Most people visiting the scenic vistas of Pennsylvania's state parks or forests look all around at the plants and trees and see beauty, but danger can lurk in the shadows or open fields, road sides and under the tree canopies.
The dangers are invasive species - plants, insects, even tree diseases that have been on the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' radar for some time.
The agency, along with many others, has been waging a battle to keep the invasives at bay.
DCNR soon will launch a program where citizens become the scientists and help the agencies track and record where invasives are found.
Agency workers cannot be everywhere at once and invasives management only adds to their daily workload. Sometimes it's hard to find time for it all.
"So getting the public, namely the visitors to our parks and forests, involved in monitoring for invasive species will help us better do our jobs," said Jessica Sprajcar, ecological program specialist for DCNR's Bureau of Forestry.
The Invasive Species Team, made up of representatives from all of the agency's bureaus and offices, meet quarterly to discuss issues and create a yearly plan for invasives work.
"As part of the implementation planning process for 2011, the team recognized the value that citizen scientists can bring and the role they could play in monitoring and tracking invasive species. With more eyes on the ground, the more effective our staff could be at controlling these unwanted plants, insects and diseases," Sprajcar said.
The program will allow the public to track and notify DCNR about spreading populations of invasives on and near its lands.
The subgroup in charge of getting the program running compared two
online tracking databases to see which would work best with the program. The EDDMapS system was chosen.
"They already have smart phone apps that can be used by the public to record their sightings of invasive plant species. We have a good working relationship with the University of Georgia, who runs EDDMapS, and we will work with them to tailor the system to work best for DCNR staff and the public," Sprajcar said.
The program first will be used by the staff at the Bureau of Forestry, before being released to the public
"Then, hopefully, (we can) work with other state agencies like the Department of Agriculture and other members of the PA Invasive Species Council to take the citizen science efforts statewide," she said.
By 2013, DCNR hopes to make citizen science outreach a priority and go live that year.
How it works
Smart phone and computer users will be able to access the website the team hopes to create, where visitors to state parks and forests can record a finding of what they think is an invasive plant or insect.
"They will be able to use the smart phone apps that already are available through EDDMapS or the online forms that they have on their website," Sprajcar said. "We will link to EDDMapS on our invasive plant page.
"They can submit a photo, the GPS coordinates and any other data that might be of use. Someone within DCNR will then look at this record and verify that it is an invasive species," she said. "We could then share that information with the manager of that park or forest so that they and their staff can control it."
Sparjcar said the plan will rely on an already strong base of supporters who visit wild areas. Getting the word out about the program and how easy it is shouldn't be tricky.
Other groups also are interested in getting on board with the program. For instance, Master Gardener programs also are asking questions about it, she said.
"DCNR's citizen program would target species on state-owned lands, but if we could expand it to include partners like the Master Gardeners, perhaps we could give it a statewide scope," she said.
Sparjcar is one of the DCNR representatives to the PA Invasive Species Council.
"I am hoping they will take this idea in a new outreach work group they are forming and help take it further," she said.
"By partnering with organizations like the Master Gardeners, conservation districts and others, we can increase the reach of the program and get more people excited about it," Sparjcar said. "If participants see that our land managers are taking action on what is reported, then I think they will continue to participate in the program.
"The state parks and forests are your lands. While we as an agency do everything in our power to protect and manage them in the best way possible, we could certainly use help," Sparjcar said.
"If visitors to state lands could take just a few minutes to report anything that looks unusual or like it doesn't belong there, that would go a long way in helping us control invasives and enhancing native habitat," she said.