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KISMA welcomes new students, young backs to the fight against invasive plant species

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette August Camp (right to left) explains how to differentiate buckthorn from cherry saplings and other desirable native plants to Connor Ford, Lydia VanderKooi and Michele Powell.

The Keweenaw Invasive Species Management Area has bid farewell to the crew who worked over the summer, but a group of students in Michigan Tech’s Earn and Learn program have taken their place, led by August Camp, one of this summer’s workers.

Over the holiday weekend, while many of us were enjoying the last gasps of summer, this group started their work, a literal struggle against plants that are out of place in the local ecosystem.

They met for the first time at the Michigan Tech trails on Friday to learn about the work, and again on Monday, removing common and glossy buckthorn, and any other invasive species they come across, with whatever non-chemical means they find work.

“Technique is pretty important,” Camp told the crew while showing the tools they would use. For buckthorn, root wrenches and buckthorn bags are the go-to tools. Buckthorn has to be ripped out or completely stifled. If simply cut, buckthorn can easily resprout from its stump to be even worse than before.

“They’re really terrible about that,” Camp said.

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette August Camp (right) shows Michele Powell how to make sure a “buckthorn bag” is tight around the stump of a buckthorn tree. If it is loose, it might blow off, or let enough light in to encourage the stump to resprout.

Root wrenches grip the base of the plant and offer enough leverage to rip out small trees. Buckthorn bags are dark plastic bags zip-tied around a cut stump to starve it of sunshine. After about a year the stump is dead and the bag can be removed and reused.

“Even the zip-ties get reused,” Camp said, explaining that he has spent some time prying open the ties rather than cutting them, to preserve KISMA’s budget for other things.

Not only is it Camp’s job as leader to show the new crew how to eradicate the invasive plants, but he also taught them to preserve the native plants that are meant to take buckthorn’s place.

“The last thing we want to do is take out cherry,” Camp said, while explaining the difference in each leaf so the crew could identify which was which.

Connor Ford, who just started at MTU this semester, saw the opportunity with KISMA during his orientation. As part of the Applied Ecology and Environmental Sciences program, it aligns with his career goals, and as a fly-fisher, it gets him into his preferred environment–the outdoors.

Michele Powell, another freshmen in the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation program, appreciates that KISMA doesn’t have her shut in a lab or office.

“It’s nice to be outside doing actual work,” she said.

Mackenzie Russell, also a first-year student in the AEES program, was happy to escape her summer job in a kitchen and do something where she feels like she’s making a difference.

“My summer was really boring because of COVID,” she said.

Several crew members expressed how happy they were to be able to attend some classes and get outside now that school has begun.

“I think Tech’s doing a very good job of managing its COVID business,” Ford said.

In the field, the crew doesn’t worry about wearing masks because, outside of brief instruction, they are usually fairly distant from each other.

The first thing most people dislike about working in the forest is usually the bugs, but not Camp.

“The bugs, you get used to after a while,” he said.

The toughest part for him is watching a forest become so filled with invasives it’s essentially a “lost cause.”

“It sucks to watch a forest go from a fully-functioning ecosystem to something that will never regenerate,” Camp said.

He says forests can get so choked with buckthorn that hardwood species cannot regenerate, something that could impact the timber industry.

Because of their limited resources, KISMA tries to focus their efforts where they can make a difference. Even in the areas they do work, sometimes they will only focus on female plants, if that is enough to keep them from germinating seeds and spreading.

They also focus on emerging species, like Japanese knotweed, which isn’t too prevalent in the Houghton area yet.

“We can really keep that from ever becoming a problem,” Camp said.

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