By SARA RUBERG
Nate Brault was impelled to protect the Adirondacks from aquatic invasive species, for his family’s sake.
His junior year of high school, Brault joined the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute stewardship program. He worked at stations near the invasive-infested Lake Champlain—just 30 minutes away from his family’s camp on Fern Lake.
“If any of these invasives got into (Fern Lake), the lake is gone,” Brault said. “The natural ecosystem of the lake is going to be choked out … that’s one of the reasons I started this job.”
Eurasian watermilfoil, the invasive found most commonly by stewards, now has its roots firmly in Lake Champlain. The plant can grow thick over large areas which can prevent boating, fishing, swimming and other recreation. Small lakes can suffer the most when the plant takes over. Another invader—maybe even tougher to control—is closing in on the Adirondack Park and adding urgency.
Other species already in Champlain—such as fishhook and spiny waterfleas—affect native zooplankton and alter the aquatic food base.
Five years after his start with the program, and now an online electrical engineering student at the State University of New York at Canton, Brault still works as a steward on Lake Champlain to help protect its ecosystem and recreation.
Brault is one of more than 150 boat stewards who are working this summer at boat launches and pull-offs across the Adirondack Park, including this year’s new decontamination and inspection station at the Adirondack Welcome Center in Queensbury. That station was created for boaters’ convenience at a busy gateway to the Adirondacks.
The stewardship program began in 1999 when property owners around the St. Regis lakes raised concerns about protecting their lake chain. Through their private donations, Paul Smith’s began hiring stewards to inspect boats as they entered those waters.
Then, in 2003, Paul Smith’s combined its stewardship program and water monitoring program and created the Adirondack Watershed Institute. There were only six stewards at the time. Since then, the organization has experienced a gradual growth in funds, stewards and outreach.
In the summer season of 2018, stewards inspected 98,216 boats and intercepted more than 4,600 invasives—almost half of them Eurasian watermilfoil. Both 2017 and 2018 revealed record numbers for the program. Stewards inspected almost 40,000 more boats in both of those years individually than in 2016.
Jeff Sann remembers joining the stewardship program while he was a student at Paul Smith’s College. There were only 10 stewards at the time, and decontamination stations did not yet exist.
Now, Sann works as the institute’s decontamination services program manager. He says the programs efforts over the years have been worth it, since two-thirds of the Adirondack waterways have not been infected by invasive species.
“A lot of times the invasive species argument is that it’s a losing battle and a lost cause, but I would counter that with the fact that we have something to preserve here,” Sann said. “It’s not too late here.”
About a decade ago, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation also felt the waterways should be protected and began giving funds to the stewardship program.
The DEC now funds a majority of the program’s projects, like the creation of decontamination stations around the park in 2015. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Lake Champlain Basin Program have also been major benefactors.
The program has grown into the largest stewardship program in the state of New York, and the goals have remained the same—to prevent new invasives from entering the park, especially hydrilla, which has been found in the Finger Lakes; and to keep invasives from spreading. Hydrilla is a plant with long stems that is considered almost uncontrollable once it invades a waterway. It has not been found in the park.
Beyond inspections and decontaminations, stewards often re-emphasize these values when they encounter people at their stations. Because inspections and decontaminations are voluntary, stewards try to act as educational resources, explaining to boaters what invasive species are and why they should try to prevent them. The goal is to ensure that all visitors will take the extra precautions when exiting and entering lakes.
Dan Kelting, the Adirondack Watershed Institute’s executive director, said educating the public is an important part of the job. In 2018, the institute reported that stewards “greeted and educated” 191,493 individuals at more than 70 boat launches around the park. Some 200,000 individuals spoke to stewards in 2017—an all-time high for the program.
“Our assumption is that folks who encounter a steward will self-police or they will take the steps they need to take,” Kelting said.
The program just received a grant from the DEC to test whether steward outreach will have an effect on visitors taking the steps to prevent invasives. Kelting hopes that community engagement and education will be enough to protect every lake’s health instead of legally mandating inspections and decontaminations.
“I would hope that we would be able to figure out how to manage the risk of invasive species through education, through targeted inspections at high-risk water bodies and then having decon stations properly deployed around the Adirondacks,” Kelting said.
Conservation groups including the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club have pressed for mandatory boat inspections across the park, and were disappointed when a bill reauthorizing the state’s anti-invasives program didn’t include such a provision. They have said they will try again in the next legislative session.
Supervisors and stewards say most people are open to inspection and discussion. Some stewards even establish good relationships with regulars at their launches.
Gary Blaise comes to the Plattsburgh boat launch on Lake Champlain about two or three times a week, the stewards there say. When Blaise pulls his Sea-Doo around for inspection, he says hello and makes short conversation with them.
He said he allows them do their inspections because they’re just doing their job.
“They make the lake water better for the community, I hope,” Blaise said.
The program is making an impact on the communities they serve by intercepting invasive species almost every day. But most bodies of water in the Adirondacks do not have stewards currently, leaving some at risk. Some smaller lake communities that the institute partners with, like Osgood Pond Association, can pull together just enough resources to have stewards for three days a week.
Tom Boothe, Osgood Pond Association’s treasurer, worries this leaves the lake vulnerable the other four days a week. Osgood Pond currently has no invasive species, but it is surrounded by lakes, like Upper Saranac, that have been infected with Eurasian watermilfoil.
“I’m grateful. I’m hopeful. I’m worried,” Boothe said. “There’s invasives on all these ponds surrounding us, so it seems like almost inevitable, but we’re doing everything we can to make it evitable.”
While the program encourages visiting nearby stewards before entering a body of water, it also recommends ways boaters can inspect and decontaminate on their own. The advice is written right on the back of every boat steward’s vest in bold letters—“Clean. Drain. Dry.”
AWI and other experts advise boaters to clean all visible plants, animals and mud off their boats, to drain all holding compartments and to dry boats and equipment before heading to another body of water.