Making a Difference: Volunteers Help Battle Phragmites

From our 2010 Fall Newsletter

November 2010–Two years ago Nancy Miller viewed a video on the internet about Phragmites australis and how the invasive plant had created a 20-foot tall barrier of thick vegetation along the Beaver Island coast. “It was frightening,” she says. “I knew it could happen on our shoreline if we let it go.”

Meanwhile, her neighbor, Jo Walker had seen Phragmites obliterate Lake St. Clair’s shoreline near Detroit. “It was so thick people could not get their boats into the water,” says Jo. So when a letter arrived from the Leelanau Conservation District asking for permission to kill any Phragmites found on their shoreline, Nancy and Jo quickly agreed—and together went to the Conservation District office to see what else they could do to help.

The Conservation District had taken on the role of coordinating the effort to eradicate Phragmites in Leelanau County. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources had provided some funds to assist with the project, but the task was Herculean—and a communications nightmare. “It was overwhelming,” says Conservation District Director Buzz Long. Among the challenges: contact each shoreline owner to obtain permission to go onto his or her property to spray, and a limited window of opportunity. Phragmites must be sprayed in the fall for optimum treatment, and so it was a race against time.

At the District office, Nancy says “I saw piles of papers people had sent in. The staff could not open the envelopes fast enough.” She and Jo pitched in, recording responses on huge maps and phoning landowners who had not yet responded.

Back in their neighborhood, she and Jo “decided we would shoot for 100 percent participation” and went door to door.

“When people were hesitant, we said, ‘Here’s what will happen’ and showed them pictures of how it gets 20 feet tall,” says Nancy. “Everyone said ‘Yes’ once they understood the threat to our Lake Michigan beaches and to their property values. Believe me, I’m not a fan of spraying but it’s the only thing that works.”

While the District handled landowner communications, the Conservancy took on creating a database to electronically map the infestations. Such a database would help certified herbicide contractor Vicki Smith locate the affected sites for quick eradication come fall. It would also guide future monitoring to keep tabs on hot spots. But in order for the Conservancy to create such maps, they needed volunteer “Coastal Monitors” to walk the shoreline using GPS units to record where Phragmites was present. Nancy and Jo stepped forward to help.

The pair, along with a cadre of other volunteers, surveyed 39 miles of shoreline during the summer of 2009. The first herbicide applications took place that fall in Leelanau Township. Over the following winter the Conservation District met with officials from several townships and convinced them to pass an ordinance that mandated treatment of Phragmites. This eliminated the “impossible task of getting permission from every landowner,” says Buzz. Meanwhile the County had secured the necessary spraying permits.

“In that first year there were a lot of properties that did not get treated because we could not reach people,” he adds. “And that’s no good—you have to treat them all or the problem just comes back.” (There is no cost to the landowner for the treatment, which is paid for by a state grant.)
This fall nearly 800 sites were treated—everything from a single clump to a quarter-acre of shoreline. “We’re lucky to have tackled it at this stage,” says Conservancy bio-tech Fields Ratliff. “On Saginaw Bay they are now having to spray from airplanes to control it. That’s costly and not a great way to attack it.”

The worst sites in Leelanau will need treatments again next fall to kill off plants that are expected to regenerate at an estimated 20 percent comeback rate. To keep the problem under control, shoreline owners will need to remain vigilant, watching for signs of new infestations which will spread quickly. They are also encouraged to collect the large bamboo-like roots that wash ashore, especially after a big storm. “The roots should be burned or disposed of, or they’ll just take root and start the problem all over again,” says Nancy Miller.

The Conservation District and the Conservancy encourage landowners to call with questions and concerns in helping to identify Phragmites on their property. “It has been an unbelievable effort involving numerous partners,” says Buzz. “The early response has kept the problem manageable and hopefully it will be even more manageable in the future.”

Stewardship Director Jenee Rowe says the data collection that first year has led to multiple grant awards for the Conservancy. “We were two years ahead of everybody else in other parts of the state who were applying for funds because of the mapping work of our volunteers,” says Jenee. The latest of these is a three-year grant that will enable the Conservancy to continue coordination of plant surveys and monitoring and to remove invasive plants from Conservancy Natural Areas on inland lakes. The Conservancy is one of 16 partners to receive the grant administered by the Grand Traverse Conservation District as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative awards from the U.S. EPA.

You can bet that Jo and Nancy will be a part of our ongoing efforts, and that next summer will find them on the beach, walking their five mile stretch, keeping watch. “We’re a team,” says Nancy. “We said from the beginning that we would marshall our forces and get this done.”

“Those two are great examples of the difference volunteers can make,” says Jenee. “They took the bull by the horns and decided they just weren’t going to let Phragmites take over our shoreline. Their work had both short and long term impact. We are really lucky to have them volunteering on our behalf.”

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