In the fight against invasive plants, Panther Pond in Raymond is considered a success story by the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program.

And it all started, in part, with two residents who signed up for a six-hour class on invasive plant patrol through the lake monitoring program, a nonprofit dedicated to healthy Maine lakes.

In the mid-2000s, Bunny Wescott of Raymond was a member of the Raymond Waterways Association, an initiative dedicated to healthy, fresh water in the town. She was having nightmares, she said, about the invasive plants the group learned about at their annual meeting.

The presenters said “one little piece of milfoil could take over your whole lake,” Wescott recalled. She tried keeping an eye out for it in her own Panther Pond, “but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for,” she said.

The mix of fear and uncertainty inspired Wescott and fellow Raymond Waterways Association member Sibyl French to take a class at the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program. The class, now called Invasive Plant Patrol 101, teaches the basics of identifying the 11 invasive plants found in Maine freshwater bodies. The six-hour courses are offered regularly across the state by the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program, the oldest and one of the largest citizen-run lake monitoring programs in the nation.

The course will be offered soon in the Lakes Region, at the New Gloucester Congregational Church on Aug. 6.

The class provides lessons in identifying plant structure, characteristics and ecology using both lectures and hands-on exercises, and is well-suited “for people who have a real interest in becoming well trained early detectors (of invasive plants),” according to Roberta Hill, invasive species program director at the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program. “We’ve found people who attend the workshop end up going back to their communities and becoming real stewards and leaders in their communities.”

This is what happened for Wescott and French, who, after taking the plant patrol course, were inspired to monitor Panther Pond in Raymond, where they are both residents.

Wescott and French returned to the workshops in the following years to refresh their skills, each time building on their previous knowledge. After a few years, they realized that to properly manage the pond they would need to get organized.

They started calling their neighbors around the lake, urging them to take the course and monitor their own waterfront. To ensure the pond received thorough coverage, they divided the pond into 44 sections and organized volunteers to take responsibility for each one. Eventually, the group started calling itself the “PPIPP-ers” (Panther Pond Invasive Plant Patrolers).

Now, Wescott and French offer mentorship to people who have recently taken the plant patrol workshop, and have helped galvanize citizen groups on other Raymond water bodies, including Crescent Lake (“the CLIPP-ers”), Raymond Pond (“the RIPP-ers”) and Thomas Pond (the “TIPP-ers”).

Wescott described herself and French as resources for people in the area to get advice and assistance, as they similarly have turned to the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring program “when we need assurance,” she said.

In one example of such mentorship, French retrieved a cleaned-out margarine tub from her refrigerator, filled with seawater and a couple of weedy, slimy plants that were brought to her by a citizen who was concerned they were invasive. They weren’t, French confirmed.

In Raymond’s smaller water bodies there are no known invasive plants, including the particularly nasty variable milfoil that is prevalent in Sebago Lake. French said Raymond residents “are very lucky” in this regard, “especially considering many of the lakes around us are infested.”

To combat infestation, “it’s important to watch it in the early stages so you can make preventative actions rather than worry about getting it out,” French said. “Like any bad thing.”

Early detection has played a key role in removing several Maine lakes from the list of infested water bodies, according to Hill. In addition to early monitoring, citizens play an important role in keeping invasive plants out of lakes and ponds through courtesy boat inspector programs around the state, which inspect boats for invasive plants before they enter a lake or pond to prevent the plants from spreading from infested lakes in the state or outside the state.

And the “good news,” Hill said, is “it really is enjoyable work. It’s recreation with a purpose.”

And it’s important work, too.

“It matters economically, because here in Maine we have some of the clearest lakes in the world,” Hill said. “They’re considered a global treasure, and we want to keep it that way for future generations.”

Clear lakes matter ecologically, too, Hill explained.

Invasive plants, in their native waters in Europe, Asia and South America, have natural competitors that keep them in balance with the ecosystem. In Maine, invasive plants lose their predators, giving them “an unfair advantage” over native species, Hill said.

“Because of that they grow rapidly and aggressively,” Hill said. “They out-compete the native plants, and eventually can form a monoculture where before there was incredible diversity.”

In other parts of the country the problem with invasive plants is much more severe, according to Hill; less than 1 perccent of Maine’s freshwater bodies are known to be infested. This is in part due to early detection from citizen monitoring programs, which have given Mainers “a chance to stave off the problem,” Wescott said. “It’s not hopeless anymore.”

A closer look

Invasive Plant Patrol 101 will be offered through the Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program on Saturday, Aug. 6, from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., at the Congregational Church in New Gloucester. For more information or to register for the free workshop, visit www.mainevlmp.org or call 207-783-7733.

Bunny Wescott, front, and Sibyl French check Panther Pond for invasive plants using a tool designed by Wescott’s husband, Ross Wescott. The plastic trunk with a plexi-glass window cut in the bottom smooths out ripples on the water, allowing them to see more clearly to the bottom of the pond.

Bob French, left and Sibyl French take a paddle out on Panther Pond to monitor for invasive plants.