LAYTON — Half lawn mower and half tank, decked out with pontoons and armed with gnashing blades, the Marsh Master lumbered through brown strands of invasive phragmites Wednesday, leaving a mashed mess of dead plant material in its wake.
The devastation brought a glow of triumph to the face of Chris Brown, a weed warrior of sorts for The Nature Conservancy, or more properly the organization's director of stewardship.
Brown, in his caretaking role at The Nature Conservancy, is in charge of boosting the overall health of the 4,400-acre Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, a prime nesting spot for dozens of species of birds and the largest undeveloped chunk of land along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Davis County.
About one-fifth of this land has been taken over by the invasive plant, which turns wetlands into uplands with its sprawling root system that drains the ground dry. In the process, it chokes out native grasses and other plants like cattail that provide good foraging and nesting habitat for the birds.
"It provides no wildlife value," Brown said.
Utah authorities have been trying to stamp out the phragmites since the mid-1980s, but it has been a costly, frustrating battle that will likely see no end.
"It is a very hard plant to kill with an extensive root system," Brown said.
At the preserve, crews have deployed all manner of assaults in their battle against the plant, he said.
Cows have proven to be an effective weapon, grazing the plant to mere nubs, and crews have also mounted attacks via all-terrain vehicles and tractors to spray the vegetation.
"We've been stuck a few times," Brown conceded, noting the marshy wetlands provide their own set of challenges in the war.
"We are just kind of tackling it the best we can," including herbicide application that is also done from the air, he said.
Then, several weeks ago, a donor stepped forward and offered to buy the Marsh Master for the conservancy.
"I think they were starting to feel sorry for us getting stuck all the time," Brown said.
The $150,000 machine arrived a few weeks ago from Louisiana, where these amphibious vegetation clearing machines are manufactured and at home in the swamps and the bayous.
"They can actually float," Brown said.
This Marsh Master, weighing 6,000 pounds, sports a 100-gallon tank to hold herbicide.
Brown said the plants are first sprayed, and after their root system takes in the weed killer and they die, the machine can then be used to mow them down.
The mowing accelerates the regrowth of native vegetation and cuts down on the potential fire hazard because of heavy amount of woody fuels associated with phragmites.
A fire burning in the wetlands of northern Davis County illustrates the problem, Brown said, with more than 600 acres that have been charred.
"We have had a few lightning strikes out here that have caught them on fire," he said.
The Marsh Master is a relatively rare piece of machinery in the Utah fight against the phragmites. Brown believes there is only one other machine like in the state at the federal wildlife refuge in Box Elder County.
As it rumbled through a patch of phragmites, the Marsh Master spit up dust and ground up plants.
Brown said it gets hot and dirty driving the machine. It doesn't have air conditioning, and there certainly isn't a radio — you couldn't hear any music if you wanted to.
"It's a little warm and it gets a little noisy," he said. "But it's fun. I'll take it."
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