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Betsy Steele | You dig? Earth disturbance = noxious weeds

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Photo provided/ Here’s an example of whitetop infestation out of control. Individual patches continue to grow larger and new patches have started from seed or root fragments.

Fields of salsify had taken over the meadows. Like seedy jellyfish, their globular mass of achenes, wisps of fiber, now clogged and floated on airy currents. Previously, a warp and weft of tall grasses — generations of growth and death — had matted the meadow ground, cushioning it against invading seeds, shading out any that dared to intrude.

But, oh, the misguided hand of man, grasping the push bar of mower, gassy and growling, had opened up the floor to any speakers — most of them rank and ranting. Tractors and earthmovers had done an even better job of opening the floodgates to seedy opportunists. And this not far from a prominent sign Chelan County had just installed that stated “Weed and Reap,” with an ear of ripe corn in its center. Huh? So we’re concerned about the impacts of noxious weeds on agriculture here? That belongs mainly on the ag intensive east side.

Our concern should be the impact of noxious weeds on the central Washington landscape — where native and naturalized plants that add so much charm and diversity to our region are being throttled.

The real issue the county should be addressing is ground disturbance from development. Educating builders about noxious weeds is a critical step in dealing with this problem. Here are some ideas that should be incorporated into every development permit:

  • Minimize footprints on the land. Protecting benign undisturbed groundcover should take precedence over convenience of access and unnecessary excavating.
  • Thick, cushioning layers of field grass such as are found in many bottomlands should be left alone. These are the best defense against everything from knapweed and dalmation toadflax to starthistle and whitetop. Once they are dug up, they are nearly impossible to get established again because the dense mesh of root and herbage may have taken decades to grow. They also enrich the soil, hold in moisture, shade the ground and provide important habitat for voles and other rodents, harmless insects, some ground-nest and roosting birds, hawks, owls and innumerable other species.
  • Once ground disturbance has occurred, the developer should be required to provide protective covering and proper re-seeding to quell the likelihood that noxious weeds will take hold.
  • If they do take hold, it should be the developer/landowner’s expense and responsibility to make an effort to get rid of them — not through rampant herbicide spraying but through biological agents — release of knapweed weevils and plant competitors, for example. Or finely tuned and timed mowing that will help to eradicate, not propagate, the invaders.

At this point, many developers roar into an area, aggravate the noxious weed problem but aren’t required to deal with the consequences of their actions. Perhaps the thoughtless conversion of harmlessly overgrown fields and lots to weed-choked dirt would subside if developers/landowners were required to pay for their disturbance. And silly corn signs would be replaced with: Earth disturbance = noxious weeds …. You dig?

Betsy Steele is a former newspaper writer and nature columnist who lives in the Chumstick Valley.