When Winter Favors Summer Weeds

On the shortest day of 2016, more than 100 people came to Belwin for our first Solstice Bonfire. Great piles of buckthorn branches were burned, music was sung, stories were told and friendships—with others and with the land—were made.

The evening wasn’t just about celebrating the Winter Solstice and the days thereafter getting longer, says Belwin Conservancy’s land manager Justin Sykora. He pointed out that the fires were a way for Belwin to get rid of the massive brush piles it clears each year.

On nearly 1,400 acres of permanently preserved land in Afton, Minn., Sykora and other Belwin Conservancy staff work year-round to mitigate the threats of invasive species like buckthorn, Grecian foxglove, spotted knapweed and Canada thistle. Their goal is to create a sustainable ecosystem, where native plants can thrive and attract the animal, bird and insect species that rely on the flora for survival. It’s a complicated process that requires the ability to look at it from multiple perspectives.

When Mother Nature throws a curveball, however, the team has to be ready to deal with what comes. The winter of 2016-2017, so far, has been filled with freeze-thaw cycles that are likely going to give invasive species the upper hand over native species that Belwin seeks to promote.

“When we have early frosts and the ground freezes, the ground opens up. When it thaws, it closes. It’s nature’s way of working seed into the soil,” Sykora says. “Unfortunately, it’s indiscriminate. Weeds and native seeds get worked in. Any disturbance like that works in more invasives. We like to see freeze-thaw and then snow cover. The snow insulates the ground, which stays a relatively consistent temperature and all is fine for winter. Really bad winters are like we started this year: constant cold to hot, cold to hot, deep into winter. That elongates the freeze-thaw cycle.”

Due to the more frequent freeze-thaw cycles we’re experiencing this winter, Belwin is preparing for a surge of invasive species to try and gain footholds in the unstable portions of its lands this spring, such as on the newer portions of the Stagecoach Prairies where Grecian foxglove is a problem. “The nature of invasive species is that they persist. They have an inherent ability to gain a foothold quicker than native species,” Sykora says.

Rather than watching the invasives take hold and then reacting, Belwin is already working on land management plans for the coming spring. “The best thing you can do is maintain a healthy, stable prairie. We have healthy and mature portions of the Stagecoach Prairie and that helps buffer it from being affected. An unstable prairie is more susceptible to invasives,” Sykora says.

On the less stable lands, like the newer portions of Stagecoach Prairies and the Bison Prairie (where sweet clover and spotted knapweed are the problematic invasives), Belwin will employ a variety of methods to control the unwelcome plants. “We’ll be targeting areas early with herbicide to curb the young plants that do germinate. We’ll mow early before they put down deep roots and we’ll attack as early as we can,” Sykora says.

On Belwin’s more mature lands, more frequent monitoring will take place in order to catch any invasive activity early.

Having a balanced approach to land management is what enables Belwin to keep up the work, year after year. “None of this is a tragedy, we just need to think about it and be prepared to act,” Sykora says. “We don’t want to be in August wondering what happened; we need to make plans to evaluate in the spring and get going as soon as possible.”

Sykora observes natural cycles and reviews research by Belwin partners to make educated assessments and plans for dealing with whatever nature brings. “As a land manager, you need to watch what’s going on. If this snow was going away, this cold would go deeper into the soil. You remember that and next year you refer back to what happened. If it rains every day in the summer, you need to observe that and be prepared for the results.”

Belwin naturalist Lynette Anderson and Sykora work together to plan the land management activities. She brings the perspective of understanding the needs of the rare and endangered species that live on and migrate through Belwin.

Finding the right day and time to practice the land management activities necessary to control the invasives can be a challenge, Sykora says, but one that is immensely rewarding.

“We all love doing this. It’s never the same thing, it’s always different,” Sykora says. “You’d think you’d get bored after a few years but it’s never dull. It’s hard to get bored when you work land management on this place.”

“Ultimately, we want the land to take care of itself,” Sykora continued. “We should have minimal input, giving minimally what the land needs so that it regenerates and perpetuates itself. If I kill the invasives, get a prairie going and it’s sustainable—meaning the only way to stop it is dig it out or use herbicide—it will never stop. Then we only need to monitor and enhance it when needed. And that doesn’t cost so much to maintain.”

Working with plants designed to outwit and overpopulate native species might seem like a never-ending burden. Having the right attitude, Sykora says, makes all the difference. “If you’re going to work with invasives, you have to appreciate them because they’re incredible at what they do. Grecian foxglove is a beautiful flower. I kind of admire its ability to be a pain in the butt. If you get to that point when working with the invasives, it’s easier to come into work everyday.”