Adelgids, leash laws under attack in Portland's Baxter Woods

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PORTLAND — The adelgids must go. The dogs should stay.

Those are the messages and efforts that resonate after a busy week in and around Mayor Baxter Woods, the 32-acre preserve between Forest and Stevens avenues.

A 90-minute meeting May 28 of about 60 people and city officials including arborist Jeff Tarling, Environmental Programs and Open Space Manager Troy Moon, Parks and Cemeteries Manager Joseph Dumais, Animal Control Officer Garth Russell and Police Sgt. John Neuslein revealed a determined opposition to requiring dogs to be leashed at all times and the will for people to help enforce park rules and cleanups.

“You have the choir here, I’m the person who stuffs my pocket with extra bags,” said Sara Needleman, who helped gather signatures on a declaration of responsible dog owners before the meeting.

The next day, 25 Catherine McAuley High School freshmen helped Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry entomologists Wayne Searles and Allison Kanoti release 1,000 predator beetles to try to stem an infestation of hemlock woolly adelgids in the woods.

“(The beetles) are so small they tend to fall off the branches a lot,” student Lillie Donovan said as she dabbed a paint brush full of the adelgid predators over a hemlock sapling. The beetles, barely the size of a pencil tip, may spread as far as a quarter mile in a year, Kanoti said.

On the ground and in the trees, Baxter Woods is facing a challenging summer. Hemlock woolly adelgids are intensely destructive to hemlocks; Thursday’s release was the first release of about 14,000 beetles in southern and mid-coast sections of the state.

“The reality we have seen is there needs to be more than just the beetles,” Kanoti said, as students worked in two lunchtime shifts with environmental sciences teacher J.B. Kavaliauskas.

Kavaliauskas and her students have been working in the woods throughout the school year; state officials credited them with discovering the adelgid infestation.

The release was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, and will be accompanied by chemical treatments overseen by Tarling.

If the shared future of the woods does not include the pests that can kill hemlock trees, it will include dogs. Moon assured the May 28 meeting that city officials have no immediate intentions of asking the City Council to amend rules that allow dogs to be unleashed in Baxter Woods.

“To be clear, we are not suggesting any changes today,” he said.

But complaints from teachers working with students in the woods and the failure of some dog owners to clean up after their pets created the need for discussing park use, even if those who spoke may be the best stewards of the park.

“The majority of you here, you are our allies,” Tarling said as he noted city park rangers will be more assertive in reminding owners to clean up after pets. Failure to do so can lead to a $250 fine.

The city has budgeted a full-time ranger, but with duties spread throughout the city, conditions in Baxter Woods will still mostly be monitored by people using it.

Several speakers said they knew others in the audience not by names, but by their dogs. They suggested the city put more waste bins in the park, post more signs showing the potential  fine for not cleaning up pet waste, and more aggressively enforce the existing rules before creating new ones.

Donated to the city almost 70 years ago by former Gov. Percival Baxter in memory of his father, former Mayor James Baxter, Baxter Woods is one of more than a dozen city parks and properties where dogs are allowed off-leash and under voice control.

Voice control is defined as the dog immediately obeying an owner’s command to return and stay.

Dumais said he has received “numerous” calls, including complaints about dogs chasing school children and springtime odors of dog feces. He said he had not counted the calls he’s received, but people not cleaning up after their pets was the primary complaint he has heard.

“Anybody should be able to enjoy the park and not be imposed on by somebody or their pet,” he said.

But without hard numbers or details about the complaints, Dumais’ claims were met with skepticism from dog owners, including Hartley Avenue resident Matt McKinney.

“Epic smell just isn’t the case,” McKinney said, adding he doubted people who do not clean up after their dogs would be more likely to do so because the dog is leashed.

The city has provided plastic bags for cleaning up after dogs, but Heather Zimmerman suggested making the message clearer.

“Let’s put more signs in the park so it doesn’t look like a few of us tsk-tsking our neighbors,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Catherina McAuley High School freshmen Lillie Donovan and Sophia Borie place nearly microscopic predator beetles on hemlock branches in Baxter Woods on May 29. The beetles are expected to kill hemlock woolly adelgids infesting the preserve’s hemlock trees.

Marianne DiPietro walks her dog, Renna, on May 29 in Baxter Woods, where officials and area residents are trying to maintain balanced use of the 32-acre preserve.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.