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Noxious weeds threaten landscapes, food supply, air quality

SHARE Noxious weeds threaten landscapes, food supply, air quality
It is very resistant to control methods. It is hard to kill. – Steve Smith, chairman of the Wasatch Cooperative Weed Management Area

MIDWAY — An infusion of $1.3 million from the Utah Legislature is being put on the ground via helicopter, by hand and even by railway as multiple agencies join forces to wage a war on weeds.

"It's a battle we just can't lose," Utah Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham said Monday during a weed-spraying event in Midway featuring the Heber Valley Railroad as part of the arsenal being deployed.

Blackham said a needs assessment performed by land conservation districts representing all corners of the state identified noxious or invasive weeds as the No. 1 "resource" problem that confronts them today.

The spread of weeds such as cheat grass and phragmites adds to a huge concern in helping to fuel "mega wildfires," poses attendant problems to air quality and diminishes the enjoyment of recreational areas, Blackham said.

"Because who wants to go hiking through prickly weeds?" he asked.

The $1.3 million funded by the Utah Legislature this year will pay for 20 projects throughout the state, with 10 identified so far, including the Wasatch County weed spraying. Other projects on the list include going after phragmites at Utah Lake, yellow toadflax in Daggett County and Russian olive in Emery County.

Gusty winds tempered Monday's efforts in Midway, but the spraying will continue throughout the summer.

Weed control has primarily been the financial responsibility of county agencies, said Steve Smith, chairman of the Wasatch Cooperative Weed Management Area.

Over time, however, county agencies have been overrun with the march of the "invasives" such as leafy spurge, which can sink its roots down 15 feet and spread 2 feet a year above ground. The spurge also spreads it seeds through an explosion of sorts that can propel the seeds 15 feet.

"It is very resistant to control methods," Smith said. "It is hard to kill."

Over the past four years, Blackham said Utah lawmakers have heeded the cry of county agencies overwhelmed by weeds, giving a nod to the proactive benefit of getting them stomped out to reduce threats on the wildfire front and to local food supplies.

The leafy spurge, for example, may look like a pretty wildflower from a distance, but is anything but benign.

The spurge can cause redness and skin irritation to humans and is toxic to cattle. Goats and sheep have proven effective in quelling its spread, but another biological tool has demonstrated even higher efficiency — the tiny flea beetle.

Similar to a tick, the adult insects attack the plant above ground. Their offspring mature in the ground and go after its root system.

The spurge is not the only target of the Wasatch's war, which also focuses on plants with names like spotted knapweed, hound's tongue, poison hemlock and Scotch thistle.

The latter, explained Robert Hougaard, the state's plant industry director, can grow up to 12 feet tall and has led to abandoned or closed campgrounds in Montana.

Multiple, large thorny examples of the thistle were spotted growing not far from the railroad tracks and routinely dot the countryside in the Heber Valley area.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, sits on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee — which pushed for the extra state funding on weeds — and attended the weed spraying event.

Noxious weeds, particularly phragmites, are a big problem in her home county of Utah County and in particular along the shorelines of Utah Lake.

While it is one thing to discuss the merits of the efforts to control the spread of invasive weeds, Dayton said it is more rewarding and enlightening to see the weed war up close and the fight against them personally.

"I am always glad to see a meaningful expenditure of our tax dollars," she said. "And this is so important."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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