Little Patches Everywhere

A little patch of thistle in a meadow.

Today was not a good day.

Nearly every day since mid-January, I have gotten out of bed, had breakfast, and headed out to either the Sonoma Overlook Trail or the Montini Preserve to pull Italian thistle. I did this even during shelter in place, as I had written permission to do trail and land maintenance activities. Today, since we had achieved our goal of pushing the thistle back away from all of the maintained trails on both properties, I decided it was time to see what the upper reaches of the Montini Preserve looked like. By “upper reaches” I specifically mean the area north of the Rattlesnake Cutoff and Valley View trails. I had already been north of Rattlesnake Cutoff, and had cleared those areas fairly well. So it was really the areas north of the Valley View trail that I wanted to explore.

So today I went off-trail up into the hills. At the very upper edge I came to a patch that I started pulling. At first it seemed rather small, but as I pulled it kept going and going until I realized I would have to come back to finish it. I moved on, following the fence line. I came to another small patch of maybe a couple-dozen plants, then walked another ten feet of so and found another. Then another. And another. I soon came to realize that the hillside was essentially covered with it, but in small, lightly covered patches.

As I came back down the hill a different way than I had gone up, I began to realize the extent of the problem. Although trails (animal as well as human) are one vector of spreading, these infestations proved that it spreads in a lot of ways. Basically every way imaginable. I began to understand that to truly rid the property of this scourge it will take walking almost the entire property multiple times in a season. I really started to finally see what we are up against, and it isn’t pretty.

I have good days and bad days. When I’m discouraged I have a custom of asking myself this question: “Did I make a difference today?” The answer has always been “Yes.” Until today. Today the answer was “I don’t know.”

Child Soldiers

At this point in the Italian thistle season, some of it is beginning to go to seed and you also start to see a particular phenomenon — tiny plants that are going straight to flower. It’s like they know that they only have a short window in which to go to seed before conditions become too dry, so they pop up and go to flower immediately. Of course we can’t ignore these, as their seeds have as much reseeding potential as seeds from a large plant, they just might not travel as far.

So that means being very watchful and careful to pull ALL the plants you see, rather than just the large, obvious ones. It might be annoying to have to bend over for these little guys, but if you don’t, next year will likely be worse. It comes with the territory.

This is also the time of year when we get out the cordless weed whacker and chop down large patches that we won’t have the time to pull by hand. Chopping the heads off before they seed is actually a last-ditch effort, as it isn’t as sure as pulling and carrying it out, and if it’s done too early the thistle can still put on new flowers. Some areas could need multiple sessions over time to prevent them from flowering.

As the Italian thistle season eventually winds to a close (although even after it goes to seed I might still carefully bag it), the Yellow Star thistle season begins, which will take us into August. Invasive species removal season really doesn’t have a season per se, as we could work on Scotch broom year-round, but I still consider January to August as being the main invasive species removal season, which means we are barely halfway through it.

 

Major Milestone Reached in Invasive Species Removal

The weapon of choice, with a pile of vanquished foes in the background.

I am very happy to announce that after years of work, and over three months of constant and focused effort this season, we have reached a major milestone in our fight against invasive species. For the first time ever, we have pushed the Italian thistle back away from all of the named trails on both the Sonoma Overlook Trail property and the Montini Preserve.

I am not making this declaration without first traversing all of the named trails (close to 5 miles of them) and inspecting them closely every step of the way. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t missed a plant or three, but it means that if I’ve missed something it wasn’t for a lack of trying. [To be clear, as of this writing the trails are closed, but I have official permission to only do maintenance work on the trails.]

This was our first goal for this season, and the fact that we were finally able to accomplish it is an indication that the situation along the trail is improving. Many areas (primarily on the Overlook, where much of our past efforts have focused) were much easier to clear this year than last year. But of course a great deal of work remains.

That continuing work will now focus on complete eradication in areas where it seems possible, preventing further spread, and tightening the noose on large infestations. We may also experiment with covering dense clumps with plastic and letting the sun do our job for us.

