While you’re hiking and melting s’mores over your campfire, scientists at Maine parks are taking samples, studying wildlife and discovering new species.

Maine Forest Service entomologist Colleen Teerling picks her parks very carefully. Whereas the average camper might chose their destination based on which Maine park has the prettiest campsite or best lake to cool off in, Teerling is partial to parks that might be favored by Midwestern tourists, say Camden State Park, or Lake St. George.

Colleen Teerling, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service's Insect and Disease Lab, strips the bark from an ash tree at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty to investigate whether the destructive emerald ash borer has reached Maine.

Colleen Teerling, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service’s Insect and Disease Lab, strips the bark from an ash tree at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty to investigate whether the destructive emerald ash borer has reached Maine. Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

That’s because she’s choosing her parks to lay traps for an invasive species called the emerald ash borer, a green beetle from Asia that has already devastated Midwestern forests and has spread to most eastern states. Not Maine yet, but it has been found in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and scientists fear it’s only a matter of time before it begins to chew through Maine’s ash trees. By monitoring likely entry points, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation hopes to get a jump on managing any infestation of the emerald ash borer (or EAB as entomologists typically refer to it).

Teerling’s research involves finding an ash tree, as she did on a hot morning at Lake St. George State Park earlier this week, relatively close to campgrounds or visitors centers, then stripping away the bark in a one-foot belt around the trunk, a process called girdling.

“That stresses the tree out,” Teerling explained.

A weakened tree should attract the beetles if they’re around. In the winter foresters will cut the tree down, peel more bark back and look for signs of an EAB infestation. “We’d find little galleries under the bark,” Teerling said, referring to the tunnels the beetles literally bore in the tree trunk. If so, they’d quarantine the area and work to combat the destructive beetles.

Why pick state parks that tend to attract out-of-state visitors, particularly those from the Midwest? Because firewood transported into an area from an already infected region is believed to be the primary way the emerald ash borer has spread so fast. It was only discovered in 2001, in the Detroit-Windsor area (likely it came in through the port on a boat), but is already in 27 states. Campers tend to bring firewood with them, even when warning signs tell them not to, so Teerling expects that if and when the emerald ash borer arrives in Maine, it will have tagged along with a visitor from out of state.

Although most of us view parks as a resource for recreation, a look behind the scenes at parks around the state reveal how often our public lands are used as a resource for researchers. There are 65 to 70 active research projects in Acadia National Park alone every year, according to the Schoodic Institute, which manages collaborations between scientists, educators and citizen scientists in the park. Whether they be national or state-run, Maine’s parks are fertile ground for researchers tracking endangered or invasive species, botanists looking for rare or undiscovered plants and biologists tracking birds. More often than not, campers and hikers never know the research is going on, but sometimes the public not only overlaps with environmental scientists working in the park, they actually help them.

DRAGONFLIES AND DATA

Sarah Nelson, an associate research professor in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine, began researching mercury and acid rain chemistry as a masters and then Ph.D. candidate. As her research progressed, she started sampling the larvae of dragonflies in Maine streams and waters for mercury, getting an assist from high school students. In 1998, she began sampling within Acadia, where 80 species of dragonflies can serve as bio-sentinels for mercury pollution.

Emerald ash borer specimens.

Emerald ash borer specimens.

They are an easy insect to catch as larvae and, when ground up back in a laboratory, to test for the presence of mercury that may have traveled on air currents and ended up in water sources as rain. To the non-scientific brain it might seem as though a national park in a relatively pristine part of Maine is a strange place to look for signs of air pollution, but Nelson says it is just the opposite.

“Most people think of national parks as pristine, but they really are not,” she said. Yes everything within the park is wild or barely developed in theory, but the wind knows no borders. “It doesn’t really matter if there is a line around parks. The air is the same.”

Moreover, there is a greater chance to gather accurate data on a long-term basis because the level of development doesn’t change. “You know you will be able to come back in 20 years and be able to get to the same site,” she added. “We don’t have those confounding effects like there is suddenly a mall in the middle of a site.”

Not only are dragonflies less complicated to test for mercury than say, fish, they stay close to the aquatic ecosystems where they were born, making the samples more useful for linking data to specific locations.

The Schoodic Institute got involved in 2011 and the program within Acadia has proved so popular, with citizen scientists happily signing on to contribute to the research by gathering dragonfly larvae in the park, that Nelson began working with other scientists to expand it to other national parks. In 2013, the National Park Service funded the expansion of the mercury study to 25 parks. Now they’re up to 71 parks, including Denali in Alaska and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Acadia is a particularly rich resource for Maine-based researchers. Ongoing projects by UMaine professors include studies of bird migration on Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic peninsula, bird use of rockweed, ecosystem response to climate change in Acadia and even studies in forest recreation management by students in the University of Maine’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism program.

