Plan to treat invasive weed at Fitzgerald Lake with herbicide sparks opposition



Last modified: Saturday, July 05, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — A proposal to treat a stand of invasive plants in a nearly inaccessible portion of the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area is stirring debate over the use of herbicides to eradicate non-native plants.

Most involved agree that something should be done to get rid of a plant called phragmites, also known as common reed, before its dense root system and tall stalks choke out native habitat and make it tough for animals to survive. They differ, however, on whether to apply a form of herbicide called Rodeo on the plants or to instead use a chemical-free alternative.

The debate stems from a request this spring from the Broad Brook Coalition, which manages the conservation area, for about $2,500 in Community Preservation Act money to control and eradicate a recently discovered stand of phragmites on a brook in the northern reaches of the 800-acre conservation area. The coalition wants to use the money to hire an expert to kill the plant with herbicides before it expands.

But at a recent City Council meeting, organic land care consultant Bernadette Giblin of Northampton expressed concerns about the proposal to use glyphosate, the active ingredient in Rodeo. She urged the council to explore non-chemical alternatives, including a new biological technique in use at the Great Lakes.

Chemical-free techniques that have been used elsewhere include cutting and pulling the plant by hand, burning or mowing, all of which Broad Brook officials say aren’t feasible in this case. Scientists are also studying new biological alternatives such as introducing insects that target phragmites or altering specific microbes within the plant to disrupt its ability to thrive in a variety of conditions.

“We live in a world of climate change where these plants are magnifying and more of this old-spray approach is really not very forward-thinking when we think about what it’s doing to our water,” said Giblin, who owns Safeground Organic Lawn Care.

Robert Zimmermann, Broad Brook’s president, said he had similar concerns several years ago before Broad Brook hired a Turners Falls contractor to treat three other batches of phragmites elsewhere in the conservation area. But those previous treatments demonstrated that tightly focused herbicide treatments could eradicate threatening plants without harming the rest of the flora and fauna, he said.

“It took me some time to be convinced, but after seeing how highly targeted the treatment is, I kind of lost my inhibitions about using herbicides in this case,” Zimmermann said. He noted that the treatment being proposed has been adopted by conservation agencies, state wildlife experts and others as an effective way to treat phragmites.

The herbicide discussion comes less than a year after Giblin and many others from Grow Food Northampton protested the city’s use of the herbicide Roundup to treat the city’s new recreation complex at Florence Fields. While the city proceeded with that initial treatment, the ensuing debate led city officials to explore organic treatment of the fields. A pilot program is underway this year.

And in a new development, the city is considering the creation of a task force that will explore pesticide reduction throughout the city. Ward 7 City Councilor Alisa F. Klein initiated the task force in consultation with Mayor David J. Narkewicz. It would include department heads, two city councilors and other experts. Klein said she hopes the task force examines not only reducing pesticide use, but also moves the city toward its eventual elimination.

“I think that in general the use of pesticides is a problematic way of dealing with invasives and weeds,” she said. “We hope we’re starting a process where the city becomes truly green.”

Phragmites take root

Broad Brook volunteers spotted the recent batch of phragmites about two years ago with binoculars while exploring a different section of the conservation area. At the time, the stand was estimated to be about a couple of dozen stalks, but has since grown to “hundreds, if not thousands” of stalks over an acre, Zimmermann said. It’s the fourth batch of phragmites found in the conservation area in recent years.

Phragmites is a wetland plant imported from Europe that threatens critical habitats for native wildlife and plants. The latest stand, for example, is just upstream from a section of Broad Brook in which the endangered dwarf wedge mussel has been found. The mussel is listed as an endangered species in Massachusetts.

“Essentially, it’s a habitat destroyer,” Zimmermann said.

If the City Council approves the CPA request at its July 10 meeting, Broad Brook intends to hire Polatin Ecological Services, of Turners Falls, to complete the work over the next three years. Most of that work would take place this year and would involve cutting the phragmites stalks by hand this summer and letting them decompose for several months.

The summer’s regrowth would then be treated this fall with Rodeo that would be mixed with another chemical, known as a surfactant, called Agri-Dex. The surfactant is a soap-like substance that allows the herbicide to penetrate a leaf. Chris Polatin, who owns Polatin Ecological Services, said Rodeo would be ineffective without it. He said the herbicide would be applied to the phragmites through a “glove” technique in which a worker moistens a glove with the chemical, then wipes each stem and leaf of individual plants.

“We can be very controlled and we can do all handwork,” Polatin said.

He said nearly all of the herbicide coats the plant, though a small amount could end up escaping its root system and being absorbed by the soil.

Klein is not convinced that a targeted application like “painting” guarantees that the herbicide won’t spread to non-targeted areas, especially when agitating forces such as wind and waves are at play.

“Inevitably, the chemicals get into non-target areas,” she said.

She also said there is a debate among ecologists about whether phragmities chokes out native plants and animals through its dense, monotypic stands.

Glyphosate debate

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of glyphosate, the main chemical in Rodeo, as an aquatic herbicide. Polatin said the product is the “most benign” herbicide available to effectively manage phragmites without hurting wildlife and water quality. That’s because it has low toxicity, can bind to soil and has a short half-life before it breaks down into harmless substances.

Giblin, however, is concerned about the lack of scientific study surrounding glyphosate and she’s not convinced its use won’t threaten environmental health. Another concern is the addition of surfactant, which makes the herbicide more mobile. She said she harbors concerns about how that will affect the brook where the phragmites grow.

“There’s a lot of information coming out day after day about glyphosate, studies that address health issues to aquatic life,” she said.

Giblin said she’d like the chance to provide Broad Brook, an organization she admires, with information about possible non-chemical alternatives through biological controls in Michigan’s Great Lakes region. She’d also like to have further discussion about ways to use deal with the plant by hand, also known as mechanical removal.

“I’d love to bring these to the forefront of the City Council so that this (herbicides) isn’t an ongoing option,” Giblin said. “I hope we begin to have more of a conversation.”

In a letter to the council, Polatin explained that phragmites management and eradication can’t be done without some component of herbicide use, even though such a move to restore habitat in such a way appears counterintuitive.

“Using herbicides for this work should not be taken lightly and I would not prescribe their use unless it was absolutely necessary,” Polatin wrote.

Digging the plant out by hand is often not feasible because phragmites develop elaborate root systems that go deep into the ground. In the case of Fitzgerald Lake, the batch is so remote that it would be impossible for machines to reach them.

“There is nothing in the literature that poses a non-chemical approach as effective, certainly not as effective as the judicious use of herbicide,” Polatin said.

Zimmermann said the herbicide treatment has worked well for the three other phragmites batches that have been treated in the conservation area. Coalition members were initially concerned that the herbicide would get into the water and migrate, but that proved not to be the case. Zimmermann said the water sample tests he conducted during previous treatments came back negative for herbicide.

In all of those places, healthy native plants have taken the area back, including native cattails.

“It’s amazing to see the field after he does the treatment,” Zimmermann said.

Additionally, he said, all of the “heavyweights” involved in land management — including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service — have adopted selective use of herbicides to deal with phragmites that have taken over thousands of acres throughout the country.

Klein, the city councilor, notes that most of the research that declares herbicides such as Rodeo and Roundup safe are backed and funded by companies that make the products. She said Canada and several countries in Europe and have banned their use for some time.

“I think it’s a foolhardy way to go about things,” Klein said.




 


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