County official spearheads drive to control noxious plants by educating area road crews
Jennifer “Jeffie” Rothstein, an Ozaukee County supervisor from Mequon, has made it her mission to educate road crews in every municipality in Ozaukee and Sheboygan counties on how to deal with invasive plants that threaten to take over wetlands and prairies.
She’s met with officials in every community in the two counties and attended more than 40 meetings in one month.
“We discovered some of the most invasive plants are being spread by highway guys when they mow because plants had set seeds and were blown around,” Rothstein said.
Road crews also spread invasives on mowing equipment so they are advised to wash off equipment after mowing in infested areas, she said.
Rothstein is a member of the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium (SEWISC), which covers Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Washington, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties. It has targeted four highly aggressive invasive plants for eradication.
The four invasive plants are:
• Common and cut-leaved teasel, including one of the largest infestations in the state in Mequon.
• Wild parsnip, which can cause second-degree burns in anyone who touches it and exposes their skin to sun. The plant, which has a yellow flower and resembles a mustard plant on steroids, can be found along many
roadways, including Coal Dock Park Road in Port Washington.
• Giant reed grass, also called phragmites, that can grow more than 12-feet high and threaten to take over wetlands and Lake Michigan beaches. There is some near the entrance at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the
Town of Grafton.
• Japanese knotweed, which is so tenacious it can grow through foundations and destroys all other plants in its path. Rothstein found several plants on South Maple Street in Port Washington.
The four plants were targeted because they are in the early stages of infestations and are visible from vehicle so road crews can readily spot them, Rothstein said.
“The biggest problem I have with these invasive plants is that they do not contribute anything,” she said. “Native plants are eaten. They are homes for critters. They contribute to the whole. There is a balance. These invasives contribute nothing.”
Jim Reinartz, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee field station at the Cedarburg Bog, wrote a 22-page “Roadside Invasive Plant Management Plan” that details ways to control the four invasive plants. Copies were given to all road crews and highway departments in the eight counties. The plan recommends new infestations be attacked first to prevent them from becoming large infestations that are more costly to eradicate.
“We’re only targeting road rights of way,” Rothstein said. “To really make a difference, we have to get private landowners to attack the invasives on their land.”
Proper timing of mowing can kill teasel and wild parsnip, which are biennials that blossom and set seeds the second year and then die. It’s recommended road rights of way be mowed in July before the plants set seeds.
But killing phragmites and Japanese knotweed requires timely mowing and applying an herbicide. These plants are long-lived perennials that spread aggressively and rapidly through underground roots. Any fragment of the plant can set roots, making them difficult to eradicate.
The plants must be hit with a strong herbicide five to six weeks after mowing, attacking them when their roots are weakest, Rothstein said. That must be done every year until the plants are eradicated.
“This is a change in the way we do business,” she said. “There is more manpower involved, but hopefully it will have an impact on controlling the invasives.”
The effort is part of a Department of Natural Resources and federal grant obtained by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. The Land Trust is concentrating on attacking invasive aquatic plants and asked SEWISC to tackle land plants.
“When I got the call from Jill Hapner (executive director of SEWISC), I jumped on it,” said Rothstein, who was an environmental educator at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside for 16 years.
She was among 180 volunteers who put in 2,500 hours driving, biking or hiking 26,000 miles of roads in the eight counties to survey invasive plants. The information was then transferred to maps, which were given to road crews in the counties.
“The volunteers are local people who say, ‘This matters to us,’” Rothstein said.
“This is a pilot project. The hope is that Madison will take notice and decide to work more closely with highway departments, giving them more latitude and a few more dollars so they can adjust their road mowing policies and halt the spread or reduce it.”
Ozaukee County Highway Commissioner Bob Dreblow said county crews mowed county roads in July as recommended and plan to spray in early fall.
The biggest change, he said, is having operators clean equipment after mowing invasives to avoid spreading seeds.
“You have to raise the awareness of the equipment operator so he recognizes the invasive plants,” Dreblow said.
“It’s something that is beginning to take hold, being aware of what the invasives are and attempting to control them. But we can only do road rights of way. We can’t go into a farmer’s field.”
City of Port Washington arborist Jon Craine said he’s trying to follow the recommendations.
“We’re working on getting a better management plan,” he said. “We’re trying to mow before teasel and wild parsnip go to seed, and we’re planning to spray Japanese knotweed and phragmites.
“I think next year we will have a better handle on things. We have some pond areas that invasives are starting to push out perennials. We’re trying to keep it contained and not make it worse.”
Craine said he appreciated getting the information from the consortium.
“I think its wonderful that there is a county and regional approach to this,” he said, “and that they’re getting the information to us so we can stay on top of it.”
Image information: GIANT REED GRASS, also known as phragmites, growing near the entrance to Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton dwarfed Ozaukee County Supr. Jennifer “Jeffie” Rothstein. Photo by Sam Arendt