A dragonfly adult next to its shed exoskeleton. Dragonflies serve as bio-sentinels for mercury pollution and are easier to test for contamination than, say, fish. Courtesy Ed Lindsey

A dragonfly adult next to its shed exoskeleton. Dragonflies serve as bio-sentinels for mercury pollution and are easier to test for contamination than, say, fish. Courtesy Ed Lindsey

BUNNIES AND BUGS

Teerling has already girdled ash trees in eight state parks and will add Cobscook and Lamoine state parks to the are monitoring list this spring. Other state parks with ongoing research and monitoring programs include Crescent Beach and Kettle Cove, where scientists are researching New England cottontail rabbits, listed as an endangered species in Maine since 2007. Then there are the piping plover and least tern programs at various state-run oceanfront parks, like Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg.

But Baxter State Park is particularly rich research territory. Nearly 210,000 acres, 75 percent of which are managed as wildlife sanctuary, it has been spectacularly untouched since it was acquired by Gov. Percival P. Baxter beginning in the 1930s. This was Baxter’s gift of purest Maine to the people of Maine, and as such, he made it a mandate that the priority be resource preservation.

That’s both why it is such great research territory and why it’s not easy to get permission to conduct research within the park. “He was very clear about what his priorities were, and we work for those priorities,” said Jean Hoekwater, the park’s naturalist.

Hoekwater is a member of the committee that reviews research requests. “We say no sometimes to perfectly sound science,” she said. “The stories I could tell you about research that was proposed that didn’t happen.”

Once the committee turned down a prestigious forestry school’s request to research the fir waves, a natural phenomena on the slopes of Katahdin, where a die-back zone of balsam fir affected by the prevailing winds creates wavy grey stripes following the slope’s contours.

“We denied the application despite the prestige because they wanted to put fertilizer in the zone,” she said. “That was an artificial input.” (Hoekwater would neither confirm nor deny that it was Yale.)

Colleen Teerling strips the bark from an ash tree at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty. The section of tree will be examined to see if the insect is in Maine.

Colleen Teerling strips the bark from an ash tree at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty. The section of tree will be examined to see if the insect is in Maine.

“It is not an easy thing to get permission,” said Beth Swartz, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who conducted the research that tracked the rare and elusive Roaring Brook Mayfly deep in the wilds of Baxter. The mayfly had been named for the Maine location where it was first spotted in the 1930s, but only one true specimen of it existed and that was in a museum.

“It had been over 60 years since that specimen had been collected,” Swartz said. She spent the better part of a summer searching and found many mayflies in two of the brook’s tributaries. The state was able to move the insect off the endangered list on the basis of that research. But it remains a species unique to a special place, and the very fact of how unusual it is points to the ecological value of high elevation headwater streams, she said.

“These little tumbling streams come down off of the mountain tops and are fed by melting snow and rainwater,” Swartz said. “These are the birthplaces of all those other streams that end up feeding into our rivers, streams that often go unprotected because they are so small.”

LEAVE NO TRACE

Among the other research in Baxter in recent years was a study of marten populations by a University of Maine PhD student who set up game cams and traps to catch hair from the animals. A 2013 tornado that blew through the northwest corner of the park within the Scientific Forest Management Area (a zone designated for study of responsible forestry management) created the opportunity for a multi-year study on beetles and how they responded to a blow-down situation over 400 acres.

“Virtually all the trees were uprooted or blown over,” said Shawn Fraver, a professor in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine. “That type of wind damage is really unusual in Maine.”

Outside the park it might have been a disaster, but within its confines, it gave scientists a chance to look at nature’s recovery process.

Hoekwater said Baxter frequently has to turn down request for research that involves collecting samples – removing plants from their natural habitat. But in an effort to put together a comprehensive guide, “The Plants of Baxter State Park,” it has welcomed researchers and volunteers armed with cameras to photograph more than 700 species of plants that grow within the park’s boundaries. The finished guide, a multi-year effort to compile, is expected back from the printers soon.

Alison Dibble, an assistant research professor with the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology and one of the authors of the guide, has spent many days over many years leading volunteers on plant quests, pushing through dense thickets of young trees to remote bogs untouched by man or paddling by canoe into areas reachable only by water. Even if park visitors never spot these species tucked in remote corners of the park, they have been recorded for posterity.

“It was a privilege to me,” Dibble said. “And I think the volunteers were feeling this way too, that it is really special that the parks wants us to do this and needs us to do this.”

As a researcher, Dibble has had a long relationship with Baxter. Her first foray into Baxter to study plant species was in 1989. Over a five-year period starting in 2001, she self-funded annual five day trips to Katahdin to work with a team studying the lichen of Katahdin. The team identified alpine lichens that had not been found in the United States before. That survey, published in 2009 in The Bryologist, the publication of the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, established a baseline of research that could prove particularly useful to those studying climate change.

“With climate change, the advance of the treeline up the slope will mean that there will be less habitat for unusual lichens than there is now,” Dibble said. “The alpine ecosystems are under increased threat. That is just one of the dilemmas of global warming.”

For all these scientists, it’s not just parks and recreation.