This week’s Curious by Nature question comes from Jim Protz:
“There’s a small sign at the end of Perseverance Trail with a warning not to have contact with the soil or eat the berries in the area because of the presence of heavy metals from earlier mining activities. I’ve been hiking there and eating the berries for 25 years and just noticed that sign last year. Has that sign always been there? If the area is dangerous, shouldn’t the sign be larger and placed earlier on the trail instead of at the end, after one has passed most of the berry bushes?”
Juneau’s trails are maintained by a few different organizations, the City and Borough of Juneau being one of the main agencies. But a significant portion of the land Perseverance Trail lies on is actually owned by the state and managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Maintenance responsibilities for the trail have changed hands twice. In 1977, DNR assigned maintenance responsibility to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. In 2006, CBJ entered into an agreement with the state of Alaska to manage the trail. Because of the area’s extensive mining history, part of that management entails working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to mitigate long-term effects of the mine tailings left in the area.
The sign Protz refers to is near a one-acre site where mine tailings were deposited in the early 1900s, according to DEC. The state has kept track of contamination from the mine tailings since at least 1984. Initial studies showed elevated levels of arsenic, lead, zinc and mercury in the tailings, which prompted the posting of an initial warning sign. Chemical analysis in the 1989 study showed that Gold Creek, one of Juneau’s two drinking water sources, “was not impacted by the presence of tailings.”
Plant succession, or the natural development of plant life, has not progressed normally at the site, according to DEC. Notes from city staff, compiled by DEC, show “stunted trees and vegetation” in the area. DEC’s Danielle Duncan keeps track of the tailings site for the state. Berry samples haven’t been taken on the trail, she said Friday, so the state can’t vouch for the safety of consuming berries in the area.
It’s a good thing to keep in mind that the entire area has been subject to mining activity historically, Duncan said. Because of this, it may be prudent just to avoid eating the berries from the area. The truth of the matter is that DEC can’t say definitively whether or not berries farther down on Perseverance Trail are safe to eat or not.
As for the sign itself, it was stolen some years ago, according to city staff, and reinstalled in 2016 after a city employee noticed it wasn’t up during a site visit in 2015.
• Curious by Nature answers reader-submitted questions about Mother Nature in Juneau and Southeast Alaska. Ever wonder why Juneau’s water gets so much murkier in the summer? Just how fast the Mendenhall Glacier melting? If the Fukushima disaster is hurting Juneau’s salmon stocks? Why your dog loves the smell of bear poop? Submit your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will scour mountains, rivers, labs and university hallways trying to find the answer. Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at email@example.com, 523-2228 or on Twitter @KevinGullufsen.