Forest service mulls ways to fight invasive weeds

Forest service mulls ways to fight invasive weeds
Thistle is one of the noxious weeds in Oregon.

BEND, Ore. (AP) - Across the 2.5 million acres of federal forestland in Central Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service has identified 1,900 sites infested with plants and weeds that shouldn't be there. And the agency has developed a plan to deal with each site.

The Forest Service plan means nearly every level of government - federal, state and local - has new direction in the fight to rid the High Desert ecosystem of plants that don't belong.

"It's one of the greatest threats to Oregon's ecosystems, quality of life and economy," said Lisa DeBruyckere, Oregon Invasive Species Council coordinator. "They displace native plants and wildlife, and they do that and become firmly established. That's what they're good at."

Once weeds spread through an area, they're expensive to get rid of, DeBruyckere said. Noxious weeds cost Oregon an estimated $125 million a year, according to an Oregon State University report.

"It's a pay-now or pay-later situation," she said.

Invasive plants like spotted knapweed and medusahead are an ongoing problem in the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, said Beth Peer with the Forest Service, but experts have said the agency can get a handle on weeds in Central Oregon - if it takes action. "We want to get started on this and make sure we can get things under control," she said.

Currently, the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests only have permission to use a handful of herbicides to treat the weeds, she said. A new plan, which analyzes the environmental impact of 10 herbicides and outlines which ones should be used on different sites, will help step up the agencies' efforts to treat about 15,000 acres.

Each herbicide has rules for its use, including the distance from a stream and whether crews should spray it onto vegetation or swab it onto individual plants.

Each weed site is identified with nearby sensitive native vegetation and waterways and a ranking of the top three herbicides to target the invasive species.

"This is really going to go a long way in helping us get a handle on this," Peer said. The Forest Service is currently taking public comments on the draft plan.

The region's national forests need a new set of tools to help combat invasive weeds, said Maret Pajutee, Sisters Ranger District ecologist. Currently, if weeds pop up in a new area, the only option is to send out crews to pull plants by hand.

"Crews are out every summer pulling their hearts out in the heat, trying to get a handle on the weeds we have," she said. "We cannot keep up with manual control, so it will be very beneficial to have a number of control methods available to us."

The Invasive Plants Treatment Plan also outlines an "early detection, rapid response" strategy, Peer said. "If you spot a small population, you can treat it quickly instead of going to another year or so of planning, while those are spreading," she said.

Tackling invasive weed problems early is also a goal of the Oregon Invasive Species Council, DeBruyckere said - the council is working with The Nature Conservancy to develop a quick response plan. And the Oregon Legislature approved a bill this session that would use $350,000 from all-terrain vehicle funds to allow the state to respond to invasive species emergencies - the council is currently defining what an emergency is, she said.

At the Deschutes County level, vegetation manager Dan Sherwin is responding to residents' weed-related concerns - he got three calls in one morning alone. While state rules say property owners are responsible for getting rid of invasive species on their land, Deschutes County doesn't have procedures or policies in place for enforcing those rules, Sherwin said.

And even though the county hasn't budgeted money for an enforcement program, Sherwin said he will often go out and talk to people about removing weeds.

"I don't like to say, 'No, I can't do anything,"' he said.

With a shrinking work crew due to budget constraints, the city of Bend has had to cut back on its weed-eradication program, said Hardy Hanson, street division manager. Instead, the Bend Beautification Program is tackling the issue of weeds in medians and roundabouts.

"That's going to be a big help, hopefully," Hanson said.