By Molly Legg
Written for OS 302: Wildland Ecosystems and Human Impacts
The typical classroom in an American university is easily envisioned as a large hall packed with hundreds of students being lectured by a professor. However, Alaska Pacific University (APU) takes a different approach. With small class sizes, knowledgeable instructors with lived experience, and Alaska’s wild environment, APU creates the perfect recipe for hands-on, field-based learning.
On the morning of October 9th 2020, my Wildland Ecosystems and Human Impact class loaded up our backpacks filled with personal, camping, and surveying equipment. We spent the weekend at Williwaw Lake, located in Chugach State Park. Our mission was to survey and record the impact that recreationalists have on the area through repetitive use of campsites and trails.
Using recreation ecology methodology, we determined how impacted these areas have become over the years. While surveying we asked questions regarding vegetation coverage on site compared to coverage off-site. We looked at types of vegetation, tree damage, root exposure, condition class, mineral soil exposure, as well as area, perimeter, and an overall assessment of impacts at each site.
We will use these findings to recommend to the state park rangers how to make this area more sustainable. That could mean hardening a campsite, closing an area, or redirecting use to a higher impacted area. Using our suggestions, the land managers will decide the best next steps.
On this trip, we were measuring sites for the first time. Future classes will be able to return to the sites we measured and compare their new observations with ours to measure changes over time. Just as we have done with classes before us at other locations. They will look to see if there are more satellite sites forming, or perhaps the low impacted sites will show signs of regrowth. For instance, APU students have monitored sites at Bird Point and McHugh Creek and tracked the changes over time.
No expedition, no worries! You do not have to go out on an extended overnight expedition to get good field data. Each Friday this class has gone on day trips within the Anchorage bowl to collect data. We have measured bike trails in Kincaid Park, campsites at Boy Scout Rock and Bird Point in Chugach State Park, collected water samples from multiple rivers along the Seward highway, and collected sound decibel ratings at each of those locations as well.
Studies like this are important in helping preserve the wilderness characteristics for future generations of recreators. Alaska Pacific University gives students the opportunity to experience being a part of an active classroom and making a difference in our community.