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Volunteers band together, root out invasive species in Duluth

A large group of volunteers, including Doug Erickson of Lakewood Township, cut and pile Japanese knotweed in Fairmount Park Monday afternoon. The plant is an invasive species which has spread to many places in Duluth. Bob King / 1 / 4
Nathan Myers of Duluth, a volunteer with AmeriCorps, uses loppers to cut down a large tract of land in Fairmount Park near the Lake Superior Zoo overtaken by invasive Japanese knotweed Monday afternoon. Bob King / 2 / 4
Volunteer Alyssa Perrett of Duluth cuts and removes Japanese knotweed Monday then tosses it into a pile for removal. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Tyler Hey of Carlton, conservation assistant with Carlton Water & Soil, uses a hand saw to cut invasive Japanese knotweed in the woods near the Lake Superior Zoo Monday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Eimy Quispe doesn't know which invasive plant she dislikes the most. It could be tansy or maybe buckthorn.

But a summer spent rooting out any invasive plant is one she knows she'll enjoy.

"I do get to do field classes, but I've never gotten the chance to experience a field job," said Quispe, a senior attending college in Connecticut. "Having the field experience and being able to do surveys and being able to apply that stuff to the future really appeals to me."

Quispe is part of the AmeriCorps Young Adult Program, which operates under the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa. The team she works with is based in Duluth, where they spend their time maintaining trails, stabilizing streambanks and rooting out invasive species.

And on a humid 90 degree Monday in Fairmount Park, it was Japanese knotweed in the crosshairs of 60 volunteers looking to find and remove the non-native plant.

"We have cut and treated this every year for the past six years and this is still the expanse of it," said Steve Schoenbauer, an invasive species specialist with Duluth's Parks and Recreation Department. "If you don't get at it every year, it just grows and grows and grows."

Japanese knotweed can be spotted by its green ovate shape and pointed tips. Duluth is home to the most concentrated source of the plant in Minnesota. Schoenbauer said Fairmount Park was chosen because it hosts a portion of the invasive plant growing in the city.

"It's really obnoxious." he said. "Drive down an alley in Duluth, you'll probably see a small patch in somebody's backyard."

Japanese knotweed was originally brought stateside a couple hundred years ago as a source of erosion control for riverbanks, and because it looks pretty. However, with no natural predator, it's been free to grow wherever it likes.

The vegetative invader has all the attributes needed to be a prolific invasive species. It likes the moisture offered by northern Minnesota, so it can reach heights as tall as 20 feet, sometimes growing a foot and a half a week. Even more daunting is its extensive root system, which it uses to populate areas it lives in.

"This stuff is really bad because it grows through foundations," said Schoenbauer. "It will grow through asphalt. It can get down into people's sewer systems and disrupt their pipelines because it grows so deep."

Ten feet deep to be exact. It also grows outward as far as 60 feet. Which is why mowing over the plant or pulling it out of the ground doesn't work. The most effective way to dispose of the invader is through the use of a herbicide.

Enter: Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa. Partnering with 25 employees from Allete Inc., the two teams put on weeding gloves and yellow and blue hardhats and descended on a large plot of the knotweed.

Uprooting hundreds of stalks, the plants were piled 10 feet high. The next step is to wait until the pile has decomposed, in which case a group will return in September to spray the pile and the roots that have sprouted up again.

Service members that make up the Conservation Corps group range for ages 15-25. While some of them have already graduated college, others use the experience as a gap year before or during their undergraduate tenure. Members learn on the job and network with officials who work in the industry.

"It's all about the crew model as well," said Derick Schneibel, the northeast district manager with the corps. "You end up spending a lot of time with your coworkers over that 10-month period. So in addition to the skills you gained like those tangible skills, you also get to work on those interpersonal skills as well."

The days can be long. Instead of five eight-hour shifts a week, the crews work four 10-hour shifts.

"They might work remote, so it makes sense to have this (10-hour days)," said Schneibel, "plus no one complains about a three-day week."