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June 2013

The Knotweed Factor

The citizen battle against a notorious invasive

Japanese knotweed at Garnet Lake. Photograph by Paul Rischmiller, courtesy of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program

“YOU GET A LITTLE BIT OF SHADE,” said Ryan Burkum, who was practically invisible in a clump of Japanese knotweed. He had wriggled in with a large squirt gun and was methodically injecting a prescription-strength pesticide into the stems.

An orange marker pen mounted on the pesticide gun inked canes as Burk­um injected, so he could track his prog­ress and treat every plant. Occasionally he had to make a deliberate swipe with the marker, an extra movement that slowed a tedious process.

The sun was strong that summer morning in Saranac Lake when Burkum, a certified pesticide applicator, was treating a patch of the plant on the corner of a tidy yard. Before he donned his heavy rubber gloves and safety glasses, he rang the bell and greeted the homeowner. He reminded her to keep her dog away from the area for 24 hours and told her not to do anything with the treated plant: “Just let it die.”

The knotweed’s leafy tops wiggled and its canes rattled in a cartoonlike way as Burkum pushed through the thicket. Then, more chatter from the shady depths. “There’s not much in here usually. No wildlife or anything,” he said. “That’s one of the nasty things about the plant.”

Often planted as an ornamental and sometimes mistakenly called bamboo, Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is a notorious invasive, multiplying easily through extensive root systems and growing into thick stands that can span hundreds of yards and reach up to 10 feet tall. It pushes out native species and dominates a landscape, disrupting its ecological balance and marring the natural aesthetic. The plant is one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, with severe impacts in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the United Kingdom.

In the Adirondacks, stands of Japa­nese knotweed have popped up along town roads and behind parking lots. Burkum is part of a loosely organized team of people working to erase it from within the Blue Line. Volunteers in Inlet, Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, Long Lake, North Creek, Chestertown, Garnet Lake, Piseco, Tupper Lake, Lake Plac­id and Saranac Lake—most of whom can spot a patch of knotweed while driving at 60 miles per hour—identify landowners and get signed permissions to treat the plant. A handful of certified pesticide applicators treat sites from mid-August to the first frost, when the plant is flowering. The town of Inlet’s clerk handles administrative tasks. The Na­ture Conservancy’s Adi­rondack Park In­vasive Plant Program (APIPP) and the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District help fund and coordinate eradication efforts.

FOURTEEN KNOTWEED FIGHTERS met on a July afternoon at Ellen Collins’s house in Blue Mountain Lake. Collins is the volunteer coordinator for her town. As they sat around a long dining table, they shared their stories about new in­festations and brainstormed ways to get more people certified to treat plants.

At the head of the table sat Doug Johnson, a Springfield, Massachusetts, physician who has come to his camp on Seventh Lake, in Inlet, every summer of his life. Professorial, soft-spoken and resolute, Johnson has rallied people to collective action in a place better known for individualism and self-reliance.

Johnson first encountered Japanese knotweed in Rhode Island when his daughter moved into a new home. Once he learned what it was, he noticed it everywhere—on the bike paths back home in Massachusetts and overrunning streambeds near his wife’s family farm in Vermont. “You can’t even see the river there anymore,” he said.

So when he saw knotweed near his family’s camp in 2007, he decided to take action. “I did not want the same thing to happen here,” he said.

He called everyone he could think of who might know about the plant and how to manage it. Steve Flint, then with APIPP, met with Johnson to discuss how knotweed could be treated. “He would cut the stem and put some pesticide in the cut stem,” Johnson said. “He had all these volunteers treating thousands of plants—and it was almost totally ineffective.” The plants looked sickly, but would grow back the following summer, deformed yet vigorous.

Because New York State regulations say only certified pesticide applicators can use pesticides on other people’s property, Johnson got certified, which was, he said, “a huge hassle, time-wise and expense-wise.” He also spent the winter searching online for information on knotweed and how to kill it.

Johnson presented the issue to the town of Inlet, seeking support for an eradication effort. The town center was inundated with Japanese knotweed—clumps lined the alleys behind the shops on Route 28.

