What is a weed?

That’s the question I asked my group of high school students as we started a five day service learning program out at Eureka Dunes. Our work that week ranged from restoring illegal roads, helping to tune a barbed wire fence, campsite maintenance, and, yes, pulling weeds.

I often wonder what the kids are expecting when they come on these trips. I the case of these kids, had they signed up only to fulfill a school requirement? Do the work, gimme my hours, thank you very much? The work done is what I think of as the “what” on stewardship trips; but to me the “why” is as important as any work done on the ground. Why do we care about weeds? Why do we care about illegal tracks, why do we want the cows over there but not over here? why did you come on this trip?

Now we’re trudging up the sand, and I question my choice of short pants as a sand storm gives us first hand evidence of how these dunes are formed. Indian rice grass and other spring plants are everywhere but subtle, if you don’t pay attention you’ll squash dozens with each step. Soon the kids are walking on their tip-toes, carefully avoiding stepping on the new growth. I help them learn to distinguish our enemy of the day, the thistle, from the other plants and, with the help of the Park botanist, show them plants that occur nowhere else in the world. Another question: how might the presence of these introduced plants affect these plants that only live here? Later that day we’ve cleared six acres of Russian Thistle, easy but tedious work.

We do other work, too; one part of the Park’s mission is to protect its resources for us and future generations of us, and for non-human inhabitants. There are many challenges in fulfilling this mission, only one of which is people driving vehicles where they’re not supposed to. The tracks they leave are not only unsightly but fragment habitat, disturb and damage wildlife, and, if untreated, lead to more tracks and less and less vegetation and a hard to break expanding cycle of damage. So we try and remove illegal tracks before more people follow, using rakes and brooms, and occasionally signs and boulders and other gathered materials to delineate boundaries.

Fast forward a day and fifty miles and we’re out in the Buttermilk Country, east of town. “How many of you eat beef?” I ask (I do). I’m doubtful that they’ve thought much about what goes into cattle production. I’ve asked the kids to help remove brush from along the fence so that we can maintain it. We’re basically clear-cutting a narrow strip along the fence and the contrast between this work and the tip toeing out at the dunes is not lost on the students. The cows, I explain, like to be down near the creeks out here, where there’s lots of grass and it’s cooler, but in being there they damage the stream banks, degrade water quality and streamside habitat. Soon the kids are tuning fence like pros and I think with a few more days practice they’d be a lean, mean, fencing tuning machine.

Last day and time to head home. A few students are lagging behind, gathered in a group, kneeling over some object that I can’t see. As I approach I see they’re pulling weeds. Russian Thistle.