Collaboration Is a Smart Strategy To Address the Threats of Invasive Plants and Insects


On a fall walk along Jordan Stream Path, small waterfalls, thick spruce forests, and mounds of moss are bound to get your attention. If you decide to continue south to Little Long Pond and the ocean, what you probably won’t notice is that you’ve crossed the boundary between Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve.

Invasive plants and insects aren’t aware of such boundaries either.

And that’s why environmental managers on Mount Desert Island (MDI) are bonding together to fight the threats of invasive plants and insects, which are intensifying due to climate change. Driven by a shared purpose, their cross-organizational leadership is a role model of the kind of collaboration experts say is necessary to address today’s onslaught of ecological challenges.

Mount Desert Island is as complex as it is beautiful.  With its mountains, glacially carved lakes and ponds, wetlands, boreal forests, and areas open to the ocean, it is home not only to Acadia National Park but also the Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, and four towns with active conservation groups. Collaboration among these organizations has extended to state agencies and off-island environmental specialists, as well as Friends of Acadia and community members.

“When put together, what results is far greater than what any one individual organization could possibly do,” said David MacDonald, the former CEO of Friends of Acadia, a past board member of the Land & Garden Preserve, and a current board member of the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary.

Left: Wheeler releases Laricobius osakensis, a type of beetle that preys exclusively on
hemlock woolly adelgid. Right top: Wheeler shows members of the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps how to identify glossy buckthorn. Right bottom Tate Bushell, Natural Lands Director at Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, and Wheeler search for signs of hemlock woolly
adelgid on trees along the Jordan Stream near the Cobblestone Bridge. (Photos by Lily LaRegina/Friends of Acadia)

An Evolution in How to Address Invasives

“Back in 2015 or 2016, it occurred to us—in some happenstance discussions with folks doing work on trails and the carriage roads—that we should collaborate on how to tackle things to work for the whole ecosystem,” said Jesse Wheeler, vegetation program manager for Acadia National Park. Teams at the park and the Land & Garden Preserve began exchanging information on the invasive species they found and treatment efforts.

Tate Bushell joined the preserve’s staff in 2018 as its first natural lands director. He became Wheeler’s point person—“somebody on this side of the line that he could talk to,” Bushell said.
Today, they have meetings two or three times a year. “And we’re just a phone call or email away. We bump into each other all the time swimming at Somes Pond or Long Pond. We both have kids now,” Bushell said. “It’s almost like we’re working for the same company.”

“When Tate came, that really amplified a lot of what we were doing and evolved into more sharing of resources and knowledge and taking that into the community to raise awareness,” Wheeler said.

In 2018 and 2019, Invasive Species Workshops were held at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor, sponsored by not only Acadia and the Land & Garden Preserve but also Somes-Meynell and the Town of Mount Desert Sustainability Committee. After COVID, such presentations continued, just online.

Sharing data on maps with the same software has also been fundamentally important. “I can put a (location) point (of an invasive species) on my phone and then it’ll show up on one of Jesse’s maps,” said Bushell. “So, we’re linked also through technology.” Notes about treatment actions are also logged in the app.

For example, to manage glossy buckthorn, an aggressive invader that forms dense thickets that shade and ultimately displace native plants, teams pull by hand, saw, and use herbicides. Then repeat. “Persistence is the key treatment,” Wheeler joked. But sharing information—what’s worked, what hasn’t, how often, and where—takes the management process to a new level and allows both organizations to plan more effectively.

Plus, to suppress buckthorn with strong native plants, the park has been working with Cassie Banning, the Land & Garden Preserve’s director of farm and gardens.  In the preserve’s state-of-the-art facilities, she is propagating plants from seed collected in Acadia. “It’s been a resounding success and fills a big gap for Acadia,” said Wheeler.

Colleen Teerling, entomologist with the Maine Forest Service; Billy Helprin, Director of the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary; and Wheeler talk  after releasing Laricobius osakensis beetles in an effort to battle the hemlock woolly adelgid. (Photo by Lily LaRegina/Friends of Acadia)

Bridging our Boundaries—Literally

Hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) is an aphid-like insect native to Asia which damages Eastern hemlocks when its crawlers suck the trees’ sap, eventually causing death.

Last fall Bushell was leading a field walk in the preserve near the Cobblestone Bridge, the site of many hemlocks. He remarked to the only participant, who happened to be a forester, “This location could be ravaged in the future.” The forester examined a branch and said, “I think that’s hemlock woolly adelgid right there.” Together, they confirmed more patches. Shortly afterwards, Bushell called Wheeler and they went back the next day.

This incident demonstrates the power of engaged and knowledgeable community members. A few months later, Bushell and Wheeler hosted a public webinar that included Billy Helprin, the director of Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, and Colleen Teerling, a Maine state forest entomologist. “I feel more optimistic about (managing) hemlock woolly adelgids on MDI than any other place in the state,” said Teerling. “That’s partly because they’ve been doing the monitoring here, we found it early on, and there are a lot of people and institutions passionate about doing something…we’ve got options.”

The action the Land & Garden Preserve chose was to release predator Laricobius beetles along Jordan Stream in an area bordering Acadia National Park. “It would take me years to research all this stuff and really know with confidence what to do. Colleen brought us up to speed very quickly,” Bushell said. She also assisted with the acquisition of the beetles. And without the rules that can slow decision-making in federal bureaucracies, the preserve was able to act fast—just three months after the discovery.

Wheeler works to manage an infestation of glossy buckthorn in the Bass Harbor Marsh. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia)

How Collaboration Works

“Knowing our own strengths, blind spots, and focus areas, as well as those of partners” contributes to successful collaboration, said David MacDonald. “There’s a fine line between collaborating and duplicating effort.” Communication is key, but so is respect for time and resource limitations.

“You’ve heard (Acadia Superintendent) Kevin Schneider say ‘This is a partnership park. This is the way Acadia works,’” MacDonald said. “That’s not true for all parks.”

With Acadia’s openness, a greater capacity—in terms of staff, expertise, technology, funding, and more—has emerged to address complex problems. And with the risks posed by government shutdowns and retirement of key personnel, collaboration can be a buffer, Helprin adds.

Asked for one of his favorite examples of collaboration, Helprin, who was formerly Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s MDI regional steward, talks about the survey of MDI’s lakes that occurred from 2016 to 2018 to search for possible aquatic invasive species. He and Wheeler recruited expert aquatic surveyors from throughout the state. They had a strategic plan and provided housing (which was no small challenge).

The “huge undertaking” found no invasive species. This triumph was especially joyful in the context that, in some states, paths must be mowed through dense invasive plants to move around on certain lakes.

In 2018, Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary and Acadia National Park received the Invasive Aquatic Plant Prevention Award from Auburn-based Lake Stewards of Maine. Of course, seeing our island’s crystal-clear waters, prosperous native plants, and towering evergreens is its own reward, isn’t it?


LYNN FANTOM is a former New York advertising executive who has embraced her second career as a freelance writer in Maine.