Pennsylvania officials want to adopt New York’s model of regional partnerships to combat invasive species.
Ag Department leaders say this public-private strategy would help farms, forests and waterways by catching infestations early and sparking local action.
“By the time the issue arises at the state level, the opportunity for rapid response and management often is lost,” Ag Secretary Russell Redding said in an Aug. 24 hearing of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
The system that Redding wants to emulate is New York’s Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management.
Eight regional entities, known as PRISMs, cover the various sections of the state. Each PRISM is housed at a university or nongovernmental organization.
PRISMs develop plans for managing current invasive species in their regions, monitor for new invaders, organize volunteer projects, and educate the public about species of concern.
The PRISM concept isn’t unique to New York but is well established there. That system grew out of a state invasive species effort that began in 2005 and now receives about $13 million a year.
Funding for the PRISMs is channeled through the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“These are a really critical part of our program as a whole,” said Josh Thiel, the agency’s invasive species coordination section chief.
Pennsylvania’s efforts on invasive species took a step forward in July 2019, when the Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a 100-page study on what other states were doing.
The report, written by Shippensburg University political scientists Sara Grove and Michael Moltz, mentions PRISMs only in passing, but its recommendations include creating a funding mechanism for early detection and rapid response, a core function of the partnerships.
Since that report was published, the idea of regional partnerships has caught on with the Governor’s Invasive Species Council, an advisory body that includes Pennsylvania state agencies as well as agricultural, environmental and academic representatives.
“This is one way to deal with invasives in a proactive way,” said Fred Strathmeyer, a deputy ag secretary who is the Ag Department’s designee on the Invasive Species Council.
State agencies already work together on invasive species, but the PRISMs could formalize the process and enhance the regional focus of the work, Strathmeyer said.
PRISMs would assist all parts of Pennsylvania, urban and rural. In agricultural areas, they could help with problem weeds like Palmer amaranth.
“Absolutely, farmers and farmland would see and be part of this overarching, more aggressive, proactive approach to finding invasives,” Strathmeyer said.
A Costly Problem
Pennsylvania, like New York, has been colonized by hordes of highly competitive species that can devastate woods, waters and farmland in various ways.
Freshwater ecosystems are threatened by voracious zebra mussels and snakehead fish. And plants like Japanese barberry choke out native vegetation and provide harborage for mice, which in turn can boost the populations of Lyme disease-carrying ticks.
“The best day to manage some of these was probably some time ago, but the second best time is now,” said Cindy Dunn, the state natural resources secretary.
Management isn’t cheap, but neither is the damage that invasive species cause.
A 2019 study found that the spotted lanternfly could cost Pennsylvania agriculture $43 million a year.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has seen its expenses jump because of the large number of dangerous ash trees, killed by the emerald ash borer, it now has to remove from picnic areas, campgrounds and trails.
Lens on a PRISM
Invasive species are a large, diffuse and seemingly intractable problem, which may explain why the government approach to controlling them has been inconsistent.
Which invasive species annoys you most?
September 4, 2021
Federal agencies largely left control of brown marmorated stink bug up to the states, but USDA has been much more involved in combating spotted lanternfly. Few interstate compacts apply to invasive species control, Redding said.
In contrast to state and federal programs, the PRISM model emphasizes local action.
That means not only that regional partnerships might stand a better chance of nipping new infestations in the bud, but also that they can respond to the particular needs of their localities.
For example, the PRISM in New York’s Finger Lakes region has an emphasis on aquatic species.
New York’s Capital Region PRISM, which serves 11 counties along the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, is hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County.
Like most of New York’s PRISMs, the Capital Region employs just a few people — a team leader, specialists in aquatic and terrestrial pests, and an outreach coordinator.
The group has a long list of invasive species that it could control, so the staff prioritize based on the species’ abundance.
Invasives that have popped up in just a handful of places, especially on state land, are good candidates for control.
“They’re easy to manage, and the management is cost-effective,” said Kristopher Williams, coordinator for Capital Region PRISM.
Widespread species like common reed aren’t going to be eradicated, but PRISMs may control them in high-value areas such as recreation spots or rare species habitat.
To search for new threats, Capital Region staff conduct surveys at select conservation areas such as popular trails. The survey sites generally have great biological diversity, as well as plenty of opportunities for humans to import unwanted guests, Williams said.
Though much of the PRISMs’ work focuses on forests and waterways, they do collaborate with New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets to combat certain agricultural pests, especially the spotted lanternfly.
“We’re actively looking for the public to report that,” Williams said.
John Thompson, coordinator for the PRISM that serves the Catskill region, said the lanternfly is the main agricultural pest of interest to his group. Some of his region’s other priority plants, such as mile-a-minute and giant hogweed, are also familiar to farmers.
In June or July each year, New York’s PRISMs collaborate for Invasive Species Awareness Week, which involves talks, plant identification classes, plant removals and mapping exercises.
To conduct cleanup activities, Capital Region PRISM works with volunteers from other agencies, nonprofits and community organizations, Williams said.
On the water, New York’s PRISMs emphasize watercraft inspection and cleaning. These steps prevent boaters from spreading hitchhiking invasives to new areas.
For Pennsylvania to launch PRISMs of its own, or ramp up its attack on invasive species in some other way, the state will need to find funding.
Sen. Gene Yaw, chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, noted that several speakers in the Aug. 24 hearing suggested spending increases.
“That’s what we need to perhaps take a look at,” he said.
Strathmeyer declined to say how much it might cost to create the regional partnerships and stopped short of saying that funding would be sought in the next state budget. But he said he believes the system could be set up in the near future.
“It’s successful in other states, and we certainly don’t need to reinvent wheels,” he said.
State staff is already discussing which types of groups would make good hosts for regional PRISMs. Conservation districts and conservancies make sense, though the specific hosts would be chosen through a request for proposals, he said.
In a 2019 survey of its members, the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts found that about a quarter of districts already are working on invasive species, though two-thirds said their efforts are limited by their current finances.
Nearly all districts said they would take part in cooperative invasive species work if they could.