New foe will be used to battle weeds

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— In mid-summer of last year, a worker with the Nature Conservancy came across a six-inch high plant with smooth reddish-brown stems and small, scale-like leaves.

Although it looked innocuous, the worker saw in that small plant the start of big problems for Colorado and Routt County: Salt cedar trees.

Salt cedar, also called Tamarisk, was brought to the area from the Middle East and China in the early 1900s. Someone probably brought it as erosion control, said Matt Custer, Routt County's weed supervisor.

The plant can grow up to 20 feet tall and when it's mature, can suck about 200 gallons of water per day, drying up streams and ponds and displacing native vegetation. It also oozes salt back into the soil, is inedible to most animals and produces flammable leaf litter.

To combat Tamarisk, as well as two other weeds in Routt County, a committee called the Routt Invasive Plant Posse has been formed. The committee, sponsored by several local, state and national groups, is working to map and combat invasive weeds across the county.

It was formed in part to respond to an executive order from Gov. Bill Owens last March, which gave all state agencies 10 years to map and combat Tamarisk, Custer said.

Through the committee, officials and volunteers also will combat meadow knapweed and purple loosestrife.

The discovery of Meadow Knapweed, which has been found north of Steamboat Springs just below Mad Creek, marks the first sign of that weed in the state. The plant can grow up to 40 inches tall and has nickel-sized pink flowers and lance-shaped leaves.

Because it's a big problem for irrigated hay meadows in Oregon and Washington, Custer said, the committee will take aggressive measures against the weed.

"We certainly don't need anything else causing problems for hay here," Custer said. "Hay is our biggest crop."

Purple loosestrife, which was brought in as an ornamental from Europe, was planted six or seven years ago at several spots across the county, such as the area behind the McDonald's and Wendy's restaurants, Custer said. Before 2000, it was legal to plant the weed.

"It's a gorgeous plant -- it's really pretty," he said. The weed can grow up to three feet tall and has deep purple flowers.

Each plant can release 1 million seeds that are each about the size of a piece of ground pepper.

"So if it gets into the riparian system, its growth is uncontrollable," he said.

One of the goals of the committee, Custer said, is to stop some of these weeds before they get out of control. By mapping where the weeds are now, it's more likely that their growth can be kept in check.

"If we can nip it in the bud, we're ahead of the game," Custer said. "We're hoping this year to get a good idea of what we have and then go from there to control it."

Anyone interested in searching for weeds with the committee can contact Custer at 870-5246.

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