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Invasive species named No. 1 environmental threat to Adirondacks

December 28, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - A number of Adirondack green groups are calling for mandatory inspections of boats as they enter the Adirondack Park, citing the threat invasive species pose to the 6-million-acre park.

The Lake Placid News recently polled environmental groups and colleges in the region and state agencies about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park. No. 1 was invasive species.

While there are a number of efforts currently underway to prevent the spread and introduction of new invasive species, it may be hard for local authorities to prevent their introduction through international channels.

Article Photos

A SCUBA diver holds up a bag of freshly harvested Eurasian watermilfoil from Fish Creek Pond in the fall of 2017.
(News photo — Justin A. Levine)


The threat

Invasive species can take many forms, including plants, animals, insects and pathogens. Each type of invasive poses its own threat, but the Adirondack Park, as a highly visited tourist area, is susceptible to introduction of new invasives at any time.

Brendan Quirion, program director for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program based in Keene Valley, said that some invasives could fundamentally alter the Adirondacks if introduced or left unchecked. Quirion said that forest pests and pathogens pose the greatest threat to the Adirondacks, but he and others also cited invasive aquatic plants and pests as a threat to the region's economy as well.

"The Adirondacks has the largest intact temperate-deciduous forest remaining globally within its boundaries, and because of that forest pests and pathogens are a more significant threat here than in other areas," Quirion said. "They can dramatically change our forests, and given that we have more forested areas within the Park, their impact would be more severe here.

"Once they arrive and establish, there's not much we can do to stop them, given that the forest is so connected."

Quirion said there is a difference between invasive insects - such as emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid - and pathogens such as beech bark disease, chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease. Quirion said he thinks the hemlock woolly adelgid poses the greatest threat to the Adirondacks, but others cited aquatic invasive species.

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks based in Lake George, said the Park's extensive network of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams is one of the biggest draws for people, and that draw increases the chance of invasive species hitching a ride.

"(Invasive species) have the potential to dramatically change waterbodies in the Adirondacks," Bauer said. "For many, it's the lakes and ponds and rivers that define their Adirondack experience. And when you look at the importance of water to the local economy, to the high property values - some of the highest in the state - and when you look at the importance of water to quality of life within the Adirondacks ... water is one of the major factors that has shaped the Adirondack Park and is what made it what it is today.

"When you look at all these things combined, the importance of water and the ecological changes that can happen, it's major. It becomes a major, ominous threat."

Bauer added that one need not travel far to find waterbodies that are highly infected with invasive species, including Lake Champlain, which tallied its 50th non-native species earlier this year - the fishhook waterflea. Bauer said part of the problem is that the Adirondack Park simply has a lot of places where invasive species can take hold.

"The Adirondacks is the rare place in New York state - really in the northeastern U.S. - where there are a lot of waterbodies that are not infested with any invasive species," he said. "And in the year 2018, that's pretty remarkable."

Although many of the lakes and ponds in the Adirondack Park remain invasive-free, there are a host of terrestrial, aquatic and pathogen pests that have already made inroads to the Park.


What's here and what's feared

The Adirondack Park is home to more than a dozen invasive species, including Eurasian watermilfoil, purple loosestrife, spiny waterflea and garlic mustard. The hemlock woolly adelgid was discovered in a stand of trees on Prospect Mountain near Lake George last year. The stand was quickly treated, but Quirion and Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club based in Lake George, each said the HWA poses one of the greatest threats to the Park's ecology.

"For the eastern hemlock, which represents one tree in seven in the Adirondacks, it's lethal," Woodworth said.

HWA works by attaching itself to the underside of hemlock branches and then sucks sap from the tree, drying it out and eventually causing death.

Quirion explained that HWA is especially concerning since hemlocks play such an important role in the Park.

"The hemlock woolly adelgid is capable of completely removing hemlock from the landscape," Quirion said. "Hemlock is a keystone species in our ecosystems; it's provides shade for our cold water streams, it stabilizes (stream) banks, it provides snow retention in the winter. So you can imagine what the impacts would be if that were lost across the entire Adirondack region.

"There are species that we anticipate would replace hemlock if it were lost. ... The question is are they doing the same things?"

The state Adirondack Park Agency is also keeping an eye on HWA.

"Massive tree mortality has been recorded in areas of South Carolina and Georgia. The HWA is confirmed to be migrating north," APA spokesman Keith McKeever wrote in an email. "Eastern hemlocks is a later successional, shade tolerant and shade producing tree. It is often found along Adirondack waterways where it provides critical shade which keeps water temperatures cool. Native brook trout are a cold-water fish, and the loss of eastern hemlocks could have a cascading impact on native brook trout.

"If HWA takes hold in the Adirondacks, we stand to lose a tree species that is also key to stabilizing soils on steep slopes especially along streambanks. The loss of hemlocks from steep slopes could increase soil erosion during storm events. Excessive nutrients carried by stormwater can increase aquatic plant and algae growth, thereby causing additional ecosystems impacts and recreational impediments."

Quirion said something as small as a spiny waterflea, which is millimeters in length, can also have an out-sized impact. Spiny waterfleas feed on zooplankton, depleting the food source for native invertebrates. The problem here is that the spiny waterflea is not easily consumed by native fish, so as their food source is replaced, fish have little to nothing left to eat.

