War on weeds hits a snag

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer June 26, 2013 10:52 am

 ENTERPRISE — Managing natural resources is a tough business. Managing natural resources during bad economic times is even tougher. 

For more than 13 years, Wallowa Resources of Enterprise has worked with a long list of state and regional partners to contain the spread of invasive and noxious weeds through its Stewardship Program headed by Mark Porter.

Wallowa Resources Director Nils Christoffersen said the organization’s other arms — the Wallowa Mountain Institute, its education division; Community Solutions Inc., its for-profit, renewable energy division; and the Stewardship Center, the group’s physical plant, are doing well.

“All of our other programs are doing fine — the crunch this field season is the stewardship program — historically it has been our largest program which generates the most direct economic benefit through its contracting for Wallowa Resources,” said Christoffersen.

Porter said his Stewardship Program last year kept three full-time employees very busy, but this year the same workload is being handled by just two: Porter and Peggy Vanderzanden.

Funding that was thought to be secured for some time is now in question, primarily through the Secure Rural School Act which many of Oregon’s communities have relied on since 2000.

“The simplest and most direct story is the federal sequestration is hitting home — it’s affecting the  Secure Rural Schools and Community Funding which is affecting funding for conservation projects,” said Christoffersen.

Title II funds of the Act have been an important source for the watershed stewardship program, said Christofferson, this year more than any other. 

“This year it represented between 35 and 30 percent — and up until April, through the first quarter, we thought we would be receiving $125, 000 for five projects — two weed projects, two fuel reduction projects, and field surveys of Lower Joseph Creek,” said Christoffersen. “Of all the years for there to be a problem; it was much larger proportion of Mark’s budget than past years and we are trying to come to grips with what that means for his program.”

Porter said, “We are trying to be really strategic; we have a lot of obligations and work committed.”

Christoffersen said when Porter started the program 13 years ago with agencies such as the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the counties. “We all got together and agreed on the advantage of Wallowa Resources providing leadership for the lower Grande Ronde basin — the BLM provided seed funding and allowed us to hire Mark. He has grown that program from a pilot to one of the largest weed management programs around covering 1 million acres.”

From year to year, said Christoffersen, there isn’t consistent funding for Porter’s position and Wallowa Resources has relied on not only the Secure Rural Schools Act money, but on grants from foundations.

“To maintain this large and effective program as the economy changes and different granters become enamored of other priorities, and the unpredictability of Congress, we need to look hard at how we fund this thing long term. We’ve been doing it on the cheap for a long time thanks to Mark and his staff who put in far more time than they are paid,” said Christoffersen.

Porter agreed and said, “It’s been the real crux of the issue for a lot of invasive weed programs — how do we create a stable base of funding?”

Christoffersen, a forester by education, has worked in conservation for more than 20 years.

“The conservation community has known for a long time that the two biggest threats to native species are habitat conversion — clearing forest or farmland for another use such as a housing development — and invasive species,” he said. “It’s not timber harvest or livestock grazing or hunting — why don’t we wrestle with those things? Meanwhile our rural communities have been devastated.”

With field season under way and no secured funding, Christoffersen said, “Right now the most immediate thing is we need to scale back the program of work — we’ll be looking to the state weed board, the National Forest Foundation, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and even ‘angel donors.’ ”

Wallowa Resources isn’t the only entity hurt by the uncertainty of funding. Local contractors depend on seasonal employment not only to deal with weeds, but also to conduct field studies and do monitoring of ongoing projects.

“Mark built a really effective program and it’s losing ground — weeds are growing and putting out seeds — you have to have continuous effort and have a sustained investment to be less susceptible to invasive species,” Christoffersen said. “There are always going to be invasive species, but by being forced to scale back, we lose ground.”

The proof of the effectiveness of the cooperative between Wallowa Resources and its partners can be seen in Idaho and western Montana, said Christoffersen, where noxious weeds have not been as aggressively managed.

Christoffersen said the partners have been able to put together annual surveys of the distribution of weeds including mapping, creating data bases, monitoring the effectiveness of controls, and getting boots on the ground for priority weeds. 

“This coordination has contributed to building a workforce of more licensed contractors living in the county who have helped maintain the productivity of public and private land, which is huge,” said Christoffersen. “It also benefits the esthetic and recreation value of those lands.”

Porter said at the state level groups are trying to build support for weed programs and other invasive species management.

“This is not a good climate to put out funding proposals for those things, but we are laying the groundwork,” said Porter. It’s amazing how much more people know about invasive species than 13 years ago — the amount of people concerned is much bigger  and the variety of people concerned is much larger.”

This past weekend Wallowa Resources and Wallowa County celebrated 10 years of partnerships, including Asotin County, Wash., which shares a border to the north.

On Saturday more than 40 people attended presentations in Anatone just north of the state line, and visited a ventenata site, an annual grass that is too high in silica for it to be palatable for livestock or wildlife and is taking over cropland and grazing land.

The tour is just one of the many educational efforts the partners employ to raise awareness and to help producers manage invasive species whether its with rotational grazing, herbicides, biocontrol (insect release), or hand pulling.

Ventenata creates its own thatch when it dies back, creating a favorable environment for the following year’s seeds. Burning the thatch is one of the more effective ways to control its spread, said Porter.

Though Porter’s programs have been drastically scaled back, a group floated the Grande Ronde River last week combatting everything from silver cinquefoil to meadow hawkweed. There was also a biocontrol release on Upper Prairie Creek last week to combat common toadflax.

“We have people working on all those levels, though less intensely. We have to pick and choose battles for the projects with funding,” said Porter.