Volunteers lend essential support to state parks' effort to eliminate invasive plant species

Working within a fen, volunteers at Brighton Recreation Area cut invasive plant glossy buckthorn.

March 13, 2015

On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon, Laurel Malvitz-Draper leads a crew of a dozen volunteers carrying hand saws and pruning shears on a half-mile trek through the woods at Brighton Recreation Area to a large opening where they'll go to work. The opening is a fen - a rather unique wetland - that has an unwanted, exotic shrub establishing itself in what is otherwise a habitat of grasses, sedges and wildflowers.

Glossy buckthorn, the uninvited guest, is originally from Eurasia, but was brought to this continent generations ago by European settlers who planted it in rows in their yards. Spread by birds that ingested its seeds, the tall glossy buckthorn works at cross purposes to the native plants in the ecosystem, which are typically short, sun-loving species.

"Glossy buckthorn will dry out the ground ahead of it," Malvitz-Draper explained. "It will move more water out of the soil than the plants that are typically there. It's reached that critical point here where it takes active management to stay ahead of it."

Volunteer Tom Zerona stacks cut glossy buckthorn stems in a brush pile that will be burned later.The assignment this day was simple: cut down the buckthorn and treat the stumps with an herbicide that will be transported into the plants' roots and kill it, allowing the native species to prosper.

Malvitz-Draper runs the Department of Natural Resources' stewardship volunteer program in southeastern Michigan. The program is designed to preserve and restore the ecological balance to the natural areas in the state's parks and recreation areas.

Fens, like this one, are rare habitats in the United States, found mostly in the glaciated areas of the Upper Midwest. They are similar to the better-known bogs - also grass- and sedge-dominated wetlands - with one significant difference: Fens are fed by ground water while bogs are renewed by rainwater. While bogs are slightly acidic habitats (with a pH of less than 7), fens are slightly basic.

"People have heard of bogs," said Malvitz-Draper, who developed the stewardship program. "They're less familiar with fens. Fens are found in the lower three or four tiers of counties in Michigan, a combination of the glacial past and the soils and sediments they left behind. They're worth protecting.

Volunteer Zachary Beckwith removed glossy buckthorn at a Brighton Recreation Area stewardship day."Both bogs and fens are nutrient-poor systems," she continued. "That's why you find carnivorous plants there - pitcher plants and sundews. They're handling the fact that it's nutrient-poor by being able to digest insects."

The area the crew concentrated on has a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding area, creating an island that allowed the unwanted buckthorns to get a foothold. Volunteer Donna Bozgan didn't like that.

"I have problems with invasive species on a personal level," said Donna Bozgan, a master gardener in training from Meridian Township, who was participating in her second DNR stewardship in as many days. "I'm originally from Wayne County and I've seen what emerald ash borer has done. We lost trees in our backyard, but it's just everywhere."

Bozgan, who'd worked at Ionia Recreation Area the day before she went to the Brighton site, said she'd be back out removing invasive plants the next weekend.

Over the course of a three-hour shift, the volunteers remove almost all of the glossy buckthorn, while leaving the native plants on the island - tamaracks, hazelnuts and poison sumac among them - to stand.

Herbicide is transported into glossy buckthorn's roots to kill it and allow native species to thrive."The native things that are there are naturally occurring," Malvitz-Draper said. "They should be there. But we made great progress. We're getting rid of that buckthorn in big chunks at a time."

The accomplishment, however, is only temporary, Malvitz-Draper said. The glossy buckthorn will be back. And so will the volunteers.

"This is an ongoing effort," she said. "It's never finished."

Brighton Recreation Area is one of nine state parks where Malvitz uses volunteer crews to maintain and preserve the natural habitat. Most have regular monthly stewardship days, though the work varies with the season.

"In the spring, we pull invasive, garlic mustard and in summer it'll be spotted knapweed," Malvitz-Draper said. "In the fall we collect seeds from native plants. Usually summer and winter are our big shrub removal times. There's sort of a season for everything."

And volunteers for every assignment.

Laurel Malvitz-Draper prepares the herbicide that will be swabbed over cut glossy buckthorn stumps."We welcome anyone who has an interest in or wants to learn a little more about ecology," Malvitz-Draper added. "But all of the volunteers have their own reasons for participating."

The volunteers were as varied as the landscape.

Rodney Beckwith, the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 395 in Hamburg, brought four Scouts, including his two sons, Zachary and Alex, to the event. It's part of the troop's commitment to spend a day a month doing community service. Though this was the first time his Scouts participated in a DNR stewardship event, it fit in well with the Scouts' ethic of helping maintain the environment, Beckwith said.

Tom Zerona, an engineer from White Lake Township, made the half-hour drive with his 14-year-old son Luke to help out. Luke's committed to doing volunteer work as part of his school program, Tom said, and "we thought it would be a good thing to come out and help the environment."

Sean Zera, a herpetologist (that's a reptile and amphibian enthusiast) from Ann Arbor, said he's been participating in DNR stewardship days for quite a while.

"It's one of those things that's hard to explain," he said. "But it gives me an excuse to get out, especially in the middle of winter, when I'm not likely to get out otherwise. And it gives me an excuse to visit these areas and check them out. I'll probably come back in the summer and check out the flowers."

In contrast, volunteer Dan Hawley of Milford had no problem explaining why he came. He's a hunter who has an appreciation for habitat, he said, and he first became aware of the problem of invasive species when he found a patch of garlic mustard that was threatening to overtake one his best morel mushroom spots.

He went online to learn more about garlic mustard, stumbled onto the DNR stewardship program, and volunteered to help pull garlic mustard at a state recreation area. He's since begun coming to other events to help remove other invasive species.

"It's a good way to get out in the winter get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors," he said.

The DNR holds volunteer stewardship events almost every weekend at parks and recreation areas across southern Michigan.

For more information, check out the department's Calendar of Volunteer Stewardship Workdays, available on the DNR website www.michigan.gov/dnrvolunteers.