Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pretty Weeds in Paradise: Ribbon Grass on the Metolius

Ribbon grass along the Metolius River in central Oregon. Photo by Maret Pajutee.
Are there weeds in paradise? Are they pretty?  I’m afraid so. I think I saw them there recently. I love central Oregon, and one of my favorite spots is the headwaters of the Metolius River near Camp Sherman. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place.

Clear, cold water fed by snowmelt from the Cascades springs from a hillside, forming an instant river. Large trout tempt fly fishermen as the river winds through pine forests and meadows past Camp Sherman and on to Lake Billy Chinook. The snow-covered slopes of Mt.Jefferson provide a stunning backdrop.

Recently, after hiking up BlackButte, our group stopped at the Camp Sherman store and bought food for a picnic. We sat down along the river to eat. It was shirtsleeve weather, the scenery was postcard beautiful, and the only bugs were mayflies that the fish were having for dinner. Paradise couldn’t be any nicer; even the grass was pretty -- it was an attractive green and white.

Ribbon grass in front of store on Metolius River. Photo by Maret Pajutee.

As I was soaking up the scenery and eating my salmon burger, it dawned on me that there was something peculiar about the grass. It looked out of place. The rest of the riverside vegetation seemed to belong to the pristine riparian habitat, but the variegated grass stood out like a new Corvette at an antique car show. Once I started looking around, it was everywhere. We hiked downstream for a mile and saw that 6-ft diameter clumps where scattered up and down both banks and on all the islands. A few patches were as big as the cabins nearby.

I pulled up a sample to take to the office for identification, but it wasn’t necessary. Crossing back over the Camp Sherman Bridge, we spotted a small sign pointing out a ribbon grass solarization project. The US Forest Service (USFS) and local teens pulled up the ribbon grass on an island just below the bridge, covered it with landscape fabric, and replanted native sedges. There is a short video describing the project at:

US Forest Service work team handpulling ribbon grass. Photo by Maret Pajutee.

While I applaud the Forest Service for their project, the potential of the demonstrated method doesn’t match the scale of the problem. Walk down the river and you’ll see what I mean. There is a lot of ribbon grass, and it’s displacing the native vegetation and growing out into the river. According to the sign, it first showed up in 2003, so it’s spreading fast. It looks like a classic riparian noxious weed invasion, but it isn’t. Here is why.

Ribbon grass is an ornamental variety of reed canary grass, Phalaris arundinacea. You can probably buy it at your local garden store. The OregonAssociation of Nurseries’ Nursery Guide lists three wholesale nurseries that carry it. Regular reed canary grass (same species, different variety) is a valuable hay and forage species in some situations and is not today considered to be a noxious weed in Oregon.

This creates an awkward situation. An ornamental grass is taking over the banks of one of the premier trout streams in Oregon. It is changing the scenery, and it has to be changing the ecology. Local biologists recognize the problem and see it getting worse, but the Forest Service has to comply with National Environmental Policy Act rules that severely limit control options. All the while, the average fishermen and the general public are oblivious to the invasion. If someone did want to clean it up, people would likely oppose the use of herbicides, given the sensitivity of using chemicals in places where people like to recreate. Other options have been tried (pulling and covering) with limited success. Pulling is probably worse for the ecology of the river because it stirs up lots of sediment. Covering isn’t any better as it kills everything under the plastic – neither are practical given the extent of the invasion and both would require working in the river, which is quite dangerous due to strong currents that can sweep people under fallen logs.

The situation is not out of hand - yet. We have a window of opportunity, and we have the tools to repel this invasion. Pete Schay, with Friends of the Metolius, has demonstrated that aquatic formulations of Rodeo and Habitat work well, especially after the first frost. He’s eliminated the ribbon grass on almost all the private land in the area with no adverse effects to the fish or other wildlife. The ribbon grass that remains is on public land managed by the Forest Service. The Forest Service has been trying to get approval to use herbicides on the Deschutes National Forest for a decade. Maret Pajutee, USFS Ecologist, told me that sensitive issues related to the Metolius are holding up the Environmental Impact Statement. Meanwhile the ribbon grass keeps spreading.

