Stewards work to keep Adirondacks healthy

A number of programs send fresh-faced college students out into the Adirondacks to do good.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Watershed expert Eric Holmlund likens the health of the Adirondacks to that of a human body.

“Are you going to buy the gym membership?” he asked, “Or are you going to wait for the heart attack?”

The simile, he said, works particularly well when applied to the various invasive species working their way through Adirondack lakes. Holmlund runs the Watershed Stewardship Program at Paul Smith’s College, one of a number of programs sending fresh-faced college students out into the Adirondacks to do good.

Stewards act as educational ambassadors in the park. Hikers in the High Peaks often meet summit stewards, there to protect the fragile alpine ecosystem by educating hikers about preventing erosion and damaging the delicate alpine plants. The Summit Steward Program is run by a partnership of the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and relies on both volunteers and paid stewards.

Holmlund’s stewards spend their summers at lakes in the Adirondack Park and beyond, talking to boaters about the importance of washing their boats and trailers to prevent the spread of invasive plants like hydrilla and milfoil.

The idea, he said, is to spend a little money on inexpensive summer stewards — the proverbial gym membership — to avoid invasive species takeover — the coronary.

“Once an invasive species spreads it’s 20 times more expensive to treat,” he said, a fact with which he has some experience.

Recently hydrilla, a non-native water plant Holmlund described as looking like a bunch of green pipe cleaners and capable of heating a lake’s core temperature and suffocating deep-water fish, was discovered in Cayuga Lake, one of New York’s Finger Lakes.

Most of Paul Smith’s stewardship program is funded, through the state’s Invasive Species Council, with money from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When hydrilla was found in the Finger Lakes, $180,000 — more than half the watershed program’s budget for 2013 — was diverted for treatment.

“I support the decision” to divert the money, Holmlund said, but losing half his program’s funding puts the protection effort at risk. It’s kind of like dropping your gym membership to pay for medical bills — necessary, maybe, but harmful in the long term.

Stewardship programs are based the idea of working toward long-term goals. And the Summit Steward Program is tracking its successes over time by comparing photographs.

“We just received a grant from the National Science Resource Center for a photo point project,” said Wes Lampman, North Country operations manager for ADK.

Back in the 1950s conservationist Edwin Ketchledge took hundreds of pictures of Adirondack scenery, including the High Peaks. Around the same time, hiking saw a surge of popularity in the park, causing an increase in erosion on the trails.

Over the years the problem worsened, leading to the near eradication of rare alpine vegetation in the Adirondacks. In 1990, when Adirondack Mountain Club leaders formed the Summit Stewardship Program, many of the tops of the High Peaks were nearly bald.

The grant will pay a botany steward to hike up a selection of peaks with a camera, taking pictures from the exact spots Ketchledge stood 60 years ago. Comparing the shots, the ADK will be able to see how the peaks have changed.

The NSRC issued their grant to gather information about possible effects of climate change on alpine vegetation, but Lampman said they’ll also show the summit steward’s handiwork.

ADK places eager college students at various trail heads over the summer. These stewards remind hikers to avoid trampling vegetation by staying on the path and suggest they carry a small rock up the mountain with them, and deposit it at the top to be used in erosion control efforts.

A single year of trail adherence and rock lugging wouldn’t do much, but over the past two decades, it’s all added up to a lot.

“Believe it or not there’s not a natural abundance of rock at the peaks,” he said. “We use the stones hikers carry to reinforce eroding soil so plants can grow.”

Lampman said on the peaks of Marcy and Algonquin, the state’s two highest mountains, a positive change will be easily visible in the spot photography survey.

Bringing back some of the alpine plants was a very slow process, but relatively inexpensive. Like ADK’s several trail upkeep programs, the summit project was managed with the summer wages of a few college kids and the generosity and care of thousands of hikers.

Holmlund, with his diminished budget, hopes to use a comparable arrangement.

Last year his program sent roughly 25 stewards to 24 lakes in the Adirondack area. This year they’ve only been able to hire 13, planning to send them out to just seven lakes.

He had to prioritize in a big way, only covering the most active, most infested bodies of water, such as Saratoga Lake, Lake Placid, Upper St. Regis and a few others.

Second Pond and Lake Flower, two popular boating destinations in the Saranac Lake area that have both seen milfoil and curly leaf pond weed, are the hardest to ignore, he said.

“They’re close to so many beautiful lakes and people tend to pond hop,” a sure way to spread invasives from one lake to another, he said. “With no stewards there, the door is just open for them to spread.”

As well as telling boaters to hose off their boats, stewards check boats for bits of plant and animal life that could be transferred. About 3 percent of the boats checked last year were harboring invasive species.

“It might not sound like much, but they checked 25,000 boats last year,” he said. “That’s almost 1,000 boats capable of spreading invasive species to new lakes.”

In the absence of stewards, Holmlund is hoping people will just wash their boats on their own.

“We need to get awareness out there,” he said. “I hope the work we’ve done so far has done that.”

Relying on the help of ordinary citizens is nothing new for Adirondack groups. The Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, which coordinates many stewardship programs, has been using volunteers for years.

APIPP Project Coordinator Brendan Quirion forms groups of willing locals over the summer to tear out non-native plants such as giant hogweed, which has a toxic sap that can burn skin.

His organization employs two full-time stewards, a four-man, quick-response plant removal team from Tennessee, and is looking to expand this spring thanks to a newly bolstered state Environmental Protection Fund.

“We’re not sure how that will trickle down to us,” he said, “but we’re hoping to improve some of our programming.”

Even so, they find much of the offending foliage through a citizen’s hot line. Last year, they also offered a training session for interested landowners, utilizing essentially free labor to clean the park.

It’s this sort of planning Holmlund will have to use to continue building long-term Adirondack health.

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