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Invasive Weeds? There’s An App for That

• May 13, 2010 • 5:00 AM

How is Thoreau like an iPhone? Both gather data about natural phenomena that allow scientists to better protect the environment.

Cell phone users not content to text and chat can put their minutes to good use for the National Park Service.

Resource managers working in national parks have a new tool in their arsenal to monitor and control invasive weeds. The Center for Embedded Networked Sensing lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, have joined forces to create a mobile application to help locate and eradicate harmful non-native plants found in environmentally sensitive public areas.

Commonly referred to as apps, mobile applications have turned handsets into personal information managers with enough whiz-bang technology to make a ’60s James Bond villain gasp. The ability to record and document information has transformed cell phones into valuable tools for sharing information among peers and social networks.

“What’s Invasive” is an app designed to help rangers locate invasive plants with an assist from amateur naturalists. Nature lovers will be able to identify invasive plants and share that information with park staff. Two full-time park employees dedicate their time to eradicating weeds.

The app can be downloaded to iPhone or Android handsets, enabling park visitors to snap photos, log the location and automatically send files to the “What’s Invasive” server. The app identifies a hit list of the worst offenders — six highly invasive weeds that need to be eradicated.

“What’s Invasive” is not the only app under development at CENS meant to engage people with the natural world. “Smart phones are making it much easier to collect data and upload with the push of a button; it’s kind of revolutionary,” said principal investigator Eric Graham.

In the future, Graham hopes information will flow both ways. He wants to build interactive tools directing park visitors to little known or underutilized sections of the 153,000-acre park, places where little information has been gathered on invasive weeds. That, in turn, will make the database more valuable for land managers. “I would love to get people getting involved in the modeling,” he said.

CENS plans to partner with National Park Service officials nationwide. Authorized personnel can create a park-specific weed list. Once uploaded to the CENS server, the end user can then enter their park location, download the list, and go for a stroll. Testing of the app has begun in California’s Channel Islands National Park and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., among others.

Not every plant with a pretty flower is welcome at public parks. Ecologists note invasive weeds aren’t bothersome plants land managers just happen to dislike, but plants that pose a significant threat to native habitats and wildlife.

Bordering Los Angeles presents unusual challenges for land managers at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the world’s largest urban national park. An extensive network of roads — conduits for invasive weeds — courses through the Santa Monica Mountains; bedroom communities abutting the park bring even more invaders.

The region is home to 1,000 native plants, while an estimated 1,000 non-native plants — brought here via human intervention — grow in Southern California. A small subset of non-native plants, mostly weeds that displace native species or increase the intensity of wildfires, are considered harmful.

“We have a real need for new and up-to-date mapping information,” said Christy Brigham, staff ecologist at the park.

In 2006, park officials began a $250,000 survey to identify where invasive weeds could be found; the survey took two years to complete. “Once it’s done, it’s immediately out of date, and we don’t have the have the money or the resources to redo the map every year,” she said.

“What’s Invasive” is designed to address that problem. With it, park staff can revise maps in real time, incorporating data that can be used to provide a snapshot of where invasive weeds are popping up and where intervention is necessary.

Brigham believes the app’s benefits are threefold, as an early detection device, engaging citizen scientists, and as an educational tool for decision-makers. “The great thing about ‘What’s Invasive’ is the more data you have, the better it gets.”

During a two-week trial run in 2009, park staff added 1,000 entries to the “What’s Invasive” database in a fraction of the time it took to complete the invasive weed map.

But even with that, sifting through scads of data wouldn’t rid public lands of invasive weeds. At some point, resources will have to be allocated to remove them from affected areas inside the park, which can be a backbreaking and daunting task.

The apps aren’t all about decline. CENS is also developing “What’s Blooming,” so park visitors can catalogue the diversity of plant life in the Santa Monica Mountains. In tandem, both apps represent useful tools for recording and tracking subtle seasonal changes taking place in nature, a scientific discipline known as phenology.

Phenology has long drawn citizen scientists. The poet Henry David Thoreau cribbed extensive notes on the plants of his native New England, taking meticulous records on bud bursts, range and the appearance of 600 native species.

Today the progeny of Thoreau abound, now equipped with cell phones and digital cameras gathering factoids downloaded to Web-based and mobile applications. Their empirical data on the date and time that buds bloom, insects hatch and migratory birds fly southward can help professional scientists determine whether plant and animal populations are robust or in decline, or when spring is beginning. Citizen observations provide the raw data necessary to build accurate models of the effect climate change is having on local ecosystems.

Although the correlation between climate change and invasive plants is not clearly understood, patterns are beginning to emerge linking warmer weather to the proliferation of non-native plants.

A recently published Harvard study indicated non-native plants in the New England region are germinating 11 days earlier than do native species. Those findings are based in part on the plant diaries Thoreau kept 150 years ago.

In 2007 the federal government got involved, founding the USA National Phenology Network under the aegis of the U.S. Geological Survey. Partnering with universities, conservation groups and state agencies, the network is developing guidelines for collecting digital data.

“Animals,” said Jake Weltzin, a USGS scientist and director of the recently established program, “are taking the pulse of the planet.”

Enrique Gili
Enrique Gili lives, writes, and surfs in Ocean Beach, Calif. He covers the intersection of environmental issues and pop culture for regional magazines in the Southland and beyond. Send your thoughts, ideas, or tips to gili92107@gmail.com.

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