Ironically, if it wasn’t a variegated variety, it wouldn’t look so out of place. This weekend I was biking on the Banks-Vernonia State Trail. Reed canary grass was common on the trail margins. It looked great, and the only thing it was competing with was Himalayanblackberry! Reed canary grass and ribbon grass -- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it is an interesting case.

We’re lucky to live in this beautiful state with special places like the Metolius. Ribbon grass is invading that piece of paradise. Is that acceptable? We all have a stake in this – it’s our public land. Should we do something or not?  What do you think?  

Dan Hilburn

Monday, August 8, 2011

Vacationing with Invasive Species in Mind – Part 2, the Bad Stuff

In my last article, I focused on positive stories related to invasive species from a recent camping trip in the Sierra Nevada. This time I want to talk about the invasive species problems we encountered.

Our route took us 800 miles south on I-5 before we turned left toward Sequoia National Park. The Oregon and northern California stretches of the highway were pleasant and scenic, as highways go. Somewhere south of Sacramento the scenery went to hell. Not only was the air a sickly yellow-brown and the pavement in terrible condition, but yellow star thistle and Russian thistle dominated the non-crop landscape. It was ugly. We couldn’t wait to get out of there. At the southwestern edge of Sequoia National Park, a promontory at 6,700 feet (Moro Rock) has an interpretive panel about the deterioration of air quality that has diminished the westward viewing distance from more than 100 miles when the park was established a century ago to just a few miles today. Thankfully, the eastward view from the same spot, toward the Great Divide, is still spectacular.

The State of California eliminated their noxious weed program this year due to budget cuts. That’s a worry; our staff considered them valuable allies, especially in the area of biological control. Somebody needs to pay attention to the weeds in California, especially in the Central Valley where one-fourth of the food America eats is grown. If they don’t, hell is going to spread. There is one silver lining—ODA hired the best of the California Department of  Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) laid-off staff, Carri Pirosko, to take over Ken French’s territory (now retired) in southwestern Oregon.

While I’m on the subject of weeds, one of the few weeds noticeable in national parks was cheatgrass. There wasn’t a lot of it, but here and there along the roads and trails, it existed, a reminder of the many invasives waiting in the wings to dominate any landscape. We also encountered a lot of prescribed burning in the forests. Numerous signs explained how the sequoias and other conifers are fire-adapted and how fire improves the forest’s health. I wonder how cheat grass is going to fit into that picture?  It is fire-adapted, too, and extremely invasive. Watch out!

Firewood was also on my mind. In my last article, I mentioned seeing commercial firewood sold in boxes with labeling that included origin information and assurances that the contents met California air quality standards. It was $8.50 a box, not too bad considering it was bigger than a typical bundle, clean and easy to handle, and it included kindling and fire-starter (the cardboard). Other stores were selling firewood for $5.00 to $5.50 per dinky bundle (5-6 sticks). No wonder people like to bring their own.

Someday I hope there is a standard for all commercial firewood so that it is either locally produced or heat-treated to kill insects and plant diseases. Another alternative we should consider is the system used in Canadian National Parks. On last year’s camping trip, we visited Alberta and British Columbia. There they charged us $8 extra for a campfire, but then we had unlimited access to a huge pile of firewood in the middle of the campground. They even provided wheelbarrows! No worries there about people bringing bug-infested firewood with them.

Next, I need to mention cars and crowds. Did you know there are traffic jams in Yosemite? The parking lots are jammed, vultures are circling, and shuttle buses, where they exist, are stuck in traffic jams with all the cars. It is great that people are out enjoying our parks, but we need to get smarter about getting people to the parks and getting them around in the parks. More roads for more cars is not the answer. From an invasive species point of view, roads are pathways and cars are vectors. We need better and smarter transportation alternatives.

