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Invasive Plants Threaten PA Biodiversity, Shaver’s Creek Responds

Over the past two decades, an unprecedented increase in international trade has introduced an equally unprecedented number of non-native plant species to the U.S.. Some of these varieties thrive and multiply at an unnatural rate here, in the absence  of predatory organisms that normally keep them in check in their homelands.  Plants which outcompete and displace native flora where they are introduced are termed “invasive,” and their spread—along with the effects they precipitate—are an increasing concern for many.

“For more than ten years, invasive plants have been rated the number two threat to biodiversity,” said Chris Firestone, wild plant program manager for the Bureau of Forestry at Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). “That’s second only to habitat loss due to land conversion for development.”

The DCNR maintains lists of endangered and threatened species, and believes one key to protecting these native plants and trees is to educate the public, which is largely unaware of the problems created by invasives. That’s where Eric Burkhart comes in.

“Many of our native plants and trees are becoming much more rare as a result of invasive plants,” said Burkhart, plant science program director at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. “There’s a lot of talk today about climate change and its potential impacts on vegetation in the next 50 to 100 years,” he noted. “But changes to the flora of Pennsylvania are occurring at a much faster rate than this through the impacts of invasive plants.”

Burkhart teaches a course in the School of Forest Resources on the topic.  He also conducts educational outreach programs to help citizens understand why they should care, and how they can make more informed decisions regarding landscaping choices. One key audience Burkhart works to reach is the Pennsylvania forest landowner, who often makes decisions which directly impact Pennsylvania’s native flora.

“We own and manage 60 acres in Julian, PA and have witnessed first-hand the destruction the combination of deer overpopulation and invasives have done to our forestland,” said Leslie Demmert, a program manager with Penn State’s Continuing Education department.

Through Burkhart’s presentations, Demmert has learned which plants to avoid buying, which should be targeted for removal, and how to control existing invasions with minimal impact to other “non-target” flora and fauna.

“I can’t stress how important Shaver’s Creek programs are to help us understand,” Demmert said. “We attend as many of Eric’s programs as possible and always learn something new.”

One of the toughest challenges facing the U.S. in the battle to maintain native plant diversity is the fact that many invasive plants are great money-makers for plant nurseries.

“Many homeowners and landscapers love these species because they are widely available and easy to grow,” noted Burkhart, who has established native plant gardens at Shavers Creek to help educate homeowners and landowners about their benefits. The DCNR and landowners like Demmert hope that more people will begin to see Burkhart’s gardens—and the bigger picture.

“If we all planted more native plants in our landscapes we wouldn’t need to fight our landscape with hoses and chemicals,” said Demmert.   “People need to see how beautiful native garden plants can be so they can see they have more choices,” added Firestone.

To see PA DCNR’s list of the 54 most damaging invasive species, visit: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/wildplant/invasivelist.aspx

To learn more Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, visit: http://www.outreach.psu.edu/shaverscreek

By Cole Hons