What’s a Little Poison Oak When You’re Creating Conservationists?

by PaHoua Lee

Removing invasive plant species can be really fun! Until of course, the week has passed and you realize you’ve spent the entire time removing invasive plants… and somehow you have managed to get poison oak not just on your arms, but your ankles as well… Whoo! Welcome to our first week this season!

Yes, it’s true; there’s a limit to the number of days in a row that invasive plant species removal can be fulfilling. After that, the work starts to feel repetitive. Working in natural areas does expose people to some sides of nature that aren’t so serene, such as poison oak. Some of the youth on my crew started to wonder: Shouldn’t we let nature run its course? Why are we removing invasive plants? What difference does this work actually make if the plants just keep growing back? Is the hard work really worth getting poison oak?

These are all legitimate questions, and I often think about the answers. Ideally, we would prefer to let nature run its course. In nature, though, these invasive plants would not have traveled across continents and oceans, and these sensitive ecosystems wouldn’t have to experience the introductions of new plant species. The removal of invasive plants frees up space and nutrients for native plants to grow and thrive, which in turn provides food and homes for native creatures. With an increased variety of wildlife, a natural area is going to be healthier as well as more productive. Our efforts may not be instantly rewarded, but over time the work we put in now will have direct positive outcomes. I have seen hillsides overridden with invasives newly flourish with native plants after a year or two of removal efforts.  It is truly a great feeling to see my hard work when I visit sites I’ve worked on!

I’m not going to sugarcoat it — this work is hard. You might have to hike two miles to get to a worksite. You’ll most likely carry heavy tools along the way. After the season is over, you may not want to visit another park for a while for fear of obligation to remove invasive plants whenever you come upon them! The weather can be unruly: cool and windy in the mornings, hot and sunny in the afternoons. But the work is fun! And SCA’s young conservationists do come back for more!

Kindness Nwakudu participated in 3 school year crews, as well as 1 summer crew prior to this summer. She will begin her second year at UC-Santa Cruz in the Fall. Right now Kindess is happy to be part of the SCA. She is currently serving as an Apprentice Crew Leader, hoping to one day lead her own SCA crew. Not only is Kindness an exemplary role model with vast experience, she is also an accomplished invasive plant remover – and goes about the task with a smile on her face!

Conservation is about protecting natural areas for both wildlife and humans. This work is about restoring ecosystems to their original state, and preserving what is left so that future generations can appreciate and experience the beauty of nature. If we can continue to inspire a conservation ethic in just one youth per crew, I feel hopeful that our parks will provide beauty and recreational opportunities for generations to come, even if it means I have to work in poison oak for a few days. The everlasting rewards and friendships created along the way are worth it.