By Therese Pawlowski
Other than those gritty winters and the greatest hotdogs known to humankind, Presque Isle State Park is Erie's best asset. From teens playing volleyball on Beach 6 to that older couple who walks the trails every morning, everyone loves the peninsula.
Everyone, that is, except a group of determined weeds known as invasive species, who hack at its natural beauty. Invasive species are enemies to natural plants who feed an ecosystem of animals, microorganisms, and plants.
But a group of determined volunteers have enlisted to drive away the enemy weeds.
They call themselves the "Weed Warriors" and are led by Matt Pluta, a graduate of the Penn State Behrend School of Science, who started the program when at Pennsylvania Sea Grant.
Pluta has been invested in the peninsula since his days as a lifeguard in high school. After learning about invasive species in college, he jumped at the opportunity to coordinate a grant-sponsored program to use volunteers to eradicate invasive species.
If left alone, these species would take over Presque Isle, destroying its organic plant-life, and leaving its many animal species without food and habitat. For example,
Phragmites australis, typically known as common reed, is a tall perennial grass that grows in large groups on the peninsula, blocking sunlight from getting to lower, native plants.
The numerous types of invasive species, including common reed, have no natural enemies, because they're introduced to the peninsula from elsewhere. This means nothing will keep them from becoming top dog.
Pluta said the species were brought to Presque Isle in a number of ways. In the 1800s', people planted them for the way they looked, and birds spread them to the peninsula.
He said if work is not continued to eradicate these species, Presque Isle could go from 100s of types of plant species to a monoculture. Pluta said diversity is key to the peninsula's intricate ecosystem. Different plants provide different animals with food. For example, Pluta said Presque Isle draws birds found nowhere else in the area that stop at the peninsula for rest during their migration. Without the habitat they desire, they won't stop.
Pluta said anyone who loves Presque Isle should be interested in helping eradicate the "polluting" species. Already, more than 600 people have volunteered for the program since its inception at the beginning of this year. And they want you to join them.
On a typical day, volunteers might arrive at the peninsula around 9:30 a.m. First, they are shown what an affected area looks like. These areas tend to be so overgrown with invasive species that the floor of the forest can't be seen. In some areas, it's impossible to walk through the woods due to the overgrowth.
Pluta provides all necessary equipment, including gloves, tools, bugspray and sunscreen. Volunteers – led by trained "stewards" – break into groups and concentrate on getting rid of one type of invasive species. The number of plants collected depends on how much work is required to pull the plants, and if they are very concentrated or widespread in the area. Pluta said volunteers collected over 200 bags of Alliaria Petiolata, commonly known as garlic mustard.