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Published: Tuesday, 7/3/2012

Prescribed blazes fuel fight to force out pesky Phragmites

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

MARBLEHEAD, Ohio -- Fire can be a very destructive force, as we've witnessed over the past month in the western U.S., but it can also be a cleansing mechanism.

A recent series of prescribed burns in the marshy areas around Sandusky Bay will hopefully beat back a nasty and aggressive invasive plant, clearing the way for native vegetation to repopulate the mud flats and once again make them hospitable for birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife.

The flames have consumed huge patches of a vegetative villain called Phragmites, pronounced: frag-MY-teez.

This nonnative plant, also known as the common reed, is a bully when it moves into the bulrushes. Phragmites can grow to 15 feet in height and taller, but more than half of the plant's mass is actually underground in a massive complex of rhizomes and roots, some pushing to depths of six feet.

"It basically takes over, and crowds out everything else, including all of the native plant life," said Joe Uhinck, wildlife specialist with the Ottawa Soil & Water Conservation District who is involved with the eradication effort.

Phragmites is thought by some to have originated in Australia, and it is now present on every continent but Antarctica, Uhinck said.

Another theory holds that Phragmites arrived in North America in the early part of the 20th century, hidden in ballast and packing material on ships arriving from Europe. When those materials were disposed of in coastal marsh areas, the pesky plant got its foothold.

"This plant has become a serious problem here over the last 10 or 15 years," Uhinck said. "It has spread rapidly in the Lake Erie marsh region. It grows so thick that nothing can utilize it -- there's no wildlife habitat value to it."

The plumes of black smoke witnessed by boaters out on Sandusky Bay and motorists along the highways around the bay area last week were a sign that this round of battles with Phragmites at certain sites, including the Meadowbrook Marsh, was nearing its eleventh hour. The smoke gets its dark color from the rich nutrients present at the marsh burn sites, Uhinck said.

Before the fire consumed the plants, which are highly tolerant and able to out-adapt all of their competition in the marshes, water-safe herbicides were applied to the large swaths of Phragmites for two seasons to guarantee they had been killed. The flames then took several hours to complete the job.

In the summer months, the Phragmites plant displays large, flat, green leaves along its stem, and it has an unusual purple and brown seed head with distinctive, feathery plumes that are up to 20 inches long.

The local battle with Phragmites is a collaborative effort between the Ottawa Soil & Water Conservation District, the Erie-Ottawa-Sandusky Pheasants Forever, and the Lake Erie Cooperative Weed Management Area program, with some funding assistance from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Lake Erie Cooperative Weed Management Area program works primarily in Ottawa, Lucas, Erie, and Sandusky counties, with a mission to protect, restore, and enhance the Western Lake Erie Basin wetlands through the coordination of efforts to first identify, and then prevent and control invasive plant species. Phragmites is at the top of the group's Most Wanted list.

Uhinck, who doubles as the habitat chairman for the Erie-Ottawa-Sandusky Pheasants Forever chapter, said the recent prescribed burns involved patches of Phragmites of 50 acres or less, but that future eradication efforts will target some infestations of up to 90 acres. Depending on the weather and the status of any burn-ban, those fires could take place within the next month.

Since the inception of the program nearly two years ago, close to 2,500 acres of Phragmites have been treated, with more than 100 property owners involved in the effort.

Uhinck said the hope is that native plants will return to the marshy areas and repopulate them, once again providing a food source and good habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

A native wetland seeding mix will be used in some areas to push that effort along, but native plants will be relied on to do the bulk of the work by spreading their seeds in the burned off sections of marsh.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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