War on weeds

Weed­ing a national park, one plant at a time.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By Louis sa­h­a­gun

On a swel­ter­ing morn­ing deep in the San Gabriel Moun­tains near Los An­ge­les, Katie Vin­Zant donned work gloves and boots, hoisted a pick axe and be­gan bash­ing alien species.

The 31-year-old botanist en­joys a Sun­day in the An­ge­les national For­est as much as the next per­son. But when it comes to weeds that have colonised and mul­ti­plied since a fire in 2009, she’s a ter­mi­na­tor.

Slen­der and trim in a T-shirt, grubby pants and tat­tered straw som­brero, Vin­Zant swiped the sweat sting­ing her eyes. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said, “But I plan to get rid of as many weeds as pos­si­ble. They don’t be­long on the land­scape.”

One plant at a time, one week­end at a stretch, Vin­Zant is help­ing to weed the 256,000ha for­est that is the play­ground and back­drop to Los An­ge­les. This is weed­ing on a Her­culean scale. But the US For­est Ser­vice em­ployee, and pioneer in the An­ge­les national For­est’s weed re­moval pro­gramme, is un­stop­pable. She leads a team that aims to map and re­move en­tire pop­u­la­tions of 48 non-na­tive plant species crowd­ing out alders, cot­ton­woods, wil­lows and cha­parral.

With a dozen em­ploy­ees and vol­un­teers she calls “my die-hards” on a stretch of the Santa Clara Di­vide Road, 25km north­west of Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia, with the tem­per­a­ture at 38°C and taran­tu­las climb­ing up their pant legs, they dug and pried thick­ets of Span­ish broom from the hard ground and gran­ite crevices along a crum­bling as­phalt road on the burned slopes west of Mount Glea­son.

These stands had grown 1.3m tall, with spiky green branches that spread a me­tre across. The root sys- tems of the spindly, highly flammable yel­low-flow­er­ing Mediter­ranean na­tive can be so dense that toads can’t bur­row into the sandy soil.

A crew mem­ber be­gan with a pair of shears, lop­ping away the top branches. Then an­other moved in with a spade and trowel, me­thod­i­cally ex­pos­ing the root. About an hour later, they crouched to­gether and at­tached the steel jaws of a weed wrench to the main root. Then they be­gan rhyth­mi­cally rock­ing back on the tool’s han­dle. Even­tu­ally, the soil heaved and the root re­leased its hold with a soft pop. They left be­hind a hole about 0.3m deep and 0.6m wide. Af­ter a five-minute breather, they moved to the next quarry a few yards away.

“Span­ish broom is aw­ful ... just aw­ful,” Vin­Zant said. “And a pain to re­move.”

In­tro­duced in a mis­guided ero­sion-con­trol pro­gramme in the 1930s, Span­ish broom and other im­ported plants and trees were spread by ve­hi­cle tyres and now thrive in the ashen shadow of the county’s largest wild­fire. But re­mov­ing the in­vader from the wilder­ness is not as glam­orous as the on­go­ing ef­fort – be­ing un­der­taken by hundreds of vol­un­teers – to plant three mil­lion pine and fir trees over the 4,000ha scarred by the fire.

“Ev­ery­body wants to plant trees, which is hard work but also fun stuff,” said Vance Rus­sell, di­rec­tor of Cal­i­for­nia pro­grammes for the national For­est Foun­da­tion, which ad­min­is­ters pri­vate gifts and funds for the ben­e­fit of the national forests.

“Pulling weeds in the An­ge­les national For­est is a Sisyphean task; with some weeds, you could have all the peo­ple in Los An­ge­les go­ing af­ter them for 50 years and not make a dent.

“That is why plants, com­pared to an­i­mals, of­ten get less at­ten­tion and fund­ing. Yet they are the base, af­ter the soil, in a thriv­ing habi­tat, and bring­ing back species peo­ple want to see, from flow­ers and Man­zanita to bob­cats and mi­grat­ing birds.”