Lastly, I have a confession to make. Counter to our Buy It Where You Burn It campaign, I took my own firewood. I didn’t even think about it when I packed our car, and the California border inspector didn’t ask or didn’t notice it. Probably he would have let us keep it anyway, as it was all scrap lumber from carpentry projects—very low risk. Scrap lumber is another issue we’re going to have to deal with as we craft Oregon’s imported firewood regulations. Invasive species exclusion is always harder than you’d imagine. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I’d rather face our challenges than those of our neighbors to the south.

Dan Hilburn

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Vacationing with Invasive Species in Mind – Part 1, the Good Stuff

Giant sequoia in California.

        Biologists have trouble leaving their work behind when they vacation. Entomologists and weed scientists are the worst. Everywhere they go, they see interesting specimens that they have to examine, photograph, or collect. Pity their long-suffering spouses.

        I’m not a fanatic, but my wife will tell you I’m guilty of biological interruptions while vacationing. On our recent camping trip through the Sierra Nevada, I couldn’t help noticing invasive species and our California colleagues’ efforts to combat them. There were some good things and some not so good things. In this article, I’ll focus on the good stuff; next time I’ll cover the problems.

        1.) Gypsy Moth Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR). I’ve been involved with gypsy moth early detection and rapid response for so long that I can spot gypsy moth traps at highway speeds. In spite of California’s budget woes, I was happy to see gypsy moth traps in the campgrounds and other high-risk introduction sites. Oregon’s 30-year record of success at excluding gypsy moths wouldn’t have been possible without similar commitments from our neighbors. California, Washington, and Idaho all have roughly equivalent gypsy moth EDRR programs and the same record of success. The program works because we’re all doing it.

        2.) Boat Inspection Stations. We passed a couple of boat inspection stations targeting quagga/zebra mussels. We weren’t pulling a boat, so I don’t know how thorough their inspections are, but it was gratifying to know they are trying to slow the spread of aquatic nuisance species. Signage at campgrounds and boat launches was also much in evidence. One boat launch at Lake Tahoe had four posters on an information board, three of which had to do with invasive species. Again, this has ramifications for Oregon. The more Californians that know to clean their boat between launches, the lower the risk of invasive mussels or weeds hitchhiking to Oregon.

        3.) Firewood. At two different retail outlets I saw firewood being sold in boxes. Neat idea!  The boxes included kindling and, of course, the cardboard itself makes an excellent fire starter. The label included not only the origin of the wood (Fresno, CA) but also a statement that the contents met California air quality standards. It would sure be nice if all commercial firewood was sold this way and all of it met an invasive species-free standard.

        4.) Healthy Forests. Gawking at enormous 2,000-year old sequoias is an awesome experience. They are so big and so old, one can’t help but marvel at their continued survival and apparent good health. There were a lot of other healthy-looking trees in the Sierras, too. The species composition, at least in the parks, is what it has always been. Not all our nation’s forests are like that—chestnut blight, gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, and other invasive species have undermined the forest health of large regions and changed the species composition. Our western national forests and national parks are still in pretty good condition.

        5.) Road Shoulders. The roads through Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Lassen Volcanic National Parks were beautiful. Not only was the scenery stunning, but it was enhanced, in my opinion, by the beautifully built and maintained roads. It wouldn’t have been nearly as spectacular if the shoulders were covered with weeds. Kudos to the National Park Service for beautiful shoulders!

        6.) World Visitors. Our national parks are swarming with people. Campgrounds and parking lots were full. Interestingly, a large percentage of the visitors were not speaking English. My wife is a foreign language nut, and she identified people speaking: German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Icelandic, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages she didn’t recognize!  It was extraordinary. One night we shared a campfire with a Dutch couple. We asked them why they were camping so far from home. They said The Netherlands has only one national park. and it isn’t very popular because there is nothing to do there. We all talked about our jobs, and I explained my passion for invasive species exclusion. They were aware of the issue through a familiarity with eastern grey squirrels (native to eastern North America) which have spread to Europe—and Oregon.

        It was a great vacation. Thanks, California, you’ve got some amazing landscapes, and I’m glad you’re working to protect them. We left behind much more Oregon-earned money than we’d budgeted—that should help pay for an insect/weed scout or two!

Dan Hilburn