This year brought a bumper crop of weeds | VailDaily.com

This year brought a bumper crop of weeds

Plumeless thistle has become a fast growing problem in the valley because of this spring and summer's abundant moisture.

EAGLE COUNTY — Scott Griffin is a man constantly on the move these days — even the long days of summer aren't quite enough.

Griffin is the vegetation management specialist for Eagle County. His job is to identify and then kill patches of invasive weeds. Griffin and his seasonal crew spray, mow, shovel and otherwise cut down weeds including Canada thistle, Russian knapweed and leafy spurge along roadways, in county open space and, sometimes, in cooperation with state and federal agencies.

Invasive weeds sometimes look the part — the Canada thistle is an unsightly thing. Other species may look pleasant enough, but all those plants have one thing in common: They often choke out native plant species, making life difficult for the rest of the ecosystems, from insects to large wildlife.

Just this week found Griffin and his seasonal employees ranging from the Frying Pan river above Basalt to Dowd Junction near Minturn. That's not unusual for the job. What is unusual is the sheer volume of weeds crews are fighting.

"It's been insane," Griffin said. "I talked to one person in the weed control business who told me he's never seen it this bad in 30 years."

The reason for the outbreak — statewide, Canada thistle populations are up 30 percent this year — is the cool, wet spring. Give a lot of moisture to plants that grow almost anywhere, and you'll end up with weeds nearly everywhere.

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Everywhere, in this case, also includes private property. Griffin said part of his job is to help land owners understand the best ways to control weeds. A lot of land owners want to keep their property as weed-free as possible but aren't sure how to do the job, Griffin said. Part of his job is helping property owners find the best ways of getting weeds off their land.

It's a lot of work.

"We work long days," Griffin said, adding that the small county crew will help the Colorado Department of Transportation along state highways. Those crews also help control weeds along the rail line through the valley, as well as on property managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Aside from spraying, mowing and shoveling, Griffin has had some help from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which recently brought a test batch of thistle-killing fungus to the area.

While Griffin works with other agencies, he acknowledged that he doesn't work much with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the public land in the county. That department simply doesn't have much in the way of resources to join in the battle, he said.

Griffin's handful of seasonal workers is about the equal of the manpower the Forest Service has available. But the federal agency has a much bigger area to target.

Aaron Mayville is the assistant district ranger on the Eagle and Holy Cross ranger districts. Mayville said the Forest Service has broken its weed control efforts into regions that encompass several of those ranger districts. Locally, the Holy Cross and Eagle districts are combined with districts in the Arapahoe National Forest. The combined territory is about 950,000 acres — not quite 1,500 square miles. There's only enough manpower — two, two-person crews — to cover about 1,000 acres per year.

A lot of the weed work takes place in the same areas every year — places that see a lot of visitors, such as Red Sandstone Road up to Piney Lake, get annual work. Other areas see crews every few years.

"The good news is we have good expertise, we have a good plan that's worked well and our staff really like killing weeds," Mayville said. "It takes a lot of tenacity."

The Forest Service is now talking with town of Vail officials about partnership efforts to control weeds in the areas around town. The feds already have similar partnerships with communities in Summit County.

"We can funnel money, supplies and time to communities we partner with," Mayville said. The Forest Service can also help communities understand the life cycles of different weeds.

While weed work continues this year, the next couple of seasons might be more important.

On the national forests, annual budgets were long set by the time the May rains set in. Mayville said the reason for talking about community partnerships now is in anticipation of next year and the seasons to come.

And, after this year, when more weeds spread more seeds, the battle against intensive plants is going to become more pitched.

"The next couple of years are going to be horrendous," Griffin said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

It’s your problem, too

While local governments and federal agencies fight a constant battle against invasive weeds, private property owners aren’t exempt. State law requires land owners to control weeds such as Canada thistle. Failure to do result in fines and, in extreme cases, officials will kill your weeds then send you a good-sized bill.