Those of you who would like some background on this decades-long battle can read our past posts “Why We Fight,” and “‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons from Invasive Species Removal.” Or perhaps you shouldn’t. Yeah, that’s the ticket, probably better to read a novel, now that I think about it. Or literally anything else.

Fighting the Fight Because It Must Be Fought

I don’t know if you’ve ever faced this situation in your life, but I have, and more than once. I’ve had ore than one fight enter my life that I could not turn away from — fights that simply needed to happen, because some things are simply worth fighting for, despite the odds, despite the near certainty of defeat; because then you can live with yourself, knowing you did what you could. Some fights are worth fighting for the fight itself, and if you don’t believe that, I’m not sure I even want to know you.

If you choose your fights based on winnability, that is not a criteria that I respect. I choose my fights based on what I believe is worth fighting for, and if I need to go down fighting, then so be it. But at least I can look myself in the mirror, because I did what my conscience demanded. I believe we all need to know which hill we’re willing to die on. And there may be more than one.

This means that I’ve lost, sometimes even disastrously (buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell the stories), but I’ve never regretted fighting. That’s the beauty of struggling for what you believe in — you actually win even if you lose, as you’ve stayed true to yourself. Some people can’t say that, and that makes me sad.

So yes, I keep my defeats as close to my heart as my victories, perhaps even closer, as they are what makes me cry, even decades after, as my victories never seem to do. If you are wise in choosing your fights then the price you pay is to remember them for the rest of your life. Otherwise, they never meant anything to begin with. Choose wisely, knowing the price.

Although this is one of the much, much lesser fights of my life, and likely not one I will ever cry over, I will probably die not knowing if we ever won the fight against invasive species on the trails above the city of Sonoma, after decades of fighting. But I will die knowing I did everything I could. And that’s really all I need to know. At least this will be one of my much lesser defeats. I hope all of your defeats are much less than this. May they always and forever be.

The War Begins Anew

A young Italian thistle, which can grow to be over 6 feet tall.

Today I spotted the first Italian thistle plants (see picture) of the 2020 invasive species removal season — or what I simply call “thistle season,” as the species we’re most focused on at the moment are the Italian and Yellow star thistle. These species are fully capable of taking over entire ecosystems and driving out native species and even wildlife. Thus we fight.

Thistle season has grown to last from the end of December, with the early onset of Italian thistle (slightly later this year), to well into August with the Yellow star. That makes thistle season nearly 8 months long, with only 4 months off. It doesn’t mean that we’re out there every day, mostly hand-pulling the weeds, but it means that every day we can starts to add up to a real difference. As it is, we’re witnessing a decrease in the volume and extent of Yellow star thistle, since we’ve attacked it for close to a decade. It’s even gone from some areas. But Italian thistle has essentially overrun the Montini Preserve and it is threatening to do the same on the Overlook Trail property. Thus, our recent efforts on Italian thistle have tended to focus on the Overlook Trail — first to eradicate it from the trail verge, where traffic on the trail can spread it, and then to fight it back from the trail into the surrounding areas.

Last year we were successful in clearing it back from the trail, but much beyond that was mostly untouched except for a few select areas. This year we’re hoping to have the time to take the fight further out from the trail, and especially hit some meadows where it hasn’t yet become widely established, such as the Upper Meadow on the Overlook. But the season has just begun, so we shall have to see what we can accomplish this season.

Meanwhile, if volunteering to help us pull these weeds is something that might interest you, I recommend you first read this post: “‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons from Invasive Species Removal.” We’re not trying to scare you off, really we aren’t, but it’s best to approach this work with your eyes open. Trust me on that. If you’re still game, let me know.

If you don’t wish to volunteer, but see us doing the work when you hike, throw us a wave. Feelings of pity and “there, but for the grace of God…” are also appropriate.

August seems like a long, long way off from here.

 

Why We Fight

I’ve posted a lot about invasive species removal from the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties. Anyone but me would likely say too much, and who could blame them? Not me.

