Fate of Arundo Project in Doubt

The volunteer turnout for last month’s arundo-cutting on State Park land in Lower Topanga was the best it’s been in a while. More than 20 people showed up that day to re-cut the new sprouts of arundo donax. While the volunteers could look with satisfaction at the apparent retreat of the invasive weed in the areas that have been cut for the last 20 months, there was a note of frustration and sadness to the day’s labors as well—because the grant that was paying a State Parks employee to supervise the volunteers has run out, leaving the project in limbo.

Will State Parks allow this effort—hard-fought-for by Topanga anti-herbicide activists— to continue? Is the experiment to control arundo without the use of chemical herbicides working?

As of late October, Suzanne Goode, Senior Ecologist for State Parks, votes ‘no,’ though she confessed to not having visited the arundo sites for six months.

“I’m not interested in paying someone to supervise them, since I don’t think it can succeed, and I don’t think it’s succeeded to this point,” she said.

Jon Earl, whose organization Rhapsody in Green has been central to the volunteer effort, has a very different perspective. He acknowledges that the arundo is still re-sprouting at some of the sites that have been hand-cut, but argues that the apparent death of other arundo patches indicates the method can—and has—worked.

“They would only consider it a victory if everything is dead,” Earl said, referring to State Parks’ negative attitude toward the project. “I admit everything isn’t dead, but the stuff that we cut legitimately for two years is dead.”

As for continuing the project without paid supervision, Goode is skeptical, although she says that would not be without precedent.

“There are places where the same volunteers have shown up year after year and don’t require a paid supervisor,” she says, “but I don’t have that level of comfort in this case.”

This disconnect between the park agencies officials and anti-herbicide activists has characterized the history of the arundo removal project, which was introduced to the Topanga community back in 2001, shortly after State Parks purchased the land that begins at the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway.

Most Topangans seem to accept the premise that the hardy, bamboo-like arundo chokes off stream flow and drives out native plant species. But a sizeable, and vocal, segment of the community took great exception to the planned use of the herbicide glyphosate to combat the weed, though State Parks and its partner in the project, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), claimed that the chemical posed no health or environmental threat.

Jon Earl and Ellen Petty—environmental teachers at Calmont School and founders of Rhapsody in Green, an anti-invasive, anti-herbicide volunteer organization—argued that there was an another way. Earl and Petty had led a class of fifth graders at Calmont in repeated hand-cuttings of a stand of arundo stalks on school property. By regularly forcing the arundo to expend energy for re-growth, said Earl and Petty, the plants’ ability to replace nutrients was ultimately exhausted. The Calmont patch had been defeated, they said, and they were eager to try the method on the larger battlefield at Lower Topanga.

After several heated meetings between community members and Parks and MRCA officials, the agencies agreed in late 2003 to hold off on any herbicide applications for at least a year. During that time, volunteers could go to work, and try to prove that the manual method was effective.

At first, 25 to 30 volunteers showed up regularly for the monthly or bi-weekly two-hour cutting sessions. Over the past two years, however, the numbers have slipped to an average of 10 to 12. Still, several patches that were once heavily overgrown with tall arundo stalks have been cut and re-cut fairly consistently over that time.

To the naked eye, it certainly appears that the method has worked—in the patches where the effort has been consistent, the arundo has been reduced to a few scattered stalks, or less.

On November 22, Earl toured the arundo sites along with Matt Horns, the new coordinator of the Topanga Watershed Committee, to demonstrate this apparent success. Earl emphasized several patches in the Brookside area of Lower Topanga, where, despite proximity to the creek as a water supply, the arundo shows no sign of life.

“It’s definitely rotting,” Horns said, breaking off one of the dry stumps that had been cut over the last two years. “Everything above the ground is definitely dead.”

David Totheroh, one of the regular volunteers, pointed out that success against the resilient arundo plants has only become apparent in recent months. The key, he said, was to keep cutting the stalks through two of its growing cycles, which will take a year-and-a-half at least.

“If you came out for a year and a couple of months,” Totheroh said, “you’d say ‘what am I doing here?’ But you put in a few more months and it starts to go.”

“I’m highly impressed and surprised,” Horns said, after visiting sites where the arundo is apparently defeated, as well as those where it’s been greatly diminished. Horns remembered the dense forests of huge stands that had been here before the project began.

“It seemed like a total lost cause to start with.”

Those who oppose herbicide use can take credit for a temporary victory at least—with the grant that would have funded glyphosate use against arundo at Lower Topanga having expired, the agencies have no specific plans, