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Marshes burned to control invasive plant

Published: Thursday, March 29 2007 12:18 a.m. MDT

Fire management officer Keith Crumpton gathers some equipment at the back of his truck.

Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News

FARMINGTON — After months of planning, torches were lit and acres of marsh along the eastern shores of the Great Salt Lake were set on fire a few weeks ago.

No one made any attempt to douse the flames. In fact, had it been possible to burn more of the marsh, more fires would have been set.

As it was, said Rich Hansen, manager of the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "we were able to burn about 60 percent of the 200 acres that were approved for burning. We hope to be able to burn more in the next few weeks."

The fires were part of a three-year program to try to put some controls on certain areas of the overbearing plant called phragmites, pronounced frag-mite-ees.

The non-native variety of phragmites is overrunning Utah marshes at the expense of more beneficial native plants and wildlife.

Phragmites australis is an ornamental plant that on appearances would seem to fit well into Utah's wetlands. It has wide leaves, a tall stem, upward of 14 feet, and a beautiful plume of tiny flowers on the tip of the stem. Its thick pods give a carpetlike look to vast areas of marshy lands.

The problem is the plant has no food value and offers no cover for waterfowl. It invades an area and grows in such thick patches it pushes out the more valuable plants, such as alkali bulrush. And, even worse, it's very difficult to remove.

With help from the Utah Waterfowl Association, the DWR received $200,000 from state watershed funding to fight phragmites.

A campaign to try to remove the reedlike plants was started last fall. Large areas around Ogden and Farmington bays were chemically treated by aerial sprayers. The next step involves burning the biomass.

Without burning, the canopy of dead plants would still be too thick for other plants to grow.

About 2,000 acres of infested marshes were sprayed last fall. The Farmington Bay burn was the first of several planned burns in areas such as Ogden Bay, Howard Slough, Harold Crane and Public Shooting management areas.

Drip torches were used to ignite the burn areas.

Hansen said teams will go back to the burn areas in the fall and spray a second time for any plants that may have survived.

Spraying is done in the fall because this is a time when the plant is taking in nutrients in anticipation of winter and will therefore take in the pesticides.

Getting pesticides to the root of the plant has proved to be the best method found to successfully kill the plant.

Depending on funding, the hope is to hit phragmites hard for the next five years and get to a point where it won't cost as much to keep it under control.

Consensus is, however, that phragmites is here to stay and that some level of spraying will be necessary every year.

Without some controls, it's possible that the plant could outcompete and overrun other more valuable species of marsh plants, rendering Utah's wetlands far less beneficial to wildlife and waterfowl, a condition that has biologists worried.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com