The Remove Invasives Partnership of Franklin County has dedicated their mission to decreasing the amount of invasive species growing in forest plots around central Kentucky. Invasive species are responsible for the density of our Commonwealth's wild habitats.
"The idea behind this partnership is to encourage people to deal with their invasives," said partnership coordinator Chris Schimmoeller. "We want to teach people what's native and what's not, and how to get what's not out of your woods."
Several community agencies have committed to RIP's goal of educating the public on the dangers invasive species pose to our economy and environment. These agencies, along with many other generous, private donors, have allowed RIP to offer a summer internship for college students. Interns work for several hours each day clearing non-native vegetation from Kentucky farmland.
Three interns are currently working alongside Bluegrass Restoration Crew Supervisor Ben Rasp to clear a wooded area at Blackburn Farm, home of former Lieutenant Governor Crit Luallen. The woods of Blackburn are only one of the project's six current locations. The team assembles early each morning to begin a long day of identifying and destroying invasive species.
"The three invasive species that cause 75% of the problems in Kentucky forests," explained Rasp, "are bush honeysuckle, winter creeper and garlic mustard."
According to Rasp, the overgrowth of non-native species has a profound impact on life in the bluegrass state.
"As we have civilized, we've brought in a lot of non-native species that kill the biodiversity in our ecosystem," Rasp said. "The thick overgrowth doesn't allow for sunlight to reach other species. It causes a decrease in timber-species regeneration, it destroys habitats — nearly every species of plant and animal is effected by the overgrowth of non-native plants."
Invasive species also attract unfavorable insects, such as ticks. Allowing invasive species to dominate our wooded areas sacrifices domestic plants and animals in exchange for dense weeds and obnoxious insects.
"People don't realize that this can change Kentucky drastically," Rasp added.
A healthy ecosystem will generally have around 200 native species. During their work on Blackburn Farm, Rasp and his team have only identified 20.
"Forty years down the road, Kentucky could look completely different if we don't start tackling this problem now," said Schimmoeller. "Our savannas and prairie terrain could look totally different."
The team works together each day, scraping the forest floors and piling waste. According to Rasp, they are typically capable of clearing around half an acre each day, depending on the topography of the landscape.
"They've been working for about five days and the difference is incredible," said Luallen. "Those are the woods I used to play in as a child. I had a treehouse in there. That area was just a mess, now you can see all the way through it to the other side."
For the interns, the experience has been fulfilling and invaluable.
"People in this field don't go into it for the money," said recent Eastern Kentucky University graduate Calvin Andries, 22. Andries studies forestry and natural resources and will be continuing his education this fall at the University of Georgia. "You go into it because you love the environment and you want to enhance your community."
The experience has also allowed the students to gain hands-on experience in their degree field.
"This is my first out-of-class opportunity to apply what I've already learned and it's much better than class," said Shannon McCall, 19, who studies natural resources and environmental science at the University of Kentucky.
The interns are also required to complete in-depth projects designed to improve the community, such as mapping hiking trails and comparing native and non-native species.
"They've really made sure that this experience is more than just brunt work and a paycheck," said Quentin Bishop, 22, also a student at UK where he studies natural resources and environmental science. "It's been rough, but it's an amazing learning experience."
RIP typically offers a day of free clearing to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, as well as educating property owners on ways to battle invasive species.
"After the first or second day of showing them what we can do and how to do it," Rasp sontinued, "then we will discuss a pay-rate if the person wants us to continue."
The services offered by Rasp and his team are available to any person with an overgrowth of non-native vegetation.
"Really we just want to get the word out," said Rasp. "This can improve Kentucky beyond our forests."