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Keeping its luster

STARBUCK -- Anyone who has dipped a paddle in the clear waters of Mountain Lake, swished cross country skis on its trails through silent oak woods, or hoofed the windy hills of its native prairie knows this: Glacial Lakes State Park is the real deal.

This park is a real gem for those who want to appreciate the natural environment of this portion of the state, where the western prairie and eastern woodlands meet on a landscape of rolling hills left by retreating glaciers.

Except for one thing. There has been no retreat of the European buckthorn. For decades, the invasive tree has been crowding out native vegetation and marring the scenery in the park, but no more.

A 10-years-long effort to eradicate the exotic invader has succeeded: All 2,423 acres of Glacial Lakes State Park are buckthorn free, a milestone worthy of celebration. The park will celebrate with a "Buckthorn Bash" on Sept. 9 with a day-long series of activities.

"This is the largest buckthorn eradication that came to completion that we ever heard of,'' said park manager Matt Feigum.

It's an effort that was launched 10 years ago by Victor Vatthauer, park manager who has since retired, and Chris Weir-Koetter, a regional natural resource specialist.

The eradication has been difficult to say the least. The buckthorn had been widely dispersed in the park's woodlands, which made the task of eradication very labor intensive, according to Feigum.

Natural resource teams with the Department of Natural Resources devoted long hours in the autumn to cutting down the buckthorn by hand and treating the stumps with herbicide. Fire control was also used where appropriate.

To get an idea of how difficult their job was, consider this. At its worst, there were as many as 10,000 buckthorn stems per infected acre, said Feigum.

The trees are obvious to spot in the autumn. They hold their dark green leaves well into November. Their dark purple berries are also easy to see and identify.

The trees leaf early and create a heavy shade, which suppresses the growth of natural vegetation. As they spread, the buckthorns create a monoculture that offers little benefit to wildlife.

The berries that are so attractive to birds are a laxative. The birds unwittingly sow the seeds amongst the native brush and trees they rely on for cover and food.

Battles are being waged against buckthorn at many state park and public lands, and on many private lands too. Feigum said the park's successful eradication of buckthorn is being noticed by others who are looking at ways to eliminate the unwanted pest. Among those keenly interested are farmers. Buckthorn serves as a winter host for soybean aphids, he pointed out.

Glacial Lakes State Park will manage the unwanted pest as a doctor would treat a chronic disease. Feigum said birds will continue to disperse buckthorn seeds in the park, and it will be necessary to remain vigilant about removing new sprouts. "We will pluck it whenever we see it,'' he said.

Fortunately, the successful eradication has given the park the upper hand in this battle. "It's a lot easier to get when it's small,'' he noted.

He is also taking the same approach to other invasive species that harm the park's pristine environment. Both leafy spurge and purple loosestrifes have been identified in the park. A beetle that preys on the purple loosestrifes has been released to keep it from overtaking wetland areas in the park.

The leafy spurge, which can send tap roots as deep as 35 feet, presents a more difficult challenge. No natural controls are known, he said.