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Photos: Quiet beauty in backyard of Alaska's largest city

The Palmer Hay Flats, pictured here at high tide, is home to a diversity of flora and fauna. August 18, 2012
Dragonflies, such as this Mosaic Darner, occupy an important role as a top predator of invertebrates in the wetland ecosystem. July 27, 2012
An Orb Weaver approaching its prey, a darner-type dragonfly. The Palmer Hay Flats is a fiercely competitive, eat or be eaten environment even on this macro level. August 13, 2012
Sandpipers frequent these tidal flats to feed on small fish and insects. August 10, 2012
A Harbor Seal hauled out on a hay flats embankment overlooking Cook Inlet. While uncommon, seals are known to travel far up Knik Arm in search of food such as salmon and cod. August 17, 2012
A sunset panorama of the Palmer Hay Flats with the Chugach Range in the distance. August 9, 2012
A moose grazes in the neighboring forest. Moose are known to frequent hay flats in early mornings. August 10, 2012
Autumn is a favorite time for scavengers, like this magpie, with plenty of salmon making their way upstream to spawn. August 11, 2012
Salmon, a keystone species, make their way upstream from Cook Inlet to spawn in their childhood tributaries. August 11, 2012
The hay flats are becoming a recreational hotspot for those who live close to the wetlands. Along with worsened erosion and destruction of habitat, ATV users litter the area with unwanted appliances and trash. May 15, 2012
Sandhill Cranes on their long migration to the south where they will spend the winter. August 18, 2012
Cook Inlet Beluga Whales feed on fish at high tide. Cook Inlet belugas are listed as critically endangered by the NOAA, with fewer than 500 left in the entire inlet. August 21, 2012

The Palmer Hay Flats is a land of many faces. It could be mistaken as an African savannah under the glare of the evening sun, while at high tide it looks to be more its true self -- a vast stretch of Alaskan wetlands. The water rises and falls hourly, with a difference of around 30 feet from high to low tide, sometimes swallowing whole chunks of grassland on its way out. It truly is a dramatic landscape.

This grassland sits at the edge of Knik Arm, a part of the larger Cook Inlet. It is home to many creatures both large and small. Birds like sandpipers, ducks, and cranes raise their young here before migrating south for the long, harsh Alaskan winter. Moose, coyotes, fox, and other land animals come out to the tidal flats in the early morning to hunt, graze, or perhaps just stop by in passing. And unbeknownst to many, marine mammals such as seals and beluga whales ride the high tide to feed on salmon and other food in the shallow waters.

I have grown up with this land of constant change, and while some of the changes are natural and inevitable, many are not. In the past few decades, the population of the Mat-Su Valley -- and especially Knik-Goose Bay Road - has grown exponentially. With the rapid upsurge in construction and land use comes a change in environment -- wildlife is being disturbed, hay flats are not being treated as they should, and more and more land is being displaced.

Many see the hay flats as purely recreational land. I wholeheartedly believe that people shouldn't be banned from venturing into these flats, but they must be regulated. As more and more ATV trails, trash, and other signs of human presence appear, the land loses a little more of its soul. Wildlife will not come back, the hay flats will erode so badly that no one will have the unique opportunity to enjoy this surreal land. The grass is all that holds this magical land together, and without it the flats might just sink back into the inlet that they came from.

It is crucial -- now more than ever -- that we bring a sense of respect to this landscape and all that it holds before it is too late. Many species that frequent this landscape are critical to its continuation. NOAA cites that there is a population of less than 500 belugas, down from over 1300 in the late 1990s. The hay flats is an important part of this marine ecosystem and is necessary for the recovery of the belugas. The population of seals in the inlet is also decreasing, while overfishing has been cited as a possible cause of population decline for both of these marine mammals. NOAA recently designated Knik Arm as a level 1 critical habitat for the Cook Inlet belugas, a level of highest importance. But I believe more action than this is needed. The hay flats need to be federally protected and regulated so that they do not turn into a dumping ground for human waste.

Devdharm Khalsa is a freelance photographer, college student, and world traveler. He will be blogging from Morocco starting in September. Follow his travels here: