(Courtesy photo) Invasive phragmites form a grayish-purple, feather-like flower head and leaves that are rough-margined, flat and gray-green.

Troublesome invader: County joins effort to rid shoreline of phragmites

Tuscola County has been invaded.

And the invader isn’t keen on leaving.

Wetlands throughout the county, and the Thumb, have been overrun by phragmites, a non-native, perennial, aggressive wetland grass also known as common reed. There are two subspecies of Phragmites australis present in Michigan. The native, subspecies americanus, and the invasive non-native introduced form, subspecies australis. The non-native subspecies was introduced to the east coast of the North America sometime between the late 1700s and the early 1800s, and gradually has expanded its range westward.

Phragmites can create a dense jungle of vegetation that native salt marsh birds, fur-bearing mammals and even deer cannot penetrate. In addition, decomposing phragmites can raise the surface elevation of the marsh more rapidly than would occur with slower-growing native salt marsh vegetation.

Tuscola County officials want to repel this invader. The Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Nov. 25 to put at least $3,000 in support of a Saginaw Bay Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area plan to seek a state Department of Natural Resources grant to fight all invasive species along the bay.

That would include spraying the phragmites along about two acres of the shoreline at Vanderbilt County Park in Wisner Township.

Action was needed because the grant application needs to be filed by Dec. 11.

Nancy Barrios, chairwoman of the county’s parks and recreation commission, said the county only was pledging to fund its portion of incidental costs – permit fees, etc. – involved in getting the phragmites at the park sprayed. The Saginaw Bay CISMA estimates the county’s portion will be about $1,500, but the parks commission asked for $3,000 just to be safe.

The parks commission expects to get a more definite answer on the cost early this month. Barrios wanted the board of commissioners to know what is going on and what the county’s costs might be.

“This has been ongoing,” Nancy Barrios said, “and it is evolving as we speak.”

That answer didn’t satisfy District 5 Commissioner Dan Grimshaw.

“How much is this grant?” Grimshaw said. “What is the dollar figure we are talking about here for the grant?”

The last time the phragmites were sprayed, a few years ago, District 1 Commission Tom Young said, the local infestation was bad. “It was like a forest out there,” District 2 Commissioner Thomas Bardwell said.

The county doesn’t have a cost for that spraying, Young said, because it wasn’t a Tuscola County project.

“We didn’t have a grant cost the last time we sprayed,” he said, “because we used somebody else’s grant.” The cost to the county the last time, Bardwell said, was about four cents an acre.

“How can we even begin to approach this?” Grimshaw asked. “My concern is, how do arrive at a $3,000 expense for Tuscola County? How many participants are there? What are the permit costs going to be? How do you arrive at the dollar figure for Tuscola County for permitting?

“I don’t know what the permit fees are going to be, and it sounds like nobody else does either.”

District 3 Commissioner Kim Vaughan said the actual costs likely will be determined once the Saginaw Bay CISMA knows who is participating in the grant.

“We don’t know,” Vaughan said. “We just want to make everyone aware that this process is going on.”

Barrios said the grant funds will cover a number of actions along the shoreline and that spraying the phragmites is just one part of it. And Vanderbilt Park is the only place to be sprayed.

“It sounds like there is an opportunity to spray again,” Bardwell said. “Certainly, we want to take advantage of it. We just spent all of that money on a dump station (at the park). People probably would like to see the water again.”

Grimshaw, who cast the lone vote against the funding, continued to press for information as of yet unavailable.

“At this point I am not in favor of any kind of motion to set any money aside until we have an answer to what’s the total project cost. How did they arrive at our portion being even $1,500?” he said. 

“I don’t have a problem in supporting the premise of getting money if there is someone out there giving money, but we’re not going to incur an expense until we know they have money to use.”

It is too early in the process to know the cost, Vaughan said, and what is needed at this time is support from the commissioners for moving forward and committing to covering at least some portion of the incidental costs.

“We want to let them know that we are in,” he said.

All that is needed from the commissioners, Barrios said, is some commitment to cover the incidental costs.

“Right now, they just want to apply,” county controller/administrator Clayette Zechmeister said, “and to see how far they can get into the project.”

Grimshaw said the county didn’t need to be part of the process. “That entity is applying for the grant whether we do anything or not,” he said.

Vaughan said it was important to commit to the grant application.

“We want to make sure they apply for the spraying part of that grant,” Vaughan said, “which concerns us. … We want to make sure that part of the process is being applied for because that is important to us, I feel, to have the phragmites taken care of before they really get out of control.”

“They are already out of control,” Grimshaw said. “That’s my feeling. We are Don Quixote chasing the windmill. My feeling is we don’t have enough information to make a decision.”

“If we don’t join the CISMA,” Young said, “there is a 100 percent chance they are not going to spray.”

This spraying, if it happens, won’t root out this invader. The plants also get cut down, and then burned, in the winter. And a second spraying attacks those plants not killed by the aerial spraying. The county can’t do the spraying on its own, because the DNR controls what chemicals, and how much, are introduced to the wetlands. The work requires DNR approval and oversight.

“It is a process,” Young said. “It is not just going out there with a helicopter and spraying one time. There is more to it than just that.”

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at [email protected].

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