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War on the Roses

Weed Warriors' tame sprawl of non-native vines, berries and flowers.

Mary Lane finds nothing romantic about a dozen wild roses, let alone thousands of them. That’s the problem with the multiflora rose — wherever it grows, it spreads so quickly that it often creates dense, impassable thickets.

“There’s nothing romantic about it because it will attack you,” Lane said. “With those thorns, it’s pretty intimidating.”

And so Lane, a Potomac resident, heads out each week to Section B of the Billy Goat Trail and battles the onslaught of multiflora rose and other plants on the “dirty dozen” list of invasive plant species in the Potomac Gorge.

Lane is a “Weed Warrior,” one of 20 volunteers trained last spring by Mary Travaligni as part of a pilot program launched by the Nature Conservancy in cooperation with the National Park Service.

Each Weed Warrior adopted an area of the Potomac Gorge — the river and it surroundings between Georgetown and Great falls that is home to more than 200 rare plant species.

After completing a 10-hour training program, volunteers go out on their own time, remove invasive plants, report on the plants they removed and notify Travaligni of any new infestations.

PART OF THE REASON why wild roses and garlic mustard run so rampant along the Potomac is that they are not native to the area. They have plenty of company with other invasive plant species, like the porcelain ball plant, Japanese honeysuckle, and the aptly named mile-a-minute.

The “dirty dozen” invasives were introduced to the Potomac Gorge area and spread due to the lack of natural predators. Even deer, themselves an overpopulated species, shy away from many of the non-native plants. “You’d think that deer would mow down this stuff,” Lane said.

As more than 120 species of non-native plants choke out trees, infest clearings and send the Gorge’s diverse but fragile ecosystems out of whack, there’s only one way to keep them in check — people with the knowledge to identify the offending plants and the perseverance to take them out.

When garlic mustard began to choke out native plants near Lock 8 of the C&O Canal, Travaligni led a group of volunteers who removed the plants from the area. Steve DeLanoy and Jim Heins are both bike patrol volunteers who helped clear the invasive plants. “They just grow all over the place,” DeLanoy said. “It’s sort of like ‘Mission: Impossible.’”

“It’s a tall task, and I think it’s a very frustrating one,” Heins said. A group can spend several hours clearing an invasive plant, then admire the success of their work until they return to that spot later. “Next year, you don’t even know that you were there.”

WARDING OFF INVASIVES may seem like a Sisyphean chore. C&O Canal National Historical Park is 184 miles long — far too much area to eliminate every last garlic mustard plant or Japanese honeysuckle vine.

The key is to think in terms of manageable, localized goals and target specific areas, said Rod Sauter, a park ranger stationed at Great Falls. Many of the spots assigned to Weed Warriors are highly visited by humans, ecologically sensitive, or both. Bear Island, home to the Billy Goat Trail’s Section A, is an area where protecting the native plants is crucial.

“Some of the areas of high concern and manageability are a little more remote,” Sauter said. “It’s training volunteers to work individually or with small groups.”

Despite the obstinacy of some of the enemy plants, Lane is happy with the progress she’s made along the Billy Goat Trail’s Section B. Like all Weed Warriors, she records problem areas she sees and what species she’s removed. It will be at least one year before Lane and the Nature Conservancy can begin to assess long-term impact of their efforts.

For now, Lane can point to a dead thicket of multiflora rose, or a handful of Japanese stiltgrass that she uprooted before it became a problem. “At least I’ve made somewhat of an impact when I look at some of the stuff that’s dead,” Lane said.

Traviglani’s grant lasts until the end of this year; it will not be reinstated until after members of the National Park Service, Nature Conservancy and volunteers determine the success of the project.

FEDERAL LAW prohibits unauthorized removal of plants from national parkland, so visitors to C&O Canal National Historical Park may not go out and individually uproot invasives. “They shouldn’t go out and freelance,” Sauter said.

Among the reasons is that some invasive species look very much like native plants. Weed Warriors volunteers don’t get to uproot anything until after they’ve taken 10 hours of instruction on identifying 12 of the most common invasive plants and the best methods of removing them (they can be controlled without herbicides).

Not all the volunteers are biological experts. Traviglani joked that some originally didn’t know a beaver from an oak tree, but they all wanted to help.

It’s a different story for land owners in the Potomac Gorge — chances are good that some of the “dirty dozen” invasive plants thrive on their own property. “A lot of times, people may find these species in their yard,” Sauter said. “Those plants don’t know park boundaries.”

The Nature Conservancy and Potomac Conservancy co-produced “The Good Neighbor Handbook” for those who live along the Potomac River (see “Understand the Land” above). Part of the book’s aim is to educate land owners about non-native plants and how they can deal with the growth.

MOST WEEKS, Lane dons her orange volunteer vest and patrols the Billy Goat Trail armed with “flash cards” that the Nature Conservancy gives volunteers to identify the invasive plants.

Lane loves being outdoors, and under the shade along the trail where it feels 10 degrees cooler on hot summer days. “I become almost invisible,” Lane said. “I haven’t run into people who are particularly inquisitive as of yet.”