NNIS Knockout

As two of four certified pesticide applicators on the Monongahela National Forest, my cointern, Abbie, and I have become an important part of boots-on-the-ground action against non-native invasive species (NNIS). 

In July, we started conducting trailhead surveys as a part of a forest-wide NNIS management project. There are sixty trails that Abbie and I are responsible for traveling to and checking for NNIS. To conduct these surveys, we look around the parking area/trailhead and walk a half mile into the trail, looking for high-priority invasives. When we find one, we double check our identification then take down information on both an iPad and paper data sheets about where it is, how extensive it is, and more. 

I love trailhead surveys because it gives us the opportunity to explore parts of the forest we likely wouldn’t have time to get up to normally- almost like we get a sneak preview of trails we might want to come back to in our free time! Check out the pictures below to see the beautiful places we find ourselves. 

One of my favorite places to survey was Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a broad plateau with an ecosystem I’ve never seen before- subalpine heathlands. It has a bunch of cool trails, and an even cooler history. In World War II, this area was deemed “The West Virginia Maneuver Area” and was used to prepare soldiers for the mountains of northern Italy. Mortar and artillery trailing occurred here between 1943-44, so there are signs everywhere to warn you about unexploded munitions you might find!
A colorful display of the variety of plants just in one tiny area at Dolly Sods. I can’t wait to come back in autumn for even more vivid colors.
Another unique part of the geography at Dolly Sods, rock rivers.
A stunning view of High Falls. This was an eight-mile trail that takes you through fields, old-growth forest, a railroad track, and more! I hiked this trail in my free time and was stoked to learn I’d be going back to survey for NNIS (as if I wasn’t already on the lookout the entire hike- a curse of knowing NNIS identification like the back of your hand).
Sometimes Abbie and I have to drive a couple of hours to get to our survey sites. Its worth it when you end up at the highest point in West Virginia- Spruce Knob, 4,863 ft.
No two trails are alike in the Monongahela National Forest. This trail in Otter Creek Wilderness had a suspension bridge spanning across a wide river.

Information from these surveys will help us know which areas to prioritize the removal and treatment of invasives on the forest. Speaking of removal and treatment, see the photos below for a glimpse at the hard work Abbie and I have been doing!

Abbie was a natural when we learned the “hack-and-squirt” or bark injection method. In efforts to give existing red spruce a chance to thrive, we do spruce releases where we inject herbicide into surrounding canopy trees or smaller trees that may grow to shade the spruce. The spruce we release are carefully chosen, then we use a hatchet to make angled cuts into the trunk. We carefully squirt herbicide into the cuts we made. It took me MANY tries to successfully hack at the correct angle, and I definitely had a sore arm the next day, but I felt so accomplished knowing the native spruce will have a better chance at survival because of my work!
Can you spot the spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa)? I’ll give you a hint- they’re in the trash bags! Abbie and I pulled several trash bags and several hours worth of invasive spotted knapweed on this hillside. They were already in seed, so we had to be extra careful not to spread the seed as we wrestled them out of the ground.
Is that another photo of Spruce Knob? Nope, just a giant pile of invasives! Off of the Highland Scenic Highway, there is a fishing pier that had been completely taken over by bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). Before we worked on this area, you couldn’t even see the Williams River. Abbie and I joined forces with some coworkers including our Youth Conservation Corps crew to cut and haul all of this honeysuckle out of the area. Its looking exceedingly better now and locals have told us how much they appreciate it- a great feeling.

Summer has flown by, filled with rewarding work and fun adventures. I’m excited to see what autumn in West Virginia will bring! 

Signing off,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station


Wild and Wonderful West Virginia

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads”

View on the Highland Scenic Highway- just a few minutes from the office!

When I told friends, family members, or even strangers I was moving to West Virginia, their first response was to serenade me with John Denver’s ode to the mountain state. Now that I’m here, I have to say- the country roads do live up to the hype.

A stunning view of the Allegheny Mountains from the side of the Highland Scenic Highway.


My new home in Marlinton, WV is in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ). The NRQZ is a large area where radio transmissions are heavily restricted for scientific research and military intelligence purposes. In my case, this means no cell service.

At first, I was anxious about not having my cell phone available to me whenever I needed, or, rather, wanted it. This all disappeared within the first few days, when I realized this gave me all the time in the world to read, to explore, and to live in the moment. At work, I’m fully able to focus on the task at hand. I am more observant and in tune with nature. Though we have WiFi in the bunkhouse, I have come to prefer watching lightning bugs blink in the night to watching the blue light of my laptop screen.

A peaceful evening’s view.

Moving to West Virginia has given me a chance to slow down and take things in at a new pace. A pace that allows me to pull over on the side of the road to watch wildlife for hours at a beaver pond. One that allows me to stop my rollerblading to key out a plant on the side of the rail trail. One that allows me to ask questions about the world around me and seek out the answers. The peace and quiet of the mountain state is just what I needed to further my botanical knowledge in this internship.

A photo of Seneca Rocks, a scenic attraction in the Monongahela National Forest. I took this when my fellow CLM intern, Abbie, and I went on a hike here on our day off… we ended up working here just days later!

Protecting Native Ecosystems

Native plant communities support a variety of wildlife by providing food and habitat. We, as humans, also directly benefit from other ecosystem services native plants provide such as water filtration, erosion control, and carbon storage. However, these communities are threatened by invasive species. Invasive species are species non-native to the ecosystem whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

Coming from Massachusetts with a background in primarily wildlife, my West Virginia plant identification isn’t perfect. This big book is helping me learn the beautiful flora of West Virginia.

In the early 1970’s, areas of Monongahela National Forest were mined for coal, negatively impacting the ecosystem. When the areas were reclaimed, the species that grew back were grasses or non-native pines. One major focus of the U.S. Forest Service’s mission in this area is to restore red spruce ecosystems through planting of native species and removal of non-native invasive species (NNIS). As a CLM intern, my main emphasis is management of NNIS.

Abandoned coal mine at one of our restoration sites. We are re-vegetating the area with native plants.

Through my NNIS work so far, I’ve helped to protect several rare species- some of which I got to see up close and personal! For example, I saw the Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae), which is only found in two places in all of West Virginia. Other beautiful rare plants I helped protect through NNIS management are Yellow Nail-wort (Paronychia virginica), Smokehole Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa var. brevis), Limestone Adderstongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii), and Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) to name a few.

Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) in bloom.

Although NNIS identification, inventorying, and treatment/removal can be grueling work, West Virginia native ecosystem and views like this make it all worth it. As my first month here comes to a close, I’m feeling more at home in the area and with the people I work with. I’m looking forward to all that this internship has in store for me in the coming months!

A day of herbicide treatments, an important part of NNIS eradication. Because this was an area with protected plants, we carefully applied herbicide with sponges to reduce any drift.

A panoramic view of Smoke Hole Canyon- a perfect reminder of why I do what I do!

Until next time,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station