June 15, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Geocachers in Ada County, Idaho, have a new mission, should they choose to accept it: tracking down hidden containers that hold data on noxious weeds.
This is part of an ongoing operation set up by the county's Weed, Pest and Mosquito Abatement Department to pinpoint expanding noxious weeds before they wreak havoc on the environment. In years past, the department used informational brochures and fliers to educate the public on harmful weeds. Now they're taking the high-tech, hide-and-seek approach known as geocaching to spread the word.
"There are a lot of people in the county who do this," said Jake Mundt, the department's administrative operations manager. "We put in a more formal mechanism to allow geocachers, if they find the same weed in another area, to report where it is. This helps us develop our action plans to help us control or eradicate noxious weeds in the region."
Geocaching is a global phenomenon in which recreationists use GPS receivers and other navigational tools to locate any of the million-plus containers, called caches, hidden in rural and urban areas around the globe. For the past 10 years, devotees have declared that geocaching forces you to go to places you've never gone before.
Seeking to attract visitors and inspire residents to go exploring, more state and local governments have been looking to "cache" in. Georgia reportedly launched a high-tech treasure hunt in May, hiding caches at state parks for seekers to find. In Palm Coast, Fla., the GIS division planted containers in parks, trails and natural reserves with "a treat" inside each cache.
"We've taken the time to plant 10 geocaches in locations we feel are the hidden gems of Palm Coast," according to the city's website. "Just plug the coordinates into your GPS receiver and start hunting."
In Ada County, local officials took a different path. Bounded by two rivers and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the county already lures recreationists out of their homes to explore the great outdoors: hikers, mountain bikers and, of course, the geocachers, according to Laura Wylde, the Weed, Pest and Mosquito Abatement Department's public outreach coordinator.
But of the 64 plant species the state lists as noxious weeds, 32 of them can be found in Ada County, local officials said. These weeds threaten public health, crops, livestock and land. To help keep them from spreading, the county hid four caches throughout the county, stocked with information about weed infestations and weed control efforts. Officials plan to hide more in the future.
Armed with handheld GPS receivers and maps, geocachers can track these containers, learn about the weeds, and log and submit the coordinates of any other infestations they come across. It makes sense to recruit geocachers. For them, going new places and discovering new things comes with the territory.
"It's the challenge of going new places you may never have gone," said Clint Hutchison, webmaster for Idaho Geocachers, which has more than 1,000 members. "There's a lot of things to see that people don't realize are there."
Ed Lenhart of Boise has lived in Idaho for 35 years, but since he started geocaching nine years ago, he said he's seen more of the state and country than ever before. Retired from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lenhart was the one who pitched the geocaching idea to the county's Weed, Pest and Mosquito Abatement Department.
He said he goes on geocaching expeditions four times a week and he even bought a few nature books for research, but wanted a way to report his findings. He believes this program will help local geocachers get active in the fight against noxious weeds.
"It'll be a lot more eyes out there looking for this stuff once we educate geocachers on what to look for," Lenhart said. "I just want to see more counties and states get involved, and maybe even a federal agency. If geocachers can help, I think we can spot a lot of weeds."
For more information on the geocaching project, visit the Weed, Pest and Mosquito Abatement Department.