Township works to control an unwanted pest

 Invasive weed chokes out other native plant life and crowds habitats


By Beth LeBlanc
Times Herald (Port Huron)

CLAY TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Bill Bracken has no love for the phragmites that choke the area around his Harsens Island home.

“This stuff is like an ultimate predator,” Bracken told the Times Herald of Port Huron. “It will grow anywhere and kills anything it grows on.”

But Bracken said recent efforts to stymie the advance of the invasive plant in Clay Township seem to be working.

“I see lakes and streams and stuff I’ve never seen before,” Bracken said. “They’ve gotten a lot better, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”

Officials are taking notice of the efforts in southern St. Clair County to control phragmites — an invasive weed that chokes out other native plant life, crowds habitats for native species, decreases visibility at roadway intersections, and creates a fire risk.

“We do know just from the work going on down there that it’s highly infested,” Sue Tangora, invasive species coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources wildlife division, said of the southern end of St. Clair County.

“I think there’s a lot of good work going on in that area. There’s a lot of opportunity to build on existing efforts.”

In 2010, Clay Township established the Phragmites Advisory Board, a volunteer board that assists residents in fighting phragmites on their private property.

The township advisory board provides workshops, assists land owners in obtaining a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to spray the plants, and buys sprays and equipment in bulk so that it’s available at lower prices to area residents, according to Chuck Miller, a Clay Township trustee and program coordinator for five years for the advisory board.

“The township itself assumes the permit, and all of the citizens that apply become parties to that permit,” Miller said.

Miller said about 320 properties have been assisted through the program — for a total of about 400 acres of private lands and some adjacent state lands.

He said the program has been successful, but must be maintained.

“The homeowner can get to the point where it’s just like treating dandelions each year,” Miller said.

Bill Parkus, a planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said phragmites have been controlled in about 3,500 acres around Lake St. Clair through two grants in the past five years. But those grants are up in June.

“We’re at a crossroads right now where we have to develop a more local management structure,” Parkus said. “We’re looking at a structure called a cooperative weed management area.”

Parkus said the management structure will allow state and federal agencies to work directly with local property owners and non-profits.

He said any phragmites control program would be strictly voluntary.

He said Clay Township is a good model for local government’s role in phragmites control.

“They are the Cadillac of phragmites management,” Parkus said. “They are the first management structure that was developed here around Lake St. Clair.

“I basically used that as a model to talk to local governments with. Not all local governments are going to use that, but they can use elements of it.”

Clay Township Supervisor Artie Bryson said the program is working, but the battle against phragmites is an ongoing effort.

“It chokes all of the other plant growth that wildlife depend on,” Bryson said. “It’s a safety issue. They’re a fire hazard. They can set off a very hot fire quickly.”

On a recent Monday afternoon Port Huron Township firefighters put out a blaze in a 100-by-100 foot area filled with phragmites and dense brush behind the Super Kmart. Fire Chief Craig Miller said it wasn’t the first time crews had to deal with a brush fire in the area, and he has started discussions with officials on how to manage similar areas that pose fire risks.

In April 2013, more than a dozen fire departments responded to a 150-acre marsh fire on Harsens Island.

Clay Township Fire Lt. Mike Harry said phragmites were believed to have been a major factor in the severity of the fire.

Harry and other firefighters from Clay Township Fire Department’s Station Two performed controlled burns in areas where residents requested the removal of phragmites.

Miller said the month of April often is used for cutting or burning phragmites before nesting season begins at the end of April.

Tangora said the invasive plant is believed to have been introduced from ballast water on the eastern coast of the U.S.

“Over the last century, it’s moved like wildfire over the landscape,” she said.

A permit is required to spray the plant over standing water or in the Great Lakes bottom lands.

Tangora said phragmites are found in every county through the state, but is most prevalent in the southern lower peninsula, especially in the Detroit River corridor, Lake St. Clair, and Saginaw Bay.

She said Harsens Island and St. Johns Marsh are considered some of the most highly infested areas in Michigan.

“These are predominantly areas where we have a lot of wetlands along the coast,” Tangora said. “We have heavy infestations, really dense, especially where you have those shallow wetlands.”

Kirk Weston, managing director for the St. Clair County Road Commission, said the county has about $80,000 set aside to spray for phragmites control this fall.

He said the road commission sprays for the plant in the right-of-ways and at intersections.

Weston said this is the county’s third year of consistent spraying, and it seems to be working.

“This has actually been a very successful program for us,” Weston said.

“We are getting it back to the ditch line and opening up those intersections for safety.

“But you’re going to have to continually maintain it, just because there’s so much of it in this county.”

Tangora said people with phragmites can report it to the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network at

She said mapping the invasive plant will help officials to control the plant.



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