Master’s student Ka-Voka Jackson has combined her passion for biology and the environment with her Native American roots to help solve environmental issues from a unique perspective.

With the help of the National Park Service, her professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and volunteers, Jackson has been working on methods to control an invasive plant species at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

We talked to Jackson about her background and what she hopes to accomplish with her work. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tell us about yourself.
I’m 24 years old and I grew up in Peach Springs, Arizona, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, where I spent a lot of time out and about in nature. My mom was the director of the Cultural Resources Department for our tribe. Since we’re really close to the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, we spent a lot of time in the Canyon and on the river.

When I was 18, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and started college there. I did my first two years of general studies at Salt Lake Community College and then spent two years at the University of Utah, where in 2015 I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology, with an environmental and organismal emphasis. I kept working for the university for another year, until I found a positon with Dr. Scott Abella at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

He was looking for a master’s student to work on a restoration project in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Page, Arizona, and southern Utah, and it was just a perfect fit. They were looking for a Native American perspective, and I have that background. I wanted to continue working on the Colorado River, and it’s kind of like our homeland, so I was really drawn to the project.

What can you tell us about the Glen Canyon project?
The project I have been working on since the end of December 2016 is a restoration project that involves control of invasive species — particularly an invasive grass called ravennagrass. The National Park Service was looking for somebody to kind of take this project on, because they have had problems dealing with these invasive species.

I’m working on methods that will help control the invasive species, and, at the same time, revegetation methods that can help re-establish the native populations in areas where those invasive species have kind of taken over. Ravennagrass is a relatively new invasive species, and there’s not a lot known about its life history — how it grows and what its tolerances are — particularly in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Over spring break, we removed some of the ravennagrass by hand, and we were also doing a lot of the revegetation. We worked on about 12 to 15 plots during that week. It was a lot of work, but the volunteers were awesome. We spent five full days out there — it’s a five-hour drive from UNLV to the Park Service headquarters, and then another four-hour boat ride up to some of the plots, and then we just camped out on the lake.

Why is it crucial that the ravennagrass be removed and replaced in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area?
​Ravennagrass grows to be quite big: It can grow to be 14 to 15 feet tall, and it can grow quite wide as well. It grows in wetter areas, and a lot of these areas in Glen Canyon are hanging gardens. Once it starts growing there, it kind of just crowds [native species] out; it grows in these big clumps that kind of just take over all of the available space. We’re trying to save the biodiversity of this area and the plants and everything that depends on these plants.

It also creates a fire hazard, because it’s a perennial grass. All of the previous year’s growth dies off, but it still stays there, it dries up, and there’s a lot of dry biomass there. If any of these big clumps get set on fire, it’ll be a bigger blaze than what would normally be there.

It’s also not a very friendly plant. It has these really sharp, serrated leaf edges — if you brush up against it, it might cut you. It’s a nuisance for tourists trying to enjoy the park, and animals tend not to like it.

Where have you been focusing your efforts, and what plants do you use to replace the ravennagrass?
I have five side canyons that I’m focusing on: Slick Rock Canyon, Pollywog Bench, Cottonwood Canyon, Llewellyn Gulch and Cottonwood Gulch. A lot of them have their own set of native vegetation that occurs there. So I’m using plants that are nearby my plots, and I’m transplanting them. There’s a variety of things I’m using – bushy beardgrass, seep willow, a bunch of native grasses like Indian ricegrass, fourwing saltbush, a lot of cactus, white sagebrush and arrowweed.

What do you hope to accomplish with the project?
I have a few goals in mind. One of them is to really nail down a method that will successfully and efficiently control ravennagrass. It’s really important that we control this invasive grass so it doesn’t spread more than it already has. I want these methods to be able to be used elsewhere, in other national parks and other areas that are having problems with ravennagrass. Another goal is to successfully re-establish these native plant populations. That way, it’ll be harder for other invasive species to take that place — we want it to be native species that take that place.

Alongside that, I’ve had this cultural focus, so I’m using native plants that have a lot of cultural importance to Native American tribes in the area, including my own. We want these plants to continue growing in these areas because a lot of tribes depend on these plants and they’re really important in their cultures. Native Americans are heavily tied into their culture, and their culture is their lifestyle so it’s really important to be able to say we can successfully revegetate with native species.

What has been the most rewarding part of the project, and what has been the most challenging?

I’d say the most challenging part of the project is the logistics. It’s far away, and it’s kind of hard to get to. If something goes wrong, I can’t just go back in a couple of days and fix it really quick. I have to plan it out, usually weeks in advance, and reserve a boat with the Park Service. I have to take time off. I have to make sure I have the resources available to make it out to Page, and also the availability of volunteers, if I need them.

The most rewarding part, in general, just being out there is really awesome. We get to be out in these really beautiful areas. It’s really rewarding when you go there and spend all this time removing these invasive plants, and then, once it’s all done, you look back at the plot that we just spent two or three hours on and you notice a huge difference. Same with the revegetation. I just checked up on our plots in May, and some of the plants are growing. One cactus we had planted even bloomed. Being out there and noticing the difference is really great and really rewarding.

— Emily Balli