Spartina, the killer weed, slays Moby Dick?

Spartina alternaflora-After fighting the local weed board, the state department of agriculture, and even the Nature Conservancy for almost 20 years, Nahcotta hotel owner Fritzi Cohen has signaled that she may be ready to sell the historic Moby Dick Hotel, site of some of the last remaining spartina grass on Willapa Bay. While who may buy the property, should she sell, is the big news and speculation in the area, the story of spartina and Willapa Bay is the one that will be told on these pages over the next months, as an occasional series. It’s a story of intrigue, pitting neighbor against neighbor, species against species, and chemical against plant. The winners and losers are still to be determined, but this story is part of a larger story of the war on invasive species that’s being waged in Washington and Oregon, as well as around the world. A war that, like most, may not be winnable, or even necessary.

Moby DickWashington State has a long history of laws and regulations governing noxious weeds (defined as “a plant that when established is highly destructive, competitive, or difficult to control by cultural or chemical practices”), dating back to 1881, prior to statehood. The original legislation made it the duty of the landowner and the district supervisor of roads to control certain weeds on property they owned or managed. In 1907 the legislature expanded the law by requiring road district supervisors to inspect for weeds and enforce the statute on private lands, as well as along roadsides. The statute also included the authority to enter lands and cut down weeds if the owner didn’t take action.

In 1921, there was legislation that allowed landowners to petition to the Board of County Commissioners to create Weed Districts. This effort was enhanced in 1929, to provide for the election of three-member boards of directors who had the authority to administer the weed control statutes.

In 1969, RCW 17.10 – Noxious Weeds – Control Boards, was originally enacted. The law provides for the formation of county noxious weed control boards, and a state weed board, which puts together a state weed list. Like so many other laws with lists, it’s all about the list. We’ll take a closer look at the Washington State noxious weed list later in this column, and in future columns. For now, take note that spartina is on the list, and has recently been upgraded to “A” status, which targets it for “eradication”, or extinction, in Washington. In 1987, RCW 17.10 was revised and broadened, with an expanded focus to encompass threats to all natural resources (not only farmland).

The Pacific County Noxious Weed Control Board (weed board) was formed in 1972. It consists of five members, appointed by the Board of Pacific County Commissioners. Tim Crose is the coordinator for the Pacific County weed board. His job is to carry out the weed laws by surveying the county for listed weeds and helping landowners to manage those weeds as prescribed in the laws (in other words, get rid of them). In his 6 years in the coordinator position, Crose has dealt with 12 infractions of the law. He can write tickets for up to $2500, but hasn’t had much use for that. He says that he first tries to work with the landowners, and usually gets cooperation.

Another part of Crose’s job is to help the weed board, which consists of landowners in the 5 districts in the county, to identify weeds of concern, and recommend changes to the state weed list. Though private landowners can also directly petition the state to include new weeds on their list, it is often the county weed boards that do the official petitioning, Crose told me. So, every year in March, there’s a public meeting where the “B” weeds are adopted for control (i.e. prevention of spread, but not eradication), and then by April 30 (just past for 2010), the state needs the requests for inclusion onto their list by the counties. (For 2010, Pacific County is requesting Japanese eelgrass for inclusion on the state list. It’s another Willapa Bay “invader” that has been targeted by local aquaculture groups.)

The District #4 weed board member is Bob Rose, a beef cattle rancher in Bay Center. He owns and operates Rose Ranch, on Highway 101, and has been on the weed board from the beginning. He told me that the original impetus for forming the board was tansy ragwort, a plant that is toxic to cattle and horses. “It spreads bad, animals carry it, cars carry it, and it’s spread all the way up the Willapa Valley,” he said. Gorse, a close relative to Scotch broom, was also a problem plant at that time, according to Rose.

In the first few years, Rose told me, the weed board members were elected by local landowners. There haven’t been many volunteers for the job, but Rose says that it’s been relatively “low key” for him as a board member all these years (until the recent ruckus with the Moby Dick). Timber companies have been cooperative, as has the Bonneville Power Administration, according to Rose. He said he only remembers one person being fined, with the minimum fine ($350).

Spraying with herbicides is most effective, according to Rose, but the listed weeds can be controlled by mowing or pulling. Rose uses Garlon 3a (active ingredient is trichlopyr) and Crossbow (Garlon 3a + 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange) to rid his property and adjacent roadsides (over 1500 acres) of weeds.

To find out more about noxious weeds in Pacific County, contact Crose at (360) 875-9425, or by e-mail. For more information about noxious weeds in Washington State, contact Alison Halpern, Executive Secretary, WA State Noxious Weed Control Board, at (360) 902-2053. We’ll be looking at the workings of these boards and the weed list in more detail in future Weed Wars columns.

In Oregon, there is also a state noxious weed board, and local weed boards in some counties, which have regulatory powers. The Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, Plant Division, is where the noxious weed program resides in Oregon. They have a better definition for noxious weeds, which are plant species that: “cause severe production losses or increased control costs to the agricultural or horticultural industries of Oregon; endanger native flora and fauna by their encroachment into forest, range, and conservation areas; hamper the full utilization and enjoyment of recreational areas; or are poisonous, injurious, or otherwise harmful to humans and animals.”

Japanese knotweedThe noxious weed program in Tillamook, Clatsop and Columbia counties is administered by the North Coast Weed Management Area Committee (NCWMAC). They meet every two months, and the meetings are well attended by county roads, forestry, and parks staff, and timber company representatives, according to Dave Ambrose, one of the coordinators of the group. The weeds the NCWMAC is working to control are knotweed (Japanese, Himalayan and giant) mostly in river systems, purple loosestrife along Youngs Bay, common reed in Fort Stevens State Park, spurge laurel at Sunset Beach, garlic mustard in Columbia County, and even spartina, which showed up 2 years ago at the mouth of the Skipanon River. NCWMAC gives EDRR (early detection, rapid response) workshops to train citizens in recognizing weeds of concern. The next workshop is June 19, all day, at Fort Clatsop. For more information, give Ambrose, of the Clatsop Soil and Water Conservation District, a call at 503-325-4571.

And yes, there is a Federal Noxious Weed Act — Public Law 93-629, enacted in 1975. This law is currently part of the Farm Bill, and yes, there is a federal noxious weed list.

In the UK, The Weeds Act of 1959 lists noxious weeds whose spread must be controlled, including common ragwort, broadleaved and curled leaved dock, and spear and creeping thistle. They are all native species but were deemed problematic in the post-war drive for agricultural efficiency and self-sufficiency in food. The Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981 lists Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed, and makes it an offense to plant or to cause either species to spread in the wild.

Similarly, there are noxious weed laws across the country and the world. The war is global, and the enemy, the rules, and the progress, are tenuous.

Stay tuned for Episode 2 of Weed Wars, The Attack of the Grasses, where we’ll start to tell the story of spartina in Willapa Bay – how it got there, when we noticed it, how we’re fighting it, and what the likely future consequences of the battle will be. We’ll highlight the players in this battle, and see how it fits in with the overall war.

In the meantime, remember, if you have any listed noxious weeds on your property (like English ivy, Scotch broom, or hundreds more), you better get rid of them before the weed board hears about it…

Next month, back to Warrenton, where we’ll focus on a new wetland mitigation deal between the Palmbergs, the City of Astoria, and the North Coast Land Conservancy.

Stay dry, and stay active.

By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.