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Volunteers fighting buckthorn invasion
Volunteers fighting buckthorn invasion

Donna Halvorsen, Star Tribune
October 23, 2005 at 10:05 PM

They can't win the war, but they can see the results of their battle in more than blistered hands. They see cleared areas where maples, oaks and wildflowers, once choked out by buckthorn, will be able to push their shoots through the forest floor.

Armed with loppers and weed wrenches, volunteers work in areas that are important to them. In Mahtomedi, it's Katherine Abbott Park, the crown jewel of the city's park system. In Minneapolis, it's the Mississippi River Gorge, the only true gorge along the 2,350-mile river. In Eden Prairie, it's Birch Island Woods, which activists saved from development four years ago.

"The more people put into their own local parks and their own open spaces, the more stake they have in it, the better they're going to feel," said Jeff Strate, president of Friends of Birch Island Woods.

Buckthorn is widespread in southeastern and central Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, said Luke Skinner of the state Department of Natural Resources' invasive species program. "It's one of the worst problems in our forests in the Twin Cities," he said.

Common and glossy buckthorn are on Minnesota's restricted noxious weed list and cannot be sold. The plants were imported from Europe in the 1800s to create dense, fast-growing hedges that still exist in many Twin Cities yards.

However, it spread quickly from lawns to natural areas with the help of birds. They ate its purplish black berries, got sick and disgorged the seeds on the forest floor. It is a threat to native forests and the trees -- maple, basswood, white oak, green ash, slippery elm and paper birch -- that historically have lived in them. "So rather than being able to walk through the maple-basswood forest or the oak forest in the [Mississippi Rover Gorge], it'll be just a buckthorn thicket," said Elizabeth Storey, watershed education coordinator for Friends of the Mississippi.

In the face of such a big problem, do volunteer efforts do any good? "You can be effective in managing buckthorn if you're diligent," Skinner said. "If you go out and pull it one time, it's not going to eradicate it. You have to be diligent and go back year after year."

"If you have high quality sites, those are the ones that you want to start with," he said.

The Birch Lake Woods is a high quality site to Strate and other Eden Prairie activists whose work kept Hennepin County from selling it on the open market. Instead, the city bought 32 acres as a conservation area, and each fall for three years volunteers have removed buckthorn.

They've cleared three acres in all so far, which "doesn't sound like much, but it is, and it hasn't cost anybody a dime," Strate said. On one weekend in mid-October, 46 people went into the woods with tools and high spirits and cleared an additional three-quarters of an acre.

In Bloomington, nearly 200 volunteers cleared five acres in the inaugural "Buckthorn Across Borders" program involving the city, the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Friends of the Minnesota River.

"The biggest problem is that many people don't know what [buckthorn] looks like," said Chris Trosen, operations specialist for the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Buckthorn is easier to identify in the late fall and winter because its leaves remain green after other trees and shrubs have shed theirs. Small plants are pulled out. Bigger trunks are cut and treated with an herbicide. But buckthorn is hardy, and shoots can grow from treated stumps.

Residents of Minneapolis' Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods, adjacent to the gorge, have battled buckthorn there for years, and they're now trying to convince their neighbors to remove buckthorn, especially large hedges, from their property.

In Mahtomedi, Joe Moore, a member of the Park Commission, and others took chain saws to the bigger buckthorn in Katherine Abbott Park. The park was chosen to show people what buckthorn looks like, how pervasive it is and how it's damaging the woods.

"Katherine Abbott's a pretty big park, and we're not really making much of a dent in it," Moore said. "It takes a great deal of time and effort and a lot of people, and then you have to keep at it all the time because you'll have more of it coming back."

"We'll never overcome it by cutting and pulling buckthorn," he said. "Hopefully, they'll come along with some biological control. I understand there are some hopeful things they're doing." Until then, he added, "We're going to keep at it."

Donna Halvorsen • 612-673-1709

Buckthorn volunteers Christian Ruud and Jeff Strate and Yommy Johnson were picured in the print article.

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