Volume 2, Issue 2 - Fall 2009
Citizen Scientists Trek the Appalachian Trail
Volunteers help survey abundant invasive exotic plants
By Bridget O'Hara, NEMAC
Increasing numbers of invasive, exotic plants pose serious threats to forest communities and rare, threatened, and endangered species. Individuals passionate about protecting forest health now have an opportunity to learn monitoring and management techniques to help scientists understand how to address these threats. EFETAC’s National Forest Health Monitoring (FHM) research ecologist Ken Stolte is working with Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design, Inc. on a project that uses citizen scientists to investigate and protect forest health along the Appalachian Trail and adjacent National Forests.
The Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Foundation and Equinox Environmental, led by Equinox’s environmental planners Andy Brown and Lindsay Majer, and plant ecologist Sarah Marcinko, originally began working with citizen scientists to collect invasive plant data in early 2002 – collaborating with the Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Park Office (ATPO), Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Western North Carolina Alliance, and other partners. Since then, Equinox has trained nearly 150 volunteers to collect extensive invasive plant data on rights-of-way in National Forests and along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Similar data gathering efforts have also been conducted along the Trail in northern states. "Volunteer data collectors throughout both regions were doing an outstanding job gathering the information," says Raleigh-based Stolte, "but using different sampling methods makes scientific data comparisons more challenging."
Above: Lindsay Majer, Equinox environmental planner, directs teams for invasive plant removal in Hot Springs, NC.
Stolte’s involvement focuses on invasive plants’ potential to move beyond rights-of-way into forest interiors. He also recognized an opportunity to standardize citizen scientist data collection efforts for multiple projects. Working with Equinox staffers, ATPO, ATC, and several other collaborators, Stolte began evaluating roles that citizen scientists could play in establishing modified Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) monitoring plots on the Appalachian Trail as an early warning system of climate change and other stressors.
"FIA plots extensively evaluate many forest health indicators, including trees, soils, understory vegetation, ozone biomonitors, and lichens," Stolte explains. "The FIA system provides excellent information on forest health, and I felt it would be mutually beneficial for our volunteers to learn the basic monitoring techniques." Standardized FIA protocols allow scientists to compare data gathered over the entire Appalachian Trail and neighboring forests. "Citizen scientists are valuable assets that allow data collection over more extensive areas than would otherwise be possible. They benefit by becoming more knowledgeable about their resources and current FIA monitoring techniques that provide information about them," says Stolte.
Right: A citizen scientist removes invasive plants along a roadside.
Information about invasive species habitat preferences resulting from the EFETAC/Equinox/citizen scientist collaboration ultimately assists eradication efforts, some of which are led by Equinox. Brown, also Equinox’s president, points out that citizen scientist volunteers are part of the solution. "Volunteers were collecting a lot of data but felt unsure about how the information was being used to address the problem," he says. "Now, our citizen scientists can participate in eradication projects. They feel good about their involvement, and the Forest Service receives additional help to manage the problem. More importantly, these volunteers become ambassadors spreading the word about invasive species, the damage they cause, and our collaborative efforts to address the issue and preserve our natural resources."