours to Page, Arizona — then take a four-hour boat ride — to camp in a remote desert site for five days of planting over Spring Break.
Each day, the volunteers and their NPS assistants boated and hiked to a different canyon to spend sunup to sundown removing ravenna grass and replacing it with native vegetation.
Jackson, whose project includes a side study examining ravenna grass seeds for ways to eradicate the once-ornamental plant, will spend the summer working with the Park Service to create a GPS map of areas where the invasive species grows and treat the plots with herbicide. She will also return regularly to the Spring Break planting project sites to monitor progress.
“With this restoration project, we had to take into account what kind of plants would survive future conditions,” Jackson said. “With our current state of climate change, we inevitably will lose species that can’t survive, but there might be others that can take their place. For example, in a low-water area, you can sub out one native plant for another. You have to think about irrigiation, shelter to keep animals from eating them, and aspects like which type of soil is right for a particular plant to survive. It’s making it sustainable for the future.”