Q&A: The story behind an invasive plant in the southwest

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Posted: Aug 21, 2015 1:50 AM
Q&A: The story behind an invasive plant in the southwest

PHOENIX (AP) — The tiny seedling was brought over from Eastern Europe and parts of Asia nearly 200 years ago and planted along riverbanks across the United States, mostly in the southwest, to prevent erosion. It grew fast, its thick branches and oily leaves spreading out across five states in the West.

As years passed, it became obvious that the introduction of salt cedar, or Tamarisk, trees was a mistake. The invasive tree has an extensive root system that sucks up nearby water and leaves that leak a salt-like substance, killing native plants nearby. It also burns hot in wildfires, complicating efforts to bring blazes under control.

Containing and treating salt cedar is expensive because how difficult it is to eradicate, making it a continual, almost never-ending process in the West.

Here is a look at the effort:

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WHY IS SALT CEDAR SO PROBLEMATIC?

Salt cedar creates extreme fire conditions because of how hot and black it burns.

The plant grows thick with large branches covered in dirt, often making it hard for firefighters to go in and contain fires where salt cedar is burning.

A fire where salt cedar is burning typically requires the use of heavy machinery like bigger trucks or aircrafts to help contain the fire. Direct fighting with the blaze is dangerous for firefighters.

Steve Mayhew, captain at Avondale Fire Department, says they use a Type III Brush truck which is larger, sturdier, and has a more extensive hose system than a regular fire engine.

What's unique about salt cedar's biological make-up is that after the plant burns, a reaction in the plant allows it to grow back with more vigor after being set on fire.

"It grows a whole new plant on top of what was burned, essentially," said Rusty Lloyd, program manager at the Tamarisk Coalition.

Other plants would typically die after being burned, but salt cedar re-sprouts.

Not only is salt cedar fueling many of these southwestern fires, but it's also altering the environment around it.

It's reducing wildlife habitats, agriculture, and "water quality and quantity", said Rusty Lloyd, program manager at the Tamarisk Coalition.

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WHAT'S BEING DONE?

Government agencies, various organizations, and local communities have taken initiative in trying to control the growth and re-growth of salt cedar.

In states like Arizona, there has been an increased effort by independent organizations like the Friends Verde River Greenway led be Anna Schrenk to clear salt cedar from parts of Arizona.

In the summer months, Schrenk's crew maps the area where salt cedar was treated in the previous years. The crew uses tablets and a special application that maps where salt cedar has or hasn't grown back. This method makes it easier for crews to go back in the fall months and start physically clearing any regrowth of salt cedar.

Ground crews usually use chainsaws to cut the tree down and then treat it with an herbicide. Other methods include mastication, which involves using a "large lawn mower", or in rare cases, bulldozers, Lloyd said.

A Tamarisk eating beetle was illegally released in Utah to try and kill these invasive plants and has slowly made its way into northern Arizona.

The beetle is eating away at these salt cedar plants but it's also threatening the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher's habitat. As Willow trees in the southwest have decreased, the endangered bird started using Tamarisk as their preferred habitat.

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WHAT'S NEXT?

Salt cedar growth needs be controlled where the densest population of salt cedar is found in states like Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada.

The main goal for these organizations and landowners is to replant native plants, replacing salt cedar to create a healthier and more abundant ecosystem.

Government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona is currently working with communities like Buckeye to assist and fund salt cedar clearing, said Dolores Garcia, fire mitigation specialist at the Bureau of Land Management.

However, regardless of these various initiatives, experts say they don't anticipate salt cedar going away anytime soon.

"There's a lot of work to do," Lloyd said. "It will not be eradicated. There will always be Tamarisk with us."