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Countys weed fighters battle

Scott N. Miller

EAGLE COUNTY Stephen Elzinga spent the first part of his working life getting plants to grow. Now hes on the other side of the circle of life.For the past four years, Elzinga has been Eagle Countys point man in the local battle against noxious weeds, a group of nasty plants that can choke natural vegetation out of pastures, meadows and streamsides.The countys relatively short growing season is when Elzinga and a couple of seasonal employees are busiest spraying, mowing and chopping away at weeds along roadways and streams, as well as keeping weeds off the countys growing inventory of open space and other property.While all property owners in the state are required to control noxious weeds on their land, Elzinga is committed to a practice what you preach philosophy.Our house has to be clean, he said.Eagle Countys house has a lot of halls, with more than 500 miles of road. Elzinga and his crew also do weed control on the right-of-way next to Interstate 70 from the top of Vail Pass to the mouth of Glenwood Canyon.

Im usually here about 5:45 a.m., Elzinga said. Were usually out by 6 a.m.That early start is essential in case the wind kicks up. Any breeze stiffer than 8 mph will stop spraying. A puff of wind doesnt mean its coffee time, though.Theres always mowing, and, if theres time, there are plenty of tamarisk along the western part of the Eagle River and up the Colorado. Those are usually taken out with chainsaws, then the stumps are treated with a chemical to kill the root system.While a lot of people cringe at the idea of spraying for weeds and bugs, Elzinga said hes comfortable using the stuff.The most dangerous thing I do is drive, he said. Its all pretty safe if you follow the label and I generally dont use pesticides that are highly toxic if I can help it. I dont want to die.Although hes now a certified expert in weed and pest control, Elzinga started his career in the cherry orchards of his native Michigan. From there, he earned a degree in soil and plant science from Michigan State University, then went to work at golf courses in his home state.Elzinga and his wife Heidi ended up in Colorado the way a lot of folks do: After a vacation in the Rockies, Michigan just wasnt the same. Moving to Colorado in the late 1990s, Elzinga worked at golf courses, spent a winter as a lift operator in Beaver Creek, and hired on for a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service. He interviewed for the countys weed and pest job in 2000 and has been on the job ever since.

As he adapted to the job, Elzinga also got used to the calls. Some come about weeds, but its the … and pest part of his job description that fills up his voice mail box.Its been a big year for rodents, Elzinga said. And weve gotten a few bee calls, too. Those callers, though, usually get bad news. I dont do indoor rodent control, he said. And we dont do bees.What callers will get, though, is a referral to people who will handle those problems. Sometimes, if a complaint has come in, Elzinga will be the one calling property owners, reminding them they are required to control weeds on their land and offering what help he can.It all makes for a pretty busy day. In the summer.



Once the growing season is over, the weed and pest department becomes a one-man operation. During the slower months, Elzinga uses maps drawn up with the aid of Global Positioning System technology to target noxious weed populations for the next season. He also takes care of billing and other paperwork that tends to stack up in the summer.Winters the time for continuing education, adding to the fistful of state licenses he already holds, and working on education efforts to help people understand why its important to knock down the states most wanted weeds.People seem more aware these days, Elzinga said. That awareness extends to alternative forms of weed control, which is good as part of a broad strategy.For instance, Vails weed-eating goats should be just part of a broader approach that involves mowing and, yes, spraying. Similarly, there are places where bugs that eat a specific weed works well, and places the bugs arent appropriate.Through it all, theres always something new to learn. And there are always more weeds to kill.With more weeds than time or people to handle them, Elzinga may not have ironclad job security, but hes close and theres always plenty to do.We just try to keep up, to make a dent, Elzinga said. If we can do that, were doing all right.Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.vail colorado


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