As the vegetation-program manager for Grand Canyon National Park, Lori Makarick's mission is to preserve and restore the park's unique biotic communities — no small task, since there are more than 1,700 different plant species spread over 1.2 million acres.
© John Burcham
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By Annette McGivney
When it comes to describing thorny plants, “cute” is not a word that often comes up. Unless you’re Lori Makarick, whose soft spot for desert flora is so big, she’s made it her life’s work to preserve all the prickly, spiny and scaly native-plant species of Grand Canyon National Park.
“These are so adorable,” says Makarick as she caresses a plastic cup where the pointed tip of an agave seedling is pushing through black soil. She sighs contentedly at the progress of the other newborns inside a greenhouse at the park’s nursery, where 856 just-sprouted agave plants reach toward the sun. The seeds were gathered in the park along the South Rim’s Hermit Road, and in a few years, when the agaves mature, they will be planted in the same area as part of the restoration of the old Orphan Mine site.
Makarick, 44, is Grand Canyon National Park’s vegetation-program manager, and over the span of two decades, she’s spearheaded numerous successful ecological-restoration initiatives at the park, ranging from the removal of invasive tamarisks along the Colorado River to the recovery of a tiny endangered plant on the edge of the South Rim.
After growing up on a farm in New Jersey, Makarick learned she had a love for plants when she was getting her bachelor’s degree in conservation biology at the University of Wisconsin. She first came to the Grand Canyon in 1993 as an undergraduate intern for the Student Conservation Association. “Grand Canyon is such a unique environment,” she says. “I fell in love with the place, and that 12-week internship turned into 20 years.”
When Makarick was first hired into the park’s vegetation program, her boss was a landscape architect who upheld the time-honored tradition of keeping park grounds looking green and manicured. But Makarick was more interested in restoring the Grand Canyon’s underappreciated and rough-around-the-edges native-plant species. While completing her master’s degree in restoration ecology at Colorado State University, Makarick was inspired by the writings of conservationist Aldo Leopold, and a particular essay stuck with her. “The land is one organism,” Leopold wrote. “Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and cooperate with each other. … To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
As Makarick took on more responsibility with the Grand Canyon’s vegetation program, she set out to preserve and restore every part of the park’s unique biotic communities — no small task, since there are more than 1,700 different plant species spread over 1.2 million acres. Thanks to Makarick’s Leopold-like vision, the Grand Canyon is one of the few parks in the nation that have a comprehensive native-vegetation program, with a dedicated nursery for plants grown only from seeds collected inside the park.
“We try to maintain the genetics of the species by gathering seeds from specific areas in the park,” says Makarick as she walks down the middle of the nursery’s greenhouse, where thousands of tiny plants are sprouting. “It has involved a lot of trial and error, because each species has a different need. Some seeds have adapted to go through a cold winter or through an animal’s gut, so we try and figure out how to replicate that by doing something like abrading the seed with sandpaper to get it to grow.”
After the seeds are gathered, they’re stored in large refrigerators, then coaxed to life in the greenhouse and eventually moved outside, where nursery staff tends to the plants using reclaimed water from the park’s nearby wastewater-treatment plant. Finally, and usually after years of tedious work, the plants are put in the ground by volunteer crews who work alongside Makarick and her staff.
During her tenure at the Grand Canyon, Makarick has assembled one of the largest volunteer programs in the National Park Service. Volunteers, through the Grand Canyon Association and other nonprofits, spend an average of 25,000 hours per year cutting, digging and planting. In one of the most monumental efforts, thousands of volunteers removed tamarisks from more than 130 side canyons along the Colorado River between 1999 and 2007.
Recent projects have returned native plants to the newly constructed visitors center and the Bright Angel Trailhead, and soon, native, elk-resistant plants will replace the exotic, water-sucking green grass around El Tovar and other South Rim lodges. “Getting rid of that lawn has long been a dream of mine,” Makarick says.
Another of her dreams being realized is the recovery of the sentry milkvetch, the only plant in the Grand Canyon that is on the federal endangered-species list. The tiny, matted plant is a member of the pea family and grows on the waterless, wind-blasted edge of the South Rim. It ekes out a living in soil pockets atop Kaibab limestone and exists in just three locations, all within the park boundaries. One is the Mather Point overlook, where visitors were unknowingly trampling the milkvetch into oblivion. Under Makarick’s watch, Mather Point’s parking area was closed in 2008, and a program was implemented to restore the milkvetch at the overlook and grow the plant in the nursery for establishing future populations.
On a breezy morning in April, Makarick stops by Mather Point to check on the milkvetch. As the director of a large park division, she is pulled in many directions, but she still makes time to get her hands in the dirt. “Desert plants are amazing for their adaptability and survival,” she says as she tiptoes from rock to rock to avoid stepping on any milkvetch seedlings not yet visible. “This plant has evolved to grow very low to the ground and in only one kind of rock. It is a treasure that exists nowhere else in the world.”
Makarick stops 5 feet from the rim and looks down. The milkvetch is in bloom, and new tufts of the plant are all around. Its delicate purple flowers peek out from craggy white limestone shining brightly in the morning sun. Makarick will ensure that every new plant is tagged and protected. “I often walk out here and find the babies,” she says. “I have the patience for it.”
For information about volunteering for upcoming Grand Canyon vegetation projects, visit www.volunteer.gov or www.grandcanyon.org.
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