Sunday, May 21, 2017

Invasive Plant Species in Princeton

This Monday, May 22 at 7pm, the Princeton Public Library will host a presentation on invasive species in Princeton by Mike van Clef, of the NJ Invasive Species Strike Team. There will also be representatives of FOPOS and DR Greenway participating. Princeton municipality hired Mike to develop a report on invasive species in Princeton preserves, and in 2016 he and two interns worked through the summer on invasive species control. Because of the massiveness of the problem, they focused on emerging species--those whose populations are still small enough that a summer's worth of control would make a difference. 

We may look back on 2016 as a pivotal year, when the town began investing in invasive species management, much as 2000 marked the beginning of professional deer management in town. 

Although it may sound self-congratulatory, another important date in Princeton's history of invasive species management would be 2006, when the Friends of Princeton Open Space hired me as their first Natural Resources Manager. 

When I arrived in town in 2003 on the coattails of my wife's appointment to the Princeton University faculty, a couple things quickly became obvious. First, Princeton had done wonderful work preserving land for open space. Second, the open space itself needed a lot of work. Though the trees in Princeton's woodlands were mostly native, the understory vegetation was often dominated by nonnative, invasive plants. Stiltgrass, honeysuckle and privet, to name but a few, had filled the void created long ago when the diverse native understory had been plowed under, back in Princeton's agricultural era. In the decades since, the native trees had rebounded, but the understory had either not come back, or succumbed to heavy browsing pressure from deer.

Because wildlife tend not to eat the leaves of nonnative plants, their proliferation in preserves renders the habitat largely inedible. Yes, birds can eat the berries of nonnative shrubs like honeysuckle, but if the insects and other wildlife aren't eating the leaves, then much less of the solar energy captured in the plants can move up the food chain. 

I proceeded to make the case that Princeton could expand its effective acreage of open space through management for native species. As most readers know, I've been leading workdays and nature walks ever since, for six years as an employee of FOPOS, and more recently as president of the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW). Highly motivated volunteers like Tim Patrick-Miller and Andrew Thornton, and more recently Kurt and Sally Tazelaar at Herrontown Woods, have had a positive impact over time. Meanwhile, FOPOS has sustained its Natural Resources Manager position--having just hired the fourth to hold that position--and continues to do invasive species removal at Mountain Lakes Preserve. After so many years of nonprofit, largely volunteer efforts, to finally get municipal support through Mike's crew this past summer was a real boost that we hope will continue.  

It's important to note that Mike van Clef's study of invasive species in Princeton is limited to parks and preserves owned or managed by the town. There are large expanses of open space owned by the state (Princeton Battlefield and DR Canal) and by the Institute for Advanced Study (the 600 acre Institute Woods). Portions of the Battlefield and the DR Canal are being overrun by porcelainberry (in photo), which barely registers in Mike's survey, and mile-a-minute vine is beginning to show up there as well. I've been trying to help fill a void in management, co-leading workdays at the Battlefield and, in the proactive "early detection, rapid response" tradition, dealing with two small infestations of Mile-a-Minute in town before they become unmanageable. Another nonnative plant that's spreading rapidly, both in people's yards and in nature preserves, is lesser celandine (a.k.a. fig buttercup). It can only be controlled in the spring, long before summer interns begin work. Ideally, a town-wide coordination to manage invasive species would be developed.

The town's investment in invasive species control comes at a critical time. With the emerald ash borer (another highly invasive introduced species) poised to decimate Princeton's most numerous native tree, large gaps will be created in our forest canopy, allowing light to penetrate to the understory. Princeton's long investment in deer culling has allowed native shrubs like spicebush to make a comeback, but in many woodlands, the understory is dominated by nonnative shrubs and stiltgrass. Wildlife have evolved over millenia to eat native species. It's a question of whether edible natives will capture that extra sunlight in the understory, or the privet, winged euonymus, honeysuckle, barberry and Photinia. The foodchain depends on our intervention.

The primary argument for habitat management remains that, by improving the quality of habitat, Princeton effectively increases the functional acreage of open space. This is true not only for wildlife but also for people. Controlling invasive species also makes the human experience in preserves more rewarding. As we've cut down invasive shrubs at Herrontown Woods, we've not only made more sunlight, water and nutrients available for native species to prosper, but also have opened up pleasing vistas and made the woods more navigable. 

The problem of invasive plants may seem overwhelming, but we can take our inspiration from the deer, who transform landscapes through the cumulative impact of browsing here, there, and everywhere, one mouthful at a time. The pioneers, too, thought the continent too vast to ever tame. Though their goal wasn't exactly to increase native plant diversity, they showed how steady effort makes a difference over time. Ideally, professionals will complement existing volunteer efforts, and the locals who know the preserves best will help steer the professionals' interventions. 

At Monday's presentation, there will also be discussion of a list of invasive species that people are being discouraged from planting. It's a very long list, and I wish it could better reflect the broad spectrum of invasive behavior we see in the field. One reason the list is so long is that, though many of the species on the list may not be found spreading into Princeton's nature preserves, history shows that invasive behavior in nonnative species may not become manifest until many decades after they've been introduced. Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is a case in point. Though it has yet to spread to Princeton's Tusculum meadows, it is now posing a big problem for meadows at Duke Farms up in Hillsborough. The flyer for the library event includes a photo of butterfly bush, which I've never observed exhibiting invasive behavior. Monday's presentation may help put local observations in a broader context.

Update: Full house for the program! Good to see.

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