Patty Wittmeyer, Inlet’s town clerk, recalled how mild-mannered Johnson seemed the first time he came in to talk about knotweed. “He wanted to see if the town would help. He’s not boisterous, he just takes you in,” she said. And he was persistent. “He’d send me emails even in the middle of winter. It was easier to say ‘OK’ than to blow him off.”

In 2008 the town of Inlet allocated $2,500 for treating knotweed, which al­lowed Johnson to buy pesticide and equipment and contract with another certified applicator. Additional funding for the organization, the Regional Inlet Invasive Plant Program (RIIPP), comes from grants, including $10,000 from APIPP in 2011, and private donations—one out of three landowners who ben­efit from the program give, according to Wittmeyer.

Johnson said costs run about $15,000 a year, which in 2012 paid for pesticide and professionals—including Burkam, who bills at a reduced rate—to treat more than 150 sites. Johnson contri­butes money and time; he spends half his two-week vacation in the Adirondacks treating patches of knotweed.

The rest of the effort depends on volunteers like Collins, who met Johnson through a mutual friend. Collins is an avid gardener and a volunteer for APIPP who surveyed Blue Mountain Lake for Eurasian watermilfoil every summer. “Now I’m known as the invasives lady,” Collins said with a laugh.

She got permission to treat a large patch at the Adirondack Museum. Three weeks after she and Johnson worked the site the plants were dead. Inspired, Col­lins hunted out more knotweed. Most of the 40-some landowners she’s contacted have signed permissions. Working with RIIPP, Collins feels part of something larger and is grateful for Johnson’s “quiet enthusiasm and total commitment,” she said. “I just want to keep the Adirondacks the way it is.”

How successful has RIIPP been? “Doug knows what he’s doing. You can see it across the Adirondacks,” said Brendan Quirion, APIPP’s terrestrial in­vasive species project coordinator. He teamed up with Johnson to treat infestations in 2010. Now when they revisit the same sites, he said, “The results are pretty amazing. There’s a 90 percent reduction in plants.”

Quirion continues to work with Johnson as the two organizations coordinate their battle plans: APIPP prioritizes areas of “high conservation value,” like rivers and streams and the Forest Preserve, while RIIPP focuses on hamlet areas and private property. Quirion also tests new pesticides such as foliar sprays to en­sure the group has the best weaponry available. “They’ve really perfected the stem injection method,” he said.

As for long-term goals, Quirion said, “I don’t think we can eradicate Japanese knotweed. I do see our work as a means to contain the problem.” He credits Johnson’s band of volunteers for the essential work of putting out the small fires—those new patches that threaten to ravage wild lands. Eliminating infestations on rivers and streams is crucial because of the plant’s proficiency at spreading along waterways.

Johnson said, “I’m very confident that we can eradicate Japanese knot­weed on Seventh Lake and in Blue Mountain Lake. As for the other places, it should be manageable.” But that means finding the Ellen Collinses of un­represented hamlets, raising awareness of knot-weed’s threat, and fundraising.

Johnson is optimistic about eradication because he watched it happen in Inlet. “We’re starting to see no knotweed at some of the sites we’ve been retreating for several years,” he said. The town is free of all but a few tiny deformed sprouts, which Johnson continues to treat. The Fifth Lake canoe carry was once home to 5,000 mature plants; last summer there were 20 stragglers.

The last patch in town was on a property on Route 28 that Johnson had visited several times, but no one was ever home. When he did connect with the homeowner, he said, “She was happy to get it treated.”

See the Regional Inlet Invasive Plant Program’s website, www.noknotweed.org, for information on how to treat Japanese knotweed on your property. For more invasive plant resources, visit the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program’s website, www.adkinvasives.com. APIPP will hold a Japanese Knotweed Managment Summit: Taking Action in the Adirondacks on August 5 at the Tannery Pond Community Center, in North Creek. Check their site for details.

To help track invasive species in New York State, sign up for a free iMapInvasives training session, held on May 13, in Warrensburg, at www.NYiMapInvasives.org.

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