Stemming the tide: Fighting invasive plants in Hinesburg’s LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest

Photo by Scooter MAcMillan
Will Dunkley of Trout Lily Forestry Services discusses how quickly invasive plant species can take over and choke out native species and how this can impact not just plants but also wildlife and livestock.

Staff Writer

You might say that Will Dunkley is a personal trainer for forests because he enjoys helping forests get healthy and in shape.

At least that’s what he’s working toward in Hinesburg’s LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest, where he is treating invasive plant species.

Dunkley’s Trout Lily Forestry Services was awarded a $7,000 contract to treat invasive plant species in the forest. He said that 95 percent of what he is seeing is buckthorn and honeysuckle, but he’s also been treating for other invasives including burning bush, multiflora rose, barberry and bittersweet vine.

Town Forest Committee chair Pat Mainer said the funds came from the timber sale they made this winter.

She said a few people had contacted them concerned that the treatment involved the use of herbicides. “All but a couple seemed to feel we were doing the right thing, after we explained it,” she said. “Education is part of our goal. If we can use this as an example of responsible management, all the better.”

As another part of the educational goal, Chittenden County Forester Ethan Tapper will lead a walk in the forest at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28.

Dunkley is using glyphosate and he said that one of the objections to that is it’s one of the ingredients in Roundup, but the glyphosate he is uses doesn’t contain other problem ingredients in that commercial herbicide. He is also using it in a precise way.

“He only uses a few ounces per acre,” Mainer said. “And it’s only on targeted plants, not massive foliage spraying. It would be nice if we didn’t have to do this; it’s just the only choice.”

She said that when the invasives are cut, they come back “with a vengeance.”

On a beautiful August afternoon, Dunkley was walking the border of a clearing in the forest, 60-feet in and back out to the field, looking for invasives. He walked in a tight, checkerboard pattern to cover every foot of the area he was working. He’s been contracted to work 20 acres on an old farm clearing that the town still leases for hay.

When Dunkley found a smaller culprit invasive plant, he shot a tiny stream of glyphosphate, less than an old-fashioned squirt gun would squirt, onto the plant alone with the nozzle placed right next to it to avoid any overspray.

If the plant was larger, he had a small handsaw he used to cut the plant and did a cut-stump application with a small plastic vial he used to rub the chemical directly on to the cut end of the stalk.

Dunkley said that if he just cut the plants, it would look great for a year with no foliage, but it wouldn’t kill the root which would spread and send up more stalks, making it even more widespread and difficult to control in a couple of years.

“Invasives fruit at a younger age, maybe 2-3 years old, and some can grow 4 feet in a year,” he said. Many of the native plants don’t “fruit” or seed until they’re 5-10 years old, so the invasives choke the natives out.

This is a good time to be treating the plants, he said. They are “allocating nutrients to their roots” so they are pulling the chemical along with nutrients into their roots as they prepare for winter.

“I think if people really understood the complexity and the danger that invasives pose, there would be a lot less controversy,” said Dunkley.

The invasives can alter the health of the ecosystem and put it “out of whack,” he said.

They can crowd out the natives and take over fields whether it’s for hay or livestock. What’s left is a monoculture of one plant that is low-grade forage that often cattle won’t touch. If they do eat it, their health can be compromised because their diet doesn’t contain all the nutrients they need.

“For many years, people in the U.S. were at war with the land,” Dunkley said. They would cut limbs that were low to the ground to make the forest more aesthetically pleasing, “but that’s not the way forests grow and it’s not best for the wildlife.”

For Dunkley, who’s just started his company, this is a great work.

“It’s a really nice forest to work in,” he said. “I’m excited to work on a job where we’re making a difference.”

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