Category Archives: Park Projects

Efforts to Control Invasive Species in Parks Gain a Four-Footed Team Member

One sniff at a time, an energetic Labrador retriever named Dia is changing the way we combat invasive species in New York State Parks.

Along with her handler Joshua Beese, this invasives-fighting team from the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is on the hunt for Scotch broom, a threat to the native ecosystems in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Dia uses her powerful sense of smell to help find small and sparsely distributed invasive species that might be missed by human searchers. Since November 2018, her incredible nose has been specially trained to sniff out the invasive plant Scotch broom.

Joshua Beese with Dia. Photo by nynjtc.org

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)is one of the most destructive invasives on the Pacific Coast, where it has had costly implications for agricultural industries. When it began showing up in New York’s parks, land managers became concerned. Scotch broom forms dense clusters that can displace native plant species and reduce biodiversity that is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

The Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (LHPRISM), which works to minimize the harm caused by invasives, ranks Scotch broom as a tier 2 priority invasive species. That means it is present in such low numbers in the Lower Hudson Valley that with proper action it could be completely eradicated from the area before the population becomes established.

Scotch broom plant in flower on May 2015 at Harriman State Park. Photo by Shelby Timm, nynjtc.org.

The New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team and the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force (ISF) Crew of AmeriCorps members, volunteers, and interns have collaborated over the past several years in a bid to eradicate Scotch broom in the region. The ISF Crew has been finding and removing Scotch broom in state parks since 2014, when 37 separate populations were recorded at Bear Mountain and Harriman.

A Scotch broom infestation at Harriman State Park in 2014. Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org
After the Scotch broom removal . Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org

While a few locations no longer have any plants, other locations are harder to manage. It becomes challenging to find the few remaining individuals among all the other vegetation, which means this destructive plant could still propagate. That’s where Dia comes in!

“Dia first comes into the field with her nose up, smelling what’s in the air, working to detect the Scotch broom scent,” explains handler Beese. “She’s using what are called scent cones; she works her way into a cone and uses that cone to help her narrow down the source.”

Once in a cone, she will search until she gets to the source and put her nose to the ground to sniff out smaller plants that may be tiny and low to the ground. She alerts Beese that she’s found the species by standing or sitting. “The most important thing is that she’s committed to an area where she’s detected the plant until I come and reward her,” Beese says. “Then we can mark it and remove it.”

Dia’s reward: Her ball on a rope with a game of tug and fetch. See Dia in action by following her on Instagram @diasavestheforest.

Dia on the hunt for invasives. Photo by Arden Blumenthal, nynjtc.org

Utilizing their exceptional sense of smell, dogs have been commonly used for search and rescue, as well as weapons and narcotics detection. These tracking and detection skills are now being used to protect our wild spaces. In 2010, the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management published a study that concluded trained dogs could smell and detect twice the number of invasive plants that humans could observe with their eyes.

Although other groups have used dogs for short projects to detect of invasive species, the Trail Conference’s Conservation Dog Program is the first permanent program of its kind in the Northeast.

This is Dia’s first season in the field; she has already been on more than 20 surveying trips. In several instances, the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force Crew had been to a site and completely removed every plant they were able to find—and then Dia found a few more.

Trail Conference Conservation Corps members removing Scotch broom plants in 2016. The flags indicate where plants have been removed. Photo by Matt Simonelli, nynjtc.org

Dia came to the Trail Conference from a farm in Wisconsin that breeds dogs for hunting competitions. She was selected for the program by Beese, an experienced search and rescue dog handler, who is assisted by volunteer Arden Blumenthal. He has trained Dia with the mentorship of Aimee Hurt from Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, an organization that has been working with dogs on conservation projects for more than 20 years.

In a metropolitan region highly prone to invasive infestations, early detection when populations are small is a key component of successful invasive species management. Not only does Dia make search-and-destroy efforts more thorough within infestations, she is also able to find stray plants outside the known boundaries where people had focused their searches. Dia helps make sure the area is really cleared to reduce the potential for reinfestation or further spread. With better search efficiency, it should be possible to declare New York State parks Scotch broom-free in the near future. 

Crew from New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team removing a Scotch broom plant. Phot by Linda Rohleder, nynjtc.org

Up next for Dia is slender false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), an invasive grass that can outcompete existing vegetation, including threatened and endangered species, and harm wildlife populations by altering food sources. Slender false brome has recently been found in Letchworth State Park, and this location will serve as a training ground for Dia.

***UPDATE: Dia and her team recently went to Letchworth State Park, where they did find the invasive slender false brome in areas where surveyors had missed it.

Conservation dogs can learn to detect up to three new species each year, meaning Dia’s incredible talents will continue to develop. “In three or four years,” Beese says, “we’ll be pushing forward the science on what can be done with invasive species detection using dogs.”

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dog team, from left, Arden Blumenthal, Dia, and Joshua Beese. Photo by Heather Darley, nynjtc.org

Post by Linda Rohleder, Director of Land Stewardship, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference and Coordinator, Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM)

Locals Show Some Love

On May 5, 2018, the first Saturday of May, over 8,000 volunteers helped New York State Parks celebrate its sixth annual ‘I Love My Parks Day’ at 250 projects and 125 parks across the state.

