Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Great Adirondack Backcountry Invasion

A war is raging in our wilderness areas, and the Adirondack Park is slowly becoming ground zero. Invaders from faraway lands are gaining a foothold in the Park’s interior, where the native inhabitants are woefully unprepared for the coming onslaught. Unfortunately, backcountry enthusiasts are the unwitting foot soldiers for these invaders.

Exotic invasive plants are sprouting up far away from their usual haunts on lawns and along roadsides. Exotic invasive species are non-native species, typically introduced to an area by humans, either purposely or accidently. These species exhibit traits allowing for fast growth, rapid reproduction, swift dispersal and tolerance of many different habitats. These traits facilitate colonization and eventual subjugation of much of the native vegetation.
Many backcountry enthusiasts are introducing invasive plant species’ seeds or fragments into wilderness areas. These hitchhikers end up in favorite camping sites or along trails, where some germinate, reproduce and even proliferate in areas once reserved for native plant species.

People venturing into these wild areas due do so because of their love of nature, and the sense of adventure that these wild areas instill within them. Unfortunately, they may just be sowing the seeds of destruction of these areas they love so much.

Could these invaders mean the end of the Adirondacks as we know it? Probably not. At least not yet. Nonetheless, it is a matter of growing concern as invasive species make inroads into wilder places such as the Adirondacks.

Such concern has taken root in the Adirondacks and produced the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (APIPP), a cooperative effort of many Adirondack region organizations devoted to protecting the area from the negative effects of nonnative invasive species. Unfortunately, this organization concentrates its limited efforts on aquatic and roadside invasive plant species; wilderness areas appear to be less of a priority.

Many of these invasive plants are hitching a ride on the boots, hiking poles and in equipment of hikers, backpackers, hunters or any other person journeying into the Adirondack backcountry. Some plants may actively attach themselves boots, while others dispersed by wind may accidently become trapped in equipment until deposited at a later time somewhere in the backcountry.

Frequently used campsites, such as areas around many lean-tos, are often the most vulnerable places to these invaders. Campsites are not the only vulnerable places though; trailheads and along trails can often be colonized as long as there is ample soil and sunlight. Disturbed areas, typically by windthrow, are more vulnerable due to the additional light and potential exposure of mineral soil.

One particular place I noticed suffering from these invaders is the area around the Big Shallow Pond Lean-to, deep within the Five Ponds Wilderness of the northwestern Adirondacks. This high-traffic area (at least by the Five Ponds standards) is highly susceptible to invasive exotic species due to the opening of the canopy caused by the loss of some towering white pines as a result of the 1995 Microburst.

Lawn grasses, white clover (Trifolium repens) and even dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are just a few exotic invasive species typically found growing near this leam-to in the open sunlight. Although the colonization may have occurred “naturally,” this seems unlikely given the number of species and the swiftness in which these many species took a foothold in the area.

This is not uniquely an Adirondack issue, but one applicable to any popular hiking areas. Even isolated areas such as Isle Royale National Park are vulnerable to these indifferent invading species, where I observed white clover and dandelions at some campsites and along trails during a trip last summer. At a trailhead to the McCormick Wilderness on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an interpretive sign described the threat of invasive species and even provided a couple stiff brushes for the purpose of removing seeds from hiking boots before hitting the trail. Unfortunately, there were quite a few exotic plants growing around the brushes all but obscuring it from view.

What can be done by hikers to slow the spread of these invasive species? Plenty.

Prevention starts with thoroughly cleaning boots and equipment on a regular basis (such as the end of each season), and especially before and after going on a trip to a different geographic area. This includes emptying out the contents of all pockets, backpacks and stuff sacs, followed by washing with soap and water. Not only will the washing prevent the spread of invasive plants, but it may prolong the life of your equipment by removing abrasive dirt. And do not forget your hiking poles; tiny seeds can accumulate in caked-on soil fragments around the tips.

Cleaning equipment is especially important after it has been exposed to invasive vegetation, such as lawns, open campgrounds, etc. This can be especially important for those who tend to set up their tents on their lawns at home after a particularly wet Adirondack trip.

Choosing equipment less likely to transport seeds may slow the spread of these nonnative species. This is especially true for hiking boot, where some materials are more prone to hitchhiking than others. For instance, full-leather boots tend to hold less seeds than their artificial fabric counterparts.

Preserving wilderness areas from the threat of invasive species is the responsibility of those visiting these unique and precious places. Please take the time to clean your equipment thoroughly before heading into the Adirondack backcountry; its very survival may just depend on it.

Photos: Big Shallow Lean-to in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

One Response

  1. […] weeded lawns. Plantain, crab grass, and white clover are just a few of the species here. Obviously, careless hikers brought the seeds of these many exotic hitchhikers in their equipment or on their cl…, and the abundant sun did the […]

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