Forests planning plant campaign

National forests in northern Arizona are gearing up for a coordinated campaign to get rid of invasive plants that are pushing out native species and threatening the delicate balance of some ecosystems.

Invasive plants - nonnative weeds, trees, grasses and shrubs - have been thriving in the forests for years, and in some cases decades. But officials in the Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino national forests are making efforts to contain or eradicate them before they truly get out of hand.

"The threat is real and the threat is now," said Gene Onken, invasive species coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's Southwestern Region, which includes Arizona's national forests.

A team of staff from the three forests has already put together a plan for dealing with a variety of nonnative plants. They have devised several approaches, including the use of herbicides, mowing and pulling weeds by hand and even bringing in sheep and other animals to eat them.

The plan will be released by the end of May for public review and comment, which could result in some changes. Officials are hoping to get it approved by early 2002. Even then, the plan can still be appealed by anyone who disagrees with it.

The invaders, which never belonged in the U.S. forests they now occupy, arrived in Arizona through different means. Some were brought in to beautify the landscape and then grew out of control. Others were planted as feed for livestock. Some came in the form of seeds tucked away in packing materials.

The growth of the plants have been successful because they have no natural enemies. But they haven't been good neighbors.

Many are ruining the aesthetics of the scenic areas where they've taken root, said Onken, who is based in Albuquerque, N.M.

"That's certainly a significant factor when you consider tourism is one of the major industries in the Southwest," he said.

At their worst, the invaders are threatening to choke out all the native plants, which often means some wildlife and livestock are losing a food source. Some of the plants can also increase salt levels in the water and soil, or force out grasses that hold the soil in place, meaning increased erosion into water sources.

"They're changing the ecosystem," said Clare Hydock, a rangeland management specialist for the Prescott National Forest. "Many of our wildlife species won't eat these things. Livestock won't eat them. Many of them are toxic to livestock."

Some ranchlands in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been devastated by invasive plants, said Dave Brewer, who is coordinating the three forests' planning efforts.

"Literally, some of these ranches in the north have been taken over by the nap weed and other stuff that have taken a productive ranch and turned it into a weed patch," Brewer said.

Among the most damaging plants found in Arizona are the leafy spurge, star thistle and nap weed.

"Those are the ones that take everything," he said. "We're starting to see plants come in and expand to where if we don't take control within the next five to 10 years we might face the same problems as other states."

The three forests involved in the joint plan aren't the only ones grappling with invasive plants. Officials at Arizona's Tonto National Forest, for example, are developing their own plan.

Brewer said officials at the Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino forests found working together made the planning easier, more efficient and allowed them to keep costs down.

"We generally have the same issues," he said. "It seemed logical to do it that way."

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