By Susan Smith, Lake Erie – Allegheny Earth Force
Presque Isle State Park is a seven mile sandy peninsula that arches out into Lake Erie. The neck of the peninsula is attached to the southern shore of Lake Erie just four miles west of downtown Erie, PA. It encompasses 3,200 acres of sandy beaches, dunes, wetlands, inland ponds, thickets, marshes, and woodlands that are home to over 60 Plant Species of Special Concern.
Presque Isle contains a greater number of the state’s endangered, threatened and rare plant species than any other area of comparable size in Pennsylvania. It is a haven for biodiversity and a textbook example of plant succession.
Researchers and botanists have studied Presque Isle’s plant and wildlife communities for over 150 years. The extensive research has shown that invasive plant species have indeed invaded the delicate area.
The term invasive plant describes plants that aggressively compete with and displace locally adapted native plant communities. As invasive plants establish and expand they out-compete and replace native grasses, sedges, and other flowering plants that provide a higher quality source of nutrition for wildlife. The highly invasive nature of these plants allow them to form in such a dense manner that they restrict native wetland plant species, including some federally endangered species, and reduce habitat for waterfowl. If left unchecked a wetland can eventually become overrun with invasive plants.
Park managers began working to resolve the problems of invasive species in the late 80’s. Besieged by non-native plants such as phragmites, purple loosestrife and hybrid cattail, park managers knew that something had to be accomplished to rid the area of the invasives. They sought an aggressive yet safe approach that would require expertise and hands-on involvement to rid the park of these invasive plant species.
The Presque Isle Partnership (Partnership) was formed in 1994 with a mission to “preserve, protect and enhance Presque Isle State Park”. Made up of citizen volunteers as well as volunteers from the academic, business, and professional communities, the Partnership would take on the daunting task of invasive species control in efforts to prevent the spread and eventually rid the park of invasive plant species. The Partnership’s members offered to oversee the invasive species project by providing funding and volunteers to perform the on-the-ground work. Since its incorporation in 1994, the Partnership has accomplished several other significant achievements, including the establishment of a nature shop at the Stull Interpretive Environmental Center and the organization of events such as Discover Presque Isle, beach cleanups and environmental conferences.
The Partnership formed an invasive species project strategy committee which included the park operations manager, several park maintenance staff, a Mercyhurst College biology professor, the director of science from Gannon University, a botanist from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a naturalist and nature writer, several Presque Isle Advisory Committee members, Presque Isle Partnership members, and several other interested volunteers. The committee believed that the diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise would allow them to derive the best plan possible for managing the invasive species problem on Presque Isle.
The committee discussed the development of an on-going invasive species strategy and work plan for the park. Interested community members and groups were given the opportunity to comment on and contribute to the invasive species plan. In particular, the Presque Isle Audubon Society helped with healthy dialogue that improved the process.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, local colleges, and universities offered expertise and enthusiastic college interns and volunteers to join in the park restoration efforts. The partnership found that public education efforts such as displaying exhibits, discussing field experiences, conducting workshops, and holding an annual research symposium resulted in volunteer and in-kind donations. Word was spreading about the importance of controlling invasive species; public interest and monetary donations continued to grow.
According to the assistant park manager, ” since the late 80’s we have invested over $200,000 in this program.” In 1994, the partnership secured a grant of $75,000 for the control of invasive species and began those first efforts at the park beginning with extensive surveys, and then exhaustive work on control methods. In October, 2003, the Presque Isle Partnership received a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener grant for $50,000 for the Invasive Species program which will remove invasive species from 3.5 acres of wetlands. Volunteers were willing to spend hours working in muddy, oozing wetlands and endure oppressive heat, ticks, scratchy plants, and insect bites while documenting their procedures and outcomes.
A dedicated botanist from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has volunteered much of his time to keeping an educated eye on the park’s vegetation so invasive species do not destroy Presque Isle’s marvelous biodiversity. He expressed his alarm this past spring when he saw that garlic mustard (Afflaria officinalis), which is an alien species, had begun growing “like gangbusters” at Presque Isle. “Garlic mustard produces an oil that is much stronger than the oil of our native mustards”, he said, “and is so strong that it kills the eggs of many insects including the rare and beautiful West Virginia White butterfly”, which have been found in the park on several occasions.
For this reason it was “urgent” to get rid of the plants. The very next day, after the park manager learned about the endangered butterfly and realized garlic mustard should be eradicated, people were out in the park pulling the plants and bagging them for disposal. This is just one of many examples of the dedication that the Partnership members exhibit in their efforts to protect Presque Isle from invasives. Today, the park invasive species project is considered a leader in resource management regarding invasives and provides useful information for organizations or groups interested in controlling these plants in their communities. The park is developing a resource file about invasive plant species and has a large accumulation of equipment to combat this issue. It has created a consciousness regarding the economic and ecological threats that these plants pose.
While there is still work to be done in ridding Presque Isle from invasive plant species, the Partnership members are confident that more people are now aware of the importance of saving wetlands from these invasives. The support of concerned individuals and organizations has been essential. Public education efforts have proven to be the best weapon in winning the struggle against wetland invasives as it has been the key to strengthening awareness and its volunteer basis.
Presque Isle State Park
P.O. Box 8510, Erie, PA 16505