by Kathleen Preece

Are you planning to take a hike, or perhaps bike in one of Minnesota's 66 state parks this summer? Maybe you are going camping? Berry picking? Or perhaps planning to ride about in your all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) on one of the state's 54 state and grant-in-aid trails?

While enjoying the great outdoors, be on the lookout for unwanted hitchhikers.  These hitchhikers have names like spotted knapweed, emerald ash borer, garlic mustard, and a myriad of other titles. They are very opportunistic creatures: they travel by getting a free ride on your boots, your camping gear, in your firewood, and on your car or camping equipment.

In this land of lakes, we seem to 'get it' how invasive species can ruin our waters, muck them up and make them uninhabitable for fish and humans. Yet, we are often surprised to learn that invasive species can muck up our forests, wetlands, and prairies as well. In fact, invasive species can muck up just about every habitat type in existence, including our state parks.

HOW CAN THAT BE?  

Think about it.  Look at the diversity of plants, animals, and microorganisms across the globe. Most have evolved in relative isolation from one another - one lake, one island, one geographic region, one continent.  Now that trade and travel have gone global, these species are being moved, shuffled, and exposed to habitats they have never been a part of - including the lands and waters of our beloved trails and campgrounds. Sadly, it's those of us who celebrate and use our natural resources who are often the carriers of these bad-news species. Any time we're outdoors we could accidentally pick up and move harmful species from one place to another.

While invasive species can spread short distances by themselves, it takes outside help to spread them far and wide. Invasive plants spread most commonly by their seed. That's where we come in: seeds can cling to our boots, our bicycles, and our camping gear - even to our pets!  Invasive forest pests, like the emerald ash borer, can spread in our firewood. 

Watch for invasive species throughout the season. In May, watch for leafy spurge and garlic mustard; in June wild parsnip is flowering; July reveals the thistles and spotted knapweed; August brings common tansy, Queen Anne's lace, and foxglove. They don't stop looking for 'rides' in September or October: watch for the berries of Japanese barberry, buckthorn, and Oriental bittersweet, to name just a few! By eliminating hitchhikers, however, we can help keep infestations small and manageable.

I'M ONLY ONE PERSON

So what can I do?  First off, we have to believe we can make a difference, as individuals and as organizations.  Think back to the Smokey Bear chant, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," or "Don't Be a Litterbug."  Both campaigns were built on simple steps taken by individuals - and the results have been a change in how we raise our kids and in our culture as a whole. 

This summer, practice these chants around your campfire: "Prevent the spread!" and "Come Clean. Leave Clean."

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