On July 6, 1921 Wallowa County voted to become a weed control district. For at least 82 years the people of Wallowa County have made weed control a priority, and wisely so. Just ask a Californian what a headache having 20 million acres of Yellow Star Thistle in your state gives you. Or ask a North Dakotan what it's like to have enough Leafy Spurge on your land to make the land worthless. Ask a Montana rancher about battling spotted knapweed for decades and you may hear horror stories. On the Payette River in Idaho the story is about Rush Skeleton Weed taking over the country. Even closer to home we could ask about the Whitetop in the pastures, fields and fence rows of Baker County. The scary thing is we have all of these weeds here in Wallowa County and many more.
Is this an emergency? Absolutely! In Oregon alone we lose more than $83 million a year to just 29 of the 99 state listed noxious weeds. Nationally we lose an estimated $27 billion annually in our forests, pastures and crops to noxious weeds. The good news is that for every dollar spent on prevention, eradication or control there is an estimated $27 dollar benefit.
Are we doomed to be overrun by weeds? Not quite. The main reason we are not already overrun is the dedication and determination of the people here to keep their lands in good shape and weed free. Overall, farmers and ranchers have been diligent. Federal, state, and county agencies have made many honest efforts over the years that have helped immensely, even if they have been subject to the vagaries of budgets and challenges from the environmental community.
What should Wallowa County do now? We should stay ahead of the curve the weed curve that is. The weed curve shows how most weed populations behave over time. Weed populations grow slowly for a long time and then they explode, increasing rapidly in number until they have filled all the land that they can (biological potential). Yellow Star Thistle in the Lewiston area is very near to its biological potential. However, it is nowhere near it's biological potential in Troy or Imnaha.
Efforts to reduce weed populations once they have begun to explode are very expensive in time and dollars and in gallons of chemicals. The longer a weed population exists, the tougher it is to kill. The roots grow deeper, the number of seeds in the ground increases, and the more area it covers. To stay ahead of the curve we must manage weed populations as soon as they are introduced before their populations explode. We save time and money by attacking when root mass, seed load, and infestation size are small.
Staying ahead of the curve takes two key ingredients. First, we need to recognize noxious weeds and know what to do when they show up. Second, we need coordinated and effective ways for folks to go about treating their weeds. That is where the weed managers come in: helping people decide the best way to control or get rid of noxious weeds.
The very best way to manage weed infestations is to prevent them keeping us off of the curve altogether. Wallowa County (including many partners over time) has made a great effort to prevent weeds with the Minam Hay Station. Certainly, if we have prevented a few weed introductions it has been well worth the trouble. A new county effort aimed at preventing weeds is the production of weed free forage by local farmers. Visitors will have clean hay to take into the backcountry and local producers will open a new out-of-county market.
We also prevent weeds by keeping our ground in good shape - chock full of native and desirable plants. Weeds have a much harder time establishing in places where perennial vegetation is vigorous and healthy. Some weeds can establish even then, but the process is much slower and less severe if the native or desirable plant communities are in good shape.
Wallowa County is on the edge of the population explosion with many of these weed species. We need to work together now to become educated and active in identifying and managing our weeds. To wait would be folly. Just ask someone who lives behind the curve.
Editor's note: Mark Porter is rangeland stewardship coordinator for Wallowa Resources.