"It can have these cascading impacts up the food chain by pulling out the rug from the ecosystem," he said.

Quirion listed a number of invasive species he sees as threats, including some that are already here and other that he fears may make an appearance, including the Asian longhorn beetle, mile-a-minute vine and hydrilla.


What is being done

State and local governments, along with APIPP and the Paul Smith's College Adirondack Watershed Institute, are actively working on reducing the spread of invasive species. AWI has scores of watershed stewards who inspect boats at launches, and there are a number of free pressure-washing stations around the Adirondacks.

Earlier this year, the state awarded the AWI a five-year, $9.3 million contract to implement the Adirondack Park Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program, a regionwide watercraft inspection and decontamination program to stop the introduction, spread and transport of aquatic invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels and spiny waterflea.

One other tool is a state law that made it illegal to transport invasive species, but that law is about to expire and several groups are calling for it to be reauthorized permanently.

But Quirion said that stopping invasives before they get to the Adirondack Park should be the top priority.

"Prevention is one of our key strategies for mitigating impacts," Quirion said. "It's the most cost-effective option because once invasive species become established, they become increasingly difficult and costly to eradicate.

"On the forest pest and pathogen side, we're really advocating for using local firewood or treated firewood so that forest pests and pathogens aren't spread throughout the region. We also encourage people to use local sources of nursery stock. On the aquatic side, we focus primarily on educating people on clean, drain, dry: the steps you need to take to prevent the overland spread of invasive species from watercraft.

"And we also are working with our partners at Paul Smith's Adirondack Watershed Institute to advance a boat inspection and decontamination program throughout the region."

AWI has a website with all the boat decontamination stations at, and APIPP, in honor of its 20th anniversary this year, launched a website at, which offers tips for hikers, gardeners, fishermen and hunters.

Eurasian watermilfoil has been present in the Adirondacks for more than 20 years. There are concerted efforts on some lakes - such as Lake Colby, Upper Saranac Lake and Lake George - to harvest and control milfoil using SCUBA divers. But this process is time consuming and expensive. The Upper Saranac Lake Foundation, which pays for the harvesting effort on that lake and nearby waterbodies, spends about $100,000 each year on milfoil maintenance. It has been harvesting milfoil since 2004.

Quirion said APIPP is successful due to its partnerships with the DEC, APA, state Department of Transportation and local governments, and it works with those agencies on invasive species prevention and control.


What more can be done

The APA's McKeever said that there is little state agencies could do to prevent the introduction of invasive species on a national level, but that public awareness could go a long way.

"As for new regulations, the most important long-term strategy is the elimination of new introductions from other continents, which are primarily spread through global trade," McKeever wrote in an email. "Only when this source of introduction is eliminated will we have a chance to Stop the Invasion.

"Perhaps the most significant thing we can do as a society is be informed and be personally invested. That means everyone who uses the water has a responsibility to clean, drain and dry their canoe, kayak, boat, trailer, fishing gear, or any other object that comes into contact with the water. Any live bait should be used and disposed of responsibly. Aquarium pets or plants should not be released into the environment. Everyone who hikes should clean their boots so that seeds which can be caught in the lugs of hiking boots are removed thereby lessening the chance for a new infestation."

In addition to awareness, Bauer and Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council in Elizabethtown, each said that the state law prohibiting movement of invasive species needs to be renewed during the coming legislative session.

"We have done a great job in the Adirondacks in slowing the spread and putting in place education programs," Janeway said. "But if we don't move aggressively, we're going to lose. Because every time we stop something, good. But that's just a temporary victory.

"So we are advocating for a real zero tolerance when it comes to invasive species. We need to use every available means, including mandatory inspections and washing when necessary of boats coming into the park from other places."

"We need to get away from this notion of stopping people at lakeside stations," Bauer said. "What we need is a really strong network of inspection stations where boats can get certified as clean throughout the Park.

"We need to build that infrastructure. The work that Paul Smith's College has done - and they've really spearheaded this - we need to formalize this system so that it's everywhere in the Park. And we need to formalize it so it's not just voluntary, but no one can put a boat in any waterbody that hasn't been inspected first."

Bauer said that resident boats - those that reside on and are only used on one lake - should be easy to manage, but that the state should implement a Lake George-style inspection system at major points of entry to the Adirondacks.

"We helped pass a law back in 2014 that made it illegal (to move invasive species)," Bauer said. "That law is set to expire in 2019, so we'll be looking to make it permanent.

"The transport law is what gave local and state law enforcement, and the DEC conservation officers, the authority to tell somebody that had a boat that had invasive species on it that 'No, you cannot put that boat in the water.' So that's important to get that law renewed."

John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council, also said that group will be pushing for the permanent renewal of the invasive species law in the upcoming 2019 legislative session.

"We are concerned that the law that makes it illegal to transport invasive species from one place to another in New York sunsets in May," Sheehan said. "It was set up as a temporary measure that we were going to learn from, and we have learned a great deal.

"The first thing we learned is that it works. But we need to take additional measures, including mandatory inspections, for that to be enforced.



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