The 469-mile Parkway is home to some 60 invasive plant species that displace native flora, reduce biological diversity, disrupt ecological processes and even mar parkway scenery, according to Bambi Teague, chief of resource management and science for the Parkway.
Exotics are a concern all across the national park system, but control is especially difficult along the Parkway, which has nearly 1,500 miles of park boundary with an estimated 5,000 adjoining landowners.
“If people who live near the Parkway would landscape with native plants and learn to recognize and control exotics, it would be a tremendous help,” Teague said.
Nancy Fraley, who supervises the National Park Service’s Southeast Region Exotic Plant Management Team, admits that getting that cooperation may be difficult. Landowners have to educate themselves, and they have to see the need to act.
“Kudzu is one thing,” said Fraley. “Most people can see the damage this fast-growing plant does. It’s harder to make that connection with other exotics. For instance, Wisteria, with its showy purple flowers, and Oriental Bittersweet, with its brilliant orange fruit, can be very attractive, and it’s hard to convince people that these plants can quickly choke out native trees and be terribly destructive.”
Fraley and her team help the Parkway and 16 other parks in the Southeast by using a variety of control techniques. Sometimes that’s as simple as uprooting target plants. Other times, chemical or biological controls are employed.
“With exotic plants, one of the main considerations is minimizing impact to ‘non-target’ or native plants,” said Chris Ulrey, the Parkway’s plant ecologist. “In many cases that means cutting the exotic vine or woody plant near the ground and immediately applying a herbicide to the individual stump.”
He said those same principles are incorporated in the proposed Exotic Plant Management Plan that is now out for public review. (On the Internet at parkplanning.nps.gov. Select Blue Ridge Parkway from the dropdown menu and click on “Plans/documents open for comment.”)
“What we’re trying to do is prioritize our actions according to level of threat to the resource and the likelihood of achieving some measure of control,” said Ulrey.
Teague said she hopes the Parkway will be able to put on an “Exotic Plants Blitz” next year by engaging volunteer teams to attack exotic plants at multiple locations along the scenic corridor.
“You can think of it as a ‘clean up’ day, but instead of litter, we’ll be going after non-native plants,” Teague said.
She acknowledged that total control may be impossible. The seeds and fruits from invasive plants can be dispersed by wind, birds, and even automobile tires and hikers’ boots.
“Our goal is to do as much as we can to educate the public and to go after these alien species where we know they’re compromising the resource and where we have a chance of making some long-term difference,” Teague said.