Who would have thought that one little plant could cause critical devastation in an entire ecosystem? Ever since she was a little girl Stephanie Stahl ’10 has dreamed of one day helping conserve and protect biodiversity (although when she was young she probably didn’t know it by that term). She is currently working to live that dream by serving as an AmeriCorps member with The Nature Conservancy. Stahl’s official job title is Water Chestnut Volunteer Field Coordinator and she is based in West Haven, Vt.
“Water chestnut is an extremely invasive species wreaking havoc on waterway ecosystems. It causes massive fish kills, crowds out native plant species and, over the years, the water chestnut mats can actually become so dense that it makes boating impossible,” Stahl explains. In a vigorous plant, 15 shoots can grow from the original stem, producing 15 floating rosettes. One water chestnut seed producing 15 rosettes and 20 seeds per rosette is capable of producing 300 new seeds in a single season. “In Eurasia, predators, disease and competition keep the water chestnut under control, but introduced into a new environment, this plant displaces indigenous species and alters natural communities.”
The Nature Conservancy has worked to pull water chestnuts in and around Lake Champlain for 15 years. It is one of The Nature Conservancy’s most successful invasive species management programs in Vermont and is achieved mostly through hand-pulling by groups of volunteers such as day camps and environmentally-conscious individuals from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
“The Water Chestnut is an annual plant, which means that by attacking the problem areas every year before they flower and seed, we are drastically reducing the number that will sprout the following year,” says Stahl.
The Lake Champlain region is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the Northeast, featuring 11 endangered species, seven of which have water-dwelling niches for part or all of their lives. The water chestnuts pose a huge threat to all the endangered species as well as to the local economy which is largely based on fishing, boating and tourism.
As the field coordinator, Stahl is in charge of finding volunteers and leading them out to the many different locations. The locations are found all over the state of Vermont, in most wetland areas and marshes as well as several areas on the lake itself. Stahl also calls different camps, individuals and newspapers to set dates for people to come out and participate in a day of canoeing around a body of water searching for and pulling out the invasive species.
“This is one of the most gratifying jobs I could have asked for because not only am I making a noticeable difference in the overwhelming field of invasive species, but I am also teaching people about how important it is to care about their environment. The Nature Conservancy encompasses everything I want to do; I am able to help conserve and protect biodiversity.”
Stahl has just returned from a semester in Ecuador and Peru where she studied conservation biology and Spanish. She has a major in environmental studies with a focus on conservation and English. She is also a member of the Arts Collective.