Saturday morning was met with the fresh smell of a well overdue Spring. Birds were singing and bees were buzzing. The weather could not have been nicer with blue skies and a sun to warm your skin. In Horseheads, NY, volunteers came out to the Catharine Valley trailhead to help create a pollinator garden and clear brush and invasive plants to promote native species beneficial to birds. (About 50 small pollinator plants were purchased by the Audubon Society to create a pollinator garden.

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Gearing up for the event, photo by Audubon NY

About 50 volunteers showed up to do their part – from energetic toddlers, to a girl scout troop, to seasoned gardeners and everyone in-between. Three NYS parks Environmental Educators and SCA Parks Corps members –  Tamara Beal, Lizzy Hawk, and Kyle Gallaher – also stepped in as volunteers and environmental educators.

Over 400 different species of bees call NY home. The role they play in pollinating plants is irreplaceable. It is estimated that 1 in every 3 bites of food deserves thanks in part to pollinators. In other words, if you like to eat, you have to like your pollinators! With so many helping hands, this seemingly large task was completed in no time. Holes were dug with shovels or towels, or even by hand and what started as a barren landscape was quickly transformed to a vibrant garden, ripe for pollinating.

Besides the pollinator garden, different parts of the birding trails were also attended to. Dead brush was raked, honey suckle was pulled, and sticks and branches were piled high. The birding trails at the head of the Catharine Valley Trail, on Huck Finn Road, are a well kept secret. A birding lover’s delight, these trails attract birds by providing an irresistible combination of shelter, food, and peaceful atmosphere. If you are able to walk quietly enough to become a part of nature, all sorts of creatures become noticeable on these trails. Volunteers were spread out in every direction creating a green space more attractive and enticing to our feathered friends.

In the last part of the event, some time was taken to appreciate and get up close with some of the wildlife in the area. Environmental educators Kyle, Lizzy, and Tamara took about 30 of the volunteers on a short walk to a nearby turtle nesting ground. The sandy soil of these manmade nesting gardens allows the turtles to easily bury their eggs for safe keeping. SCA members helped to clean up these nesting areas earlier in the year.

A mini program about snakes was also made possible when environmental educator Tamara Beal came across a garter snake in the grass (see featured photo).

This event was just one of the number of events that were hosted this “I Love my Park Day” throughout the state. Thank you to the thousands of volunteers who came out on May 5th to support their local parks! It is inspiring to see the number of people that show up for these kinds of events. 

Join us for the eighth annual ‘I Love My Park Day’ on May 4.

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NYS parks environmental educators and SCA parks corps members, Tamara, Lizzie, and Kyle

Post by Tamara Beal, 2018 SCA Finger Lakes Region intern

iMapInvasives and You Can Too!

You may have heard the name iMapInvasives before, but if you have not been exposed to this magnificent mapping tool, I recommend you check it out! iMapInvasives, New York State’s online invasive species database, could be compared to a modern-day hero. A robust and helpful resource- thanks to its devoted observers.

Photoby_Brittney Rogers,iMapInvasives Research Project Assistant(2)

Citizen Scientists, Educators, Students and Dedicated Natural Resource Professionals…. You can be an observer too and you can help protect our natural areas.

As we all know, every hero needs an extraordinary sidekick. In this case, it’s the Certified Trainers Network (CTN). The iMapInvasives CTN does its part by hosting trainings for people, located far and wide, about invasive species and how to report them. Established in October 2017, the network has already hosted over 75 in-person trainings across New York State and taught over 900 attendees about iMapInvasives’ capabilities.

If you have a desire to teach your community about iMapInvasives, you can become a certified trainer. All you have to do is:

Or, you can simply contact Brittney Rogers, the iMapInvasives Research Project Assistant at Brrogers@syr.edu

Post by Falon Neske, State Parks

Bear Mountain State Park and PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School, Bronx

Since the fall of 2016, approximately 300 seventh graders from the P.S./I.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx have enjoyed an annual field trip to Bear Mountain State Park, thanks to the Connect Kids Field Trip Grant program run by  State Parks.  The hour-long journey from the school affords views of spectacular autumnal foliage and the Hudson River Valley to our urban students.

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Students pause at the top of Bear Mountain, enjoying the views of the Hudson River

Arriving at the site the students divide into two groups: one group hikes a portion of the Appalachian Trail, while the other visits the animal exhibitions at the Trailside Museum and engages in organized outdoor play outside the Bear Mountain Inn.  (Some of our students suffer from asthma and don’t choose the mountain hike.) They return to school thoroughly exercised, full of excitement from their experiences hiking or observing firsthand the animals at the Zoo. The trip coincides with an English Language Arts unit of study focused on memoir, or personal narrative. For many, the hike up the mountain has afforded the first opportunity to hike a woodland trail that our students have ever experienced, and they write about their experience and recall it throughout the year proudly.