But in reviewing what I’ve written over the years about it, I realized I’ve never explained why we fight this fight. So now I rush to make good this oversight, and try to explain why I go out, nearly every day I can from January through July or beyond, and fight something that will very likely never be defeated.

First and foremost, it’s necessary to highlight the fact that species such as Italian and yellow star thistle will completely take over an ecosystem. You don’t need to go far to see this happening. The picture here was taken at the Sonoma Valley Regional Park, and shows how Yellow star thistle in the foreground, and Italian thistle in the background, have essentially taken over a meadow. This crowds out native plant species and even mammals.

Thistle creates a “no-go” area for wildlife, who avoid such patches until they can’t be avoided at all, and then they move elsewhere. This of course leads to a an ever-increasing monoculture and “dead zone” where only the invasive species thrive. “Invasive species are among the leading threats to native wildlife,” states the National Wildlife Federation, “Approximately 42 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species.” This is clearly a serious threat that must be addressed.

The impacts of this monoculture are many. Wildlife doesn’t have the food sources they should. The lack of diversity in plant life affects the diversity of everything else — insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Invasive species can also affect the chemistry of the soil, as well as the intensity of wildfires.

There are, then, many reasons why we fight this fight.

Recently as I walked along the main path in the Sonoma Valley Regional Park, I was in despair seeing the extent of Italian and Yellow star thistle invasion. It was heartbreaking to see. But I had to turn away, knowing that I have my own battle to fight on the Overlook and Montini Preserve properties. Thankfully, the Yellow star thistle is nearly eradicated on those properties except right along, and next to, Norrbom Road. But we have a long, long way to go against the Italian thistle, let alone Scotch and/or French broom and other invasive species that we have yet to assess, let alone seriously address.

In the end, we fight this fight because the alternative is so much worse. We fight because we love the native ecosystem and we believe deeply in saving it. We fight because we have no choice but to do so, loving these properties and trails as we do. Frankly, that’s the absolute best reason ever to fight for something — for love. So if you see me or my comrades out there, with a large bag and a glove, you’ll know what we are doing. We are fighting for something we love.

That’s why we fight.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Long-suffering readers of this blog are probably saying to themselves, “Oh no, here he goes again!” And that is perfectly understandable, as during invasive species removal season (essentially the first six months of the year), I’m obsessed with it. I admitted this nearly four years ago, and the disease sadly continues unabated. So here we go again. Buckle up, buttercup.

For years now, the primary method we’ve been using to fight invasive species (first Scotch Broom and Yellow Star Thistle, now Italian Thistle) is pulling. Early in the season we can just pull and drop the weeds, as they are not in danger of going to seed. But later we pull it, bag it, and carry it out. After years of doing this, and largely being successful against the Yellow Star Thistle (which has yet to be spotted on either the Overlook or Montini properties this season!), I’ve become discouraged at the progress against Italian Thistle.

Unlike Yellow Star Thistle, which grows only in open meadows, Italian Thistle will grow anywhere. It’s rampant on the Montini Preserve, although we may still have a chance at reducing it on the Overlook. For the last couple years I’ve focused on pushing it back from the Overlook Trail to prevent it’s spread. For some sections of trail I’ve also been able to completely eradicate it this season. I’ve noticed some progress from last year along the trail, but this must be compared to areas where it has now spread, mostly into areas where the Yellow Star Thistle had been cleared.

Although pulling remains the only sure way to reduce the extent of thistle, we’re getting close to the time when the seed is produced (some already has) and at my current rate of pulling there are going to be a lot of areas that I won’t be able to address. So I’ve decided to take a chance at cutting it. Cutting is typically not advised, as the thistle can still produce flowers and seeds after being cut, but I want to try it this season hoping that I’m late enough in the season that it doesn’t have time to regenerate — although the recent rains likely aren’t helping.

So if you see me out there channeling my inner Jamie Lannister, that’s why. I can cut a lot faster than I can pull, and there is still so much out there. We shall see if it’s effective or not, and make adjustments as the evidence indicates.

It’s all we can do.