Unpopular weeds moving in

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Kenai Peninsula is being invaded and not just by hordes of mosquitoes. It's under attack by invasive weeds.

These eco-invaders quietly are destroying the peninsula's forest floor, stridently marching across its meadows, silently slipping into its riparian areas threatening fish spawning grounds and destroying the grazing habitat of wild and domestic animals.

"While invasive weeds have taken root in the Lower 48 and are causing massive economic losses and environmental damage, Alaska, due to its geographic isolation, has been slow to be invaded. But that has changed in the last 10 or so years," said Jamie Snyder, coordinator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

"Invasive weeds are plants that have become established and can spread by themselves when there are not any natural controls," she said.

On the peninsula, a major natural barrier that has been removed is the forest canopy, due to the spruce bark beetle devastation.

"With the forest canopy gone and the understory opened up, the peninsula and all of Alaska is vulnerable to an invasive weed explosion," said Sue True, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.

"Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Denali National Forest, Juneau, Kodiak and Anchorage are some of the communities already on the defensive some of them for years and so should (the peninsula) be."

According to True, the need for invasive plant eradication has been apparent on the peninsula for several years, but a lack of funding and organization has held the peninsula back.

Once a partial grant was received from the U.S. Forest Service, federal and state agencies, along with Seward Forestry and the Kenai and Homer Soil and Water Conservation Districts, formed a partnership and became the Kenai Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area. This is its first year in existence.

To help determine what species are out there and the extent of damage done so far, the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District hired Janice Chumley as its "weed scout" to track and map invasive weeds and to help educate the community on the problem.

"Invasive weeds have taken root on the peninsula and are in the process of altering the entire ecosystem forever if something is not done about it right now," Chumley said. "Alaska is in the unique position to eradicate some of these weeds instead of just trying to control them."

Snyder believes that mapping and tracking these plants is the easiest part of the job that lies ahead. The toughest part will be to get people to care about getting rid of the weeds.

"Alaska is our 50th chance to get it right. We have screwed it up 49 other times, and the economic and environmental losses are in the billions," she said.

True expressed similar thoughts on the difficulty of raising awareness.

"Some of these plants are brought in on purpose because they are pretty or cover well," True said. "Usually it is done without understanding the devastation it is going to do the surrounding areas."

Other ways the weeds are making inroads on the peninsula are through common transportation pathways, such as roads, waterways and trails.

The weeds are spread as the seeds get into vehicles, tires, hikers' boots or pant cuffs, boats traveling from one waterway to the next without making sure the boat and trailer are weed free, and in uncertified hays and grains.

Some popular bird seeds and wildflower flower packets contain seeds of invasive plants. The animals spread the weeds by eating the plants then passing the seeds in their stool as they travel.

"It is easier to spread plant seeds than people think, they just need a disturbed soil. A soil scuffed up by an animal passing through is enough of an opening for an invasive weed to take root and then take over," True said.

The invasive plants' ability to jump barriers by themselves and the multiple ways in which many of the species propagate through both seed and root distribution is the reason that in relatively short periods of time they can take over, choke out and replace native plant species.

Top on the list of 10 most-wanted invasive weeds on the peninsula (see related story this page) is the Canada thistle, a perfect example of how tenacious and opportunistic invasive plants can be. This plant gives new meaning to hostile takeover.

The Canada thistle can grow 5-feet tall, has prickly stems and leaves with woolly hairs on the underside and purple-pink flowers. Its roots can grow up to 18 feet long, and it can produce up to 5,000 seeds in a growing season.

It invades disturbed soils and has the ability to adapt to all types of soils roadsides, pastures, riparian areas, even sand dunes. It will grow on riverbanks, lakeshores, muskeg and ditches. The only soil it doesn't prefer is dense forest and with the peninsula's forest canopy weakened by the spruce bark beetle, the Canada thistle can march across the peninsula without any barriers unless the community steps in.

"It is a nasty, nasty plant," True said. "Once it replaces the natural grasses, animals are forced out and have less to survive on, or to make winter weight, and that then compromises their survival."

Other invasive plants that have made a showing on the peninsula are the spotted knapweed and reed canary grass. Both plants invade most types of wetlands, marsh areas and streams. Once they take root, they crowd out natural grasses that help keep the banks from eroding. Once the natural grasses are gone and the water fills with loose sediment from erosion, the water temperature rises, the oxygen levels drop and the fish then suffocate.

True is optimistic that with education the community will understand the importance of getting involved and becoming active in the fight to save the native plants.

"In the Lower 48, the invasive weed problem was ignored until it was too late. People did not get involved until they began to get fined for not removing the plants," True said. "We (Alaskans) are not there yet; we can still work together, or Alaska is not going to be a truly wild environment if the only thing growing in it is non-native plants because they choked out everything else."

To help educate the public and get the community actively involved in the process, a weed awareness a pamphlet and "wanted" posters are being developed with information and pictures of Alaska's invasive species. A card game also is being developed to encourage children to become familiar with the plants.

"There are many things people can do right away," True said. "Only buy certified weed-free hay, grasses, mulch, bird seed and flower packets and tell the people you are buying these things from why you want them weed-free."

True also suggested home and landowners check with the Cooperative Extension office for help with identifying plant species.

For community members who like a more hands-on approach, a weed awareness walk has been scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. today. The topics will be how invasive plants change the native plant community, pathway and vectors of introduction, plants to be on the lookout for on the peninsula and the importance of recognizing and controlling them.

Preregistration is required. For more information or to register, call 260-5449.

Area residents who cannot attend the weed walk can log on to The Alaska Committee for Noxious and Invasive Plants Management Web site at www.cnipm.org. It is a wealth of information on ways individuals, landowners and communities can become proactive.

The Kenai Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area is looking for interested landowners, community members, civic groups, families and youth groups that would like to be on a volunteer call list to pull weeds. For more information, call (907) 224-4130 in Seward; 235-8177, ext. 105, in Homer; and 283-8732, ext. 108, in Kenai.

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