Managing the spread of invasive plant species in your backyard can be a challenge. Managing the spread of invasive plant species in 200 acres of parkland can feel almost impossible at times. These plants are, by their very definition, hard to control. They can take over an area, outcompete the native plants, and throw the ecosystem completely off balance. So how do we take on the huge task of regenerating the indigenous cultural landscape of Piscataway Park and returning balance to the woodlands? Well, it all started with some Faith.
Enter Faith Haley. A graduate of Salisbury University with a degree in Earth Science, Faith joined the 2019-2020 class of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps (CCC). Her mission was to spend one year at the Accokeek Foundation as the Natural Resource Coordinator and develop an invasive species management plan within the park. While much of her service year and careful planning were disrupted by a global pandemic that kept most staff and volunteers away from the park, Faith still delivered a framework to provide the Foundation with resources to manage invasive plants.
The framework, which was her CCC capstone project, focuses on three main management concepts: prevention, eradication, and control. But before we get into these concepts, let’s start with the basics.
What is an invasive plant?
You often hear the terms “invasive species” and “non-native” species used interchangeably, but the distinction can be important in creating a management plan.
A native species is a plant species that has developed over thousands of years within a specific ecosystem.
Non-native species are plant species that are introduced to another ecosystem where they are not previously found.
And invasive species are non-native plant species that aggressively establish within an ecosystem different from their own. They compromise the health of the ecosystem they infest and out-compete native plant species in that space.
Humans—particularly European colonists—introduced a lot of non-native species to the area over the past 400 years, and as we look to regenerate the indigenous cultural spaces that represent a system in balance, our plan starts with the control of those species that are most destructive to their new environments.
The best and most obvious way to control the spread of invasive plant species is to ensure that those plants never make it to the site, to begin with. Since these plants can’t drive themselves to wild places all around the world, their arrival in a new ecosystem is usually due to human behavior. Sometimes this transport is intentional as people purposely plant non-native plants in their lawns and gardens. Other times, humans accidentally carry invasive species across ecosystems because they don’t realize a seed has hitched a ride.
To aid in prevention, Faith worked on identifying invasive plants in the park and setting up a system to collect data on the identified species. Using the Bugwood MAEDN app and ArcGIS QuickCapture, the natural resource team now has the tools to map and monitor problem areas throughout the park. Faith also secured funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to install a Boot Brush station near the Visitor Center to help educate visitors about the spread of invasive plants. It reminds visitors about the importance of cleaning off your hiking boots before hitting the trail because many invasives spread by sticking to your shoes.
Fully eradicating an invasive species can be extremely challenging and is unlikely to be a speedy process. Faith categorized removal mechanisms under the following umbrellas:
- Chemical removal involves the use of herbicides to kill invasive plants. Unfortunately, this method will also affect the native plants that belong in the ecosystem.
- Mechanical removal is labor-intensive but takes herbicides out of the equation. Mechanical removal methods include hand-pulling, mowing, and pruning.
- Biological removal depends on the assistance of other organisms to combat the growth of invasive species. In Piscataway Park, that often takes the form of grazing heritage livestock—like the Foundation’s flock of Hog Island sheep—through problem areas. The sheep will happily munch away on the invasive plants and the natural resource team can come in behind them to clear away roots and vines.
- Cultural awareness is the ultimate step in eradicating invasive plants from an area. Through education, the natural resource team hopes to foster an understanding of the importance of managing invasive species. This method relies on all community members doing their part to restore and maintain the ecosystems they depend on.
So how does a very small team put some of these removal methods into action in such a large space? The answer, we think, is to engage volunteers in this important restoration work. Throughout this last year, Faith worked to develop a volunteer program that would focus on mechanical removal in a few priority areas of the park. While many of the 2020 volunteer projects were canceled due to COVID-19, Faith has left the team prepared to welcome volunteers as soon as it is safe to do so.
Volunteers from MGM National Harbor help remove invasive plants from the Riverview Trail area.
Controlling the spread of invasive plants relies heavily on data analysis and evaluation. An effective management plan is one that evaluates the long-term effects of different techniques and learns from species trends over time. Because this data is so important to restoration efforts, Faith set up several evaluation quadrats within the park to perform eco-assessments and study the effectiveness of different removal methods. The first of these quadrats were established to monitor a section of invasive autumn olive and track how the plant responded to the natural resource team’s control efforts throughout the year. Additional quadrats will be set-up and monitored as part of a Citizen Science project within the park—all based on the pioneering work of Faith.
Native Plant Restoration and Cultural Stewardship
In Piscataway Park, a comprehensive and effective invasive plant management plan is just one piece of the native plant restoration puzzle. To truly revitalize this landscape, we must also consider deer management, a restoration plan for native plant communities, a stewardship framework for existing native plants, and erosion control. This work involves a strong network of individuals and organizations partnering together to support native plant revitalization projects in the park.
It also means expanding our typical understanding of environmental stewardship work to include the cultural stewardship that goes hand-in-hand with preserving this landscape. This land has been shaped by Piscataway people for more than 10,000 years and an influx of invasive plant species not only threatens the flora and fauna but deprives the community of an important cultural resource as well. As she worked for 12 months to develop a management plant and educate people about invasive plant species, Faith infused cultural stewardship values into everything she did.
How can you help?
While her last day with the Foundation was August 18, Faith’s legacy is a comprehensive catalog of best management practices for stewarding land under the influence of invasive plant species. It is a plan that engages with diverse communities to enrich the public’s knowledge about invasive species and methods to control their influence on the ecosystem. Her plan can be used not only by our own natural resource team in Piscataway Park but by anyone looking to practice natural resource management at their local park or in their own backyard. Thank you, Faith!
To get you started, here are some suggestions from Faith about how you can help control the spread of invasive plants today:
- Clean your boots! Outdoor recreational gear can easily transmit seeds and plant fragments from invasive plants to other ecosystems.
- Plant natives! Increasing the native plant population can promote ecological benefits such as biodiversity, low air pollution, and shelter for native wildlife.
- Physically remove invasive plants! To reduce ecological harm from chemicals, limit the use of herbicide on your property, opting instead of mechanical removal methods.
- Volunteer at invasive plant removal and native planting events! Managing invasive species can be hard and tedious work. Participate in restoration events to learn tips on how to safely remove plants.
The Chesapeake Conservation Corps is a Chesapeake Bay Trust program that promotes and protects the environment by providing young adults with opportunities to gain career skills and become more engaged through meaningful community service. For more information, visit cbtrust.org.