Digging in the Dirt
A New Generation Takes on Invasive Weed Eradication
By Malcolm Terence, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
Thirty years ago Mavis McCovey from Orleans entered the already bubbling political cauldron over the use of herbicides in the forest. Nowadays a new generation of locals are working hard to use non-chemical alternatives in their communities.
McCovey, a local nurse and Karuk medicine woman, spotted in the late 1970s that local women had an unexpected number of miscarriages and other birth anomalies, and publicity about her findings appeared in media all over the country.
Herbicide use by the U.S. Forest Service was stopped then by public campaigns and litigation, and the local watershed councils in Orleans and on Salmon River have filled much of the need for them with crews that hunt down invasive weed patches as soon as they are discovered, and keep digging them up until they disappear.
The manual alternative campaign began in earnest in 1998 when crews of volunteers and staff from Salmon River Restoration Council attacked knapweed plants at 10 sites. They yanked nearly 90,000 plants. It is not plucking daisies. The roots have to come up with the plant or it re-sprouts.
The next year they expanded to 49 sites and grabbed nearly 200,000 plants. The effort helped break the back of the knapweed expansion, and populations fell drastically. The third year they returned to those sites and hit 100 other outbreaks but found only 66,000 plants.
Fast forward to last year and the SRRC crews are monitoring and treating 275 sites but found only 427 knapweed plants. Petey Brucker, one of the founders of SRRC, says that dramatic success was a product of the crews’ formula: early detection, rapid response and thorough and persistent treatment using the right tools.
He contrasted that with chemical treatments, many of which are toxic to humans, fish and other wildlife, and are not as effective. “They test the stuff in a sand box in a lab,” Brucker said, “and they call it 80 percent effective.”
He said 50 to 60 people in the Salmon River population, which he estimated at about 250 people, had worked on the SRRC crews—volunteer and staff—and logged 1,500 hours last year.
This means that a large number of locals are trained observers of any new weeds or any new invaders. As an example, he told the story of when the late Lillian Bennett, a Karuk elder, spotted an unusual plant when she tagged along with her son on his daily mail delivery run along the Salmon River Road to Somes Bar.
It turned out to be oblong spurge, a noxious weed that was a newcomer to the river. Like many invasive weeds, it spreads most frequently along roads and river banks. In a multi-day project in late spring, workers from SRRC and others from a similar crew organized by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) from Orleans, were ferried across the Salmon River, still at high flow, in a raft to attack the spurge.
From there, they clamored up a rock bluff with a rope line and then dropped down to the isolated beaches downriver where the weeds had been discovered.
Tanya Chapple, director of MKWC’s Invasive Weeds Management Program, was one of the Orleans gang who joined the SRRC crew. She said locals trying to identify a new plant that might be considered noxious could check MKWC’s website at http://www.mkwc.org/programs/weeds/weedguide.html
Another website Chapple recommended is from the California Department of Food and Agriculture: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/plant/ipc/encycloweedia/encycloweedia_hp.htm
Some botanists have said that pro-agriculture Siskiyou County, which does use chemical herbicides to attack weeds, considers anything a weed if a cow won’t eat it.
Organizers like Brucker and Chapple say many plants are non-natives but the real problems come with plants that spread quickly and are capable of dominating the landscape.
Chapple says such plants are capable of reducing biodiversity, and this can affect wildlife as well as displacing native plant species. Besides, she says, some of the bushier invasives create a fire hazard greater than the plants they displaced.
Another benefit is that manual alternatives replace herbicides with their toxicity and even have been demonstrated to be more effective than chemical treatments.
The problems of public herbicide use were highlighted two weeks ago when the state of Oregon levied fines of $7,125 on both the Klamath County Public Works Department and one of its employees because of what it called “faulty, careless or negligent” use of an herbicide brand named Outpost 22K.
The chemical was used in two subdivisions south of La Pine to control knapweed, but residents said that within a year trees began dying. Traces of picloram, the active ingredient, began appearing in well water. Besides the state penalties, residents are seeking damages for the dead trees and plants.
In the book Medicine Trails that Mavis McCovey authored with anthropologist John Salter, she tells the story of her work against herbicide use in considerable detail.
After she noticed the high numbers of miscarriages among local women, McCovey writes, “We were pretty sure we were on the right track because all these health problems came at just the time the herbicide spraying had started. I thought it was due to the herbicides, because I could see it was the only thing that had changed in our environment. The Forest Service said, ‘Oh no, they’re taking dope.’ I said if they were taking dope, then they would have been taking dope before the herbicide spraying , so why didn’t they abort then?”
The queen bee of local invasives, of course, is the Himalayan blackberry. But we will talk no trash about them, at least not until we’ve picked enough berries to make jam. No need to be so generous with the other invasive weeds. The milky juice that oozes out of the stem of oblong spurge and its relatives, for instance, can burn a person’s eyes. Start pulling. Both MKWC and SRRC welcome volunteers.