Small signs of progress keep Vin­Zant and com­pany go­ing. She pointed to a moun­tain­side a few hun­dred yards to the east, the ris­ing slopes pep­pered with green.

“We took hundreds of brooms off that slope, and they haven’t come back,” she said. “The green patches you see there now are na­tive plants and grasses that are flour­ish­ing again.”

Then she turned un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally glum. “We still have 8km of road to go, and it’s the cru­elest sec­tion of all be­cause the brooms are re­ally dense.”

Dick Sailors, 68, a re­tired mid­dle school teacher, seemed un­fazed. He joined Vin­Zant’s war nearly two years ago, af­ter the fire scorched more than 64,400ha of cha­parral, oak and pine forests. Since then, un­wanted imports have in­fested an es­ti­mated 1,360ha in the burn area.

“Come on out, you son of a gun,” said Sailors, pulling back hard on the han­dle of a weed wrench. When the 1.3m-long root ripped from the soil, he heaved a deep sigh and pointed to a knee-high green shrub a few me­tres away. “That’s a na­tive plant known as yerba santa. It’s one of the lit­tle guys I’m up here try­ing to pro­tect. Ev­ery weed we yank out of the ground brings us a lit­tle bit closer to nat­u­ral,” Sailors said.

“But Katie is the big rea­son I keep com­ing back,” he added. “Her ded­i­ca­tion, hard work and un­stop­pable op­ti­mism are a won­der, and in­fec­tious.”

Cody Coeck­e­len­bergh 28, a con­sul­tant for South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son, put it this way: “Katie has made a huge con­tri­bu­tion in heal­ing a badly de­graded wa­ter­shed. She is also the face of the new gen­er­a­tion com­ing up the ranks of the US For­est Ser­vice. I’d like to see peo­ple like her take over the agency one day.”

Vin­Zant re­ceived the 2010 national For­est Sys­tem In­va­sive Species Pro­gramme Award for her “lead­er­ship in re­cruit­ing and staffing a nox­ious weed team, lever­ag­ing fund­ing and de­vel­op­ing an ap­proach to re­store lands burned dur­ing the Sta­tion fire.”

The botanist grew up in a small town near Wi­chita, Kansas, and her love of land­scapes and plant har­mony be­gan with ex­cur­sions into the coun­try­side with her fa­ther, a doc­tor, and mother, who tended a lush home gar­den. In 2002, she earned a bi­ol­ogy de­gree and landed a job as a con­ser­va­tion land man­age­ment in­tern for the US Bureau of Land Man­age­ment.

She also is a wood­cut artist spe­cial­is­ing in land­scapes and na­tive birds and flow­ers. The San Gabriel Moun­tains are her muse, and she is de­ter­mined to pro­tect them.

On this par­tic­u­lar Sun­day, her day off, Vin­Zant and the crew re­moved 25 Span­ish broom plants, pil­ing them along a 189m stretch of road. The thunk of shov­els and cries of vic­tory as weeds popped from the soil died down as the low slant of am­ber sun­light bathed the moun­tain­side.

“All that blood, sweat and tears pays off,” she said, sur­vey­ing the piles of re­moved weeds. “na­tive veg­e­ta­tion will thrive in the light, nu­tri­ents and habi­tat we’ve given back to it.”

Giv­ing the sweaty, ex­hausted crew an ap­prov­ing nod, she added, “Are we proud of what we ac­com­plished here to­day? Hell yes!”

Vin­Zant took a deep breath and fo­cused her gaze across the ridge lines. Sprawl­ing for miles in all di­rec­tions were black­ened skele­tons of oak and pine trees.

She took stock of the un­mis­tak­able signs of an un­nat­u­ral re­growth crop­ping up in the canyons that had been re­duced to char­coal. Western blue­birds flit­ted over patches of man­zanita and lodge­pole pine. Bees zig-zagged over buck­wheat – and scores of new weeds, just a few cen­time­tres tall. – Los An­ge­les Times/MCT In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

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