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Because we teachers applied late in the fall, we traveled to Bear Mountain in early December of 2016.  The smell of the pines was intoxicating, but a light snow had just fallen, making the trail slippery and a bit treacherous on the way up. We conceded that the mountain top was beyond our reach that day, and did our best to lead the students back down the trail as carefully as we could. We wished we had foreseen the footwear that the students needed to better negotiate the trail under slippery conditions – some were wearing sneakers with little tread.

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PS 218 students on the trail in early December

In our second year, we scheduled our trip in early October, and our mountain hikers encountered a blazing hot Indian summer day.  Though we reached the top of Bear Mountain, a few children had inexplicably brought loaded backpacks, which created all kinds of challenges for our teacher crew. Yellow jackets were abundant near the picnic areas below; one student was stung!  We realized later how much we needed to bring an abundant supply of water for the return trip home on the buses. Vomiting incidents drove home that there were risks related to the heat, but junk food and dehydration played a part as well.

This year, the buses were very late departing the school, which cut short our time and made it impossible to reach the top of the mountain.  NYC morning rush hour traffic can be unpredictable; next year we will be sure to request our buses earlier.  At the end of the day, a shortcut on a loosely pebbled trail led to multiple scraped knees.

Each year, we realize how we can plan better for the next!  So, for your Kids Connect Trip, be sure you …

  • Require comfortable and appropriate footwear, depending on time of year; jackets if appropriate
  • Limit backpack weights. Test as kids leave bus (allow only lunches and a drink)
  • Outlaw sweet drinks, and chips or sweets for the ride! Students should eat a good breakfast!
  • Bring first aid kits for bee stings, cuts, bug bites
  • Stock an abundant supply of water on your buses
  • Secure contacts of individual bus driver
  • Remember your bus permit and paperwork to verify your site visit with a signature from Parks administrative staff

Post and photos by Heather Baker Sullivan, PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School teacher

Trail Work: Excelsior Conservation Corps Helps out at Hamlin Beach State Park

Recently, members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC), an AmeriCorps program, visited Hamlin Beach State Park to help the staff with some major trail maintenance projects. The ECC is a partnership between State Parks, the Department of Conservation, the Environmental Facilities Corporation, and the Student Conservation Association. The members in this program range from ages 18-25, and have learned skills and methods in conservation and preservation of the environment. While working at Hamlin Beach, for nine days, the ECC crewmembers were given projects to work on at various trail sites.

The first area the crewmembers worked on was the Devil Nose Trail. This trail is located right next to some very high cliffs and had been closed off for a while due to storm damage. The team was given the task to help re-route a portion of the trail, so that it would be further from the edge of the cliffs. They also needed to widen the full route to 8 ft. so that a small all-terrain vehicle could drive through it in order to bring woodchips onto the path. The original trail was very uneven and hard to follow, so the goal was to create a nice finished and flatter area to walk on.

After clearing away leaves and moving the dirt aside to widen the section of the pre-existing trail, the crewmembers followed the newly flagged route to create a new trail corridor using chainsaws, and tools such as hard rakes, pick mattocks and Mcleods. The chainsaws were used to cut up fallen trees so they could be move away from the trails or used along the trail edge. The other tools were used to move dirt, sand, leaves and smaller sticks to level the path.

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A section of Devil’s Nose Trail before they cleared it away, photo by the ECC.

After the trail was cleared away, the Parks’ maintenance staff dumped piles of woodchips throughout the trail, and then the ECC members spread them out with rakes.

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Section of the Devil’s Nose trail completed with wood chips, photo by the ECC.

Once the half-mile long of Devil’s Nose Trail was completed, the ECC crewmembers were asked to work on maintaining a small short loop trail over by the campground. After walking the area, they marked off which trees were hazardous and needed to be taken down with a chainsaw. In the beginning of the trail the team noticed that there was a trail turnpike, but the area right after it was very muddy. Help was needed.

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Two ECC crewmembers working on using the chainsaw to cut the ends of the lumber to match the ends of the lumber on the pre-existing turnpike, photo by the ECC.

The purpose of a turnpike is to raise the trail surface out of a muddy or wet area to make the trail better to walk on. It consists of two short pieces of lumber that are laid down going across a trail. They are buried about 3/4ths down, and serve as “sills”, for the longer lumber to sit on. The long pieces of lumber need to be cut out with a chainsaw so that there are little sections for it to fit the sill. This makes them sitting level with the ground. Once all of the pieces of wood are laid out the open, area is filled with gravel so it will provide a durable surface for hikers to walk on.

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The turnpike in the process of being set into the sills, photo by the ECC.

The ECC members created a new section of turnpike completely from scratch. They searched for the lumber among the trees just cut down and had to actually de-bark the trees before the construction began. They then measured everything out and set up the pieces of wood to match the previously made turnpike. In the end the turnpike turned out to be 14 feet long!

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The finished turnpike. The new addition is the last section furthest away in the picture, photo by the ECC.

This is one of many projects the ECC has worked on this summer. They also helped remove invasive species at Ganondagan State Historic Site and make a new trail at Mine Kill State Park.  State Parks is grateful for the help ECC provides in our parks and historic sites.

ECC is recruiting for the 2019 season. If you would like to join the crew, follow this link for more information.

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC