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Weeds pose noxious problem

Island County Weed Control program director Judy Feldman pulls some spartina from the beach near Coupeville Wharf. - Rick Levin
Island County Weed Control program director Judy Feldman pulls some spartina from the beach near Coupeville Wharf.
— image credit: Rick Levin

That tall, green, spikey-looking Canadian thistle popping up everywhere in Island County is more than just an eyesore. It’s a menace to society.

According to Judy Feldman, director of the county’s weed control program, the proliferation of noxious weeds is more than just a pet cause for tree-hugging environmentalists and obsessive greenthumbs. It’s a public safety issue, Feldman argues, with “several different layers of concerns” that impact everyone.

“I do think that people in Island County need to be more aware of the risks and challenges of weed infestation,” Feldman said on Thursday. “It’s very important that people don’t have a knee-jerk reaction. It’s not a touchy-feely issue,” she added.

Feldman said the issue of noxious weeds is actually an issue of public safety, of disease, of food availability, of land values and the ability of the public to access recreational sites. In the long term, a noxious weed that spreads rapidly can destroy a natural habitat, resulting in a loss of ecological diversity. “In general, you end up with a much more homogenous environment,” Feldman said. In this regard, noxious weeds can even be a detriment to tourism. “People come to the Pacific Northwest to see plants that are native to the Pacific Northwest,” she added.

There is also the problem of invasive species “hitchhiking” into the Northwest on foreign plants, as happened recently when the ravenous green crab was introduced to Northwest waters and started munching away at defenseless native crab species.

“Invasive species are becoming much more of a problem in the United States, if not the world,” Feldman said. “We’re moving things around at a much faster pace, without bringing along the system of control.”

Noxious weeds are invited into a region, usually unwittingly, by any number of means. Many come into an area as pond plants, or as hitchhikers piggy-backing on a different plant. Hogweed was introduced to the West as an ornamental purchased out of a British gardening catalogue.

Spartina, which according to Feldman “out-competes all of the other species that live in tide flats and intertidal areas,” was intentionally planted back in 1961. If such vegetative immigration isn’t illegal, neither is it desirable. The melting pot theory of society, it would seem, does not apply to the more dangerous forms of flora and fauna.

Control of an unwanted weed once it is introduced to an environment can be difficult if not impossible, an uphill battle requiring constant vigilance and lots of time, money and manpower. Take, for instance, the growth of Canada thistle, which was introduced to the Northwest when a farmer planted it in a field in 1856. He thought it was pretty.

“Canadian thistle is very, very hard to control mechanically,” Feldman said. “You have to be ultra-consistent.” You can try to cut it down, she said, but the plant is almost obscenely robust. “If you’re trying to do that and you skip a couple of times and it goes to seed, it looks like it’s snowing,” she said. “We’re never going to get rid of that plant.”

Such proliferation may be aggravated by the county’s recent moratorium on the use of chemical herbicides along roadways. Political considerations aside, a no-spray policy of weed control has a difficult time confronting the very nature of plant life, in that each weed goes to seed at different times. “In an ideal world, all the different noxious weeds would bloom all at the same time, so that when you mowed you’d be getting all of them before they go to seed,” Feldman said.

Because the county can’t be everywhere at once with mowers, some weeds are going to escape the blade, though this is not the only concern. Some weeds thrive when they are mowed, Feldman pointed out, and with others a single swipe of the mower will not prevent seed production.

The issue of chemical herbicides gets at one of the most controversial aspects of noxious weed control, Feldman said. The tension between the spray and no-spray camps actually leads to abuses of herbicides use, in that some folks will over-spray to combat weeds, especially if they live next door to someone who doesn’t use herbicides. A lack of information on proper application also causes problems. “I’ve seen people combine herbicides,” Feldman said.

A proponent of controlled spraying in certain circumstances, Feldman said she wants “to keep rationality as a key component of the discussion” when dealing with the struggle between the spray and no-spray camps. She said an active dialogue on the issue of noxious weeds, based in scientific data and information, will help promote better understanding of the subject. “And then everybody learns from everybody else,” she said.

One place where education and cooperation have shown positive effects is in the county’s battle against spartina. Organized digs in such places as Cultus Bay have kept the plant in check, though Feldman said it helped that the bay also was sprayed for several consecutive years. Island County now has about 300 acres of spartina, which with continual vigilance is a manageable amount. “We’re winning, but we have to keep it up,” Feldman said.

In the end, it may be a completely different kind of green, or lack thereof, that presents the greatest crisis in the war against noxious weeds. With a total budget of about $22,500, Feldman — who is now a half-time county employee — is already running a pretty slim program, and more cuts in 2003 could force her to take on more office work with less time in the field doing prevention and intervention.

“I expect to be doing less in terms of single site weed calls,” she said, adding that she’ll be focusing more on recruiting entire communities to establish pilot weed control plans. Education, always a big component of noxious weed control, will become even more important with a potential reduction to funding.

“Weed control has been historically very underfunded in Island County,” Feldman said. “I never have enough time and money to get the word out. It’s an incredible amount of information that needs to get out to the public.”

Noxious activities

Island County Noxious Weed Program Coordinator Judy Feldman will teach a free spartina eradication class on Saturday, Aug. 10, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the beach near the Coupeville Wharf. There is also a spartina dig in Cultus Bay on Saturday, Aug. 24, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. A noxious weed information booth will be set up at the Island County Fair, which takes place in Langley Aug. 15-18. To register for classes or for more information on noxious weeds in Island County, call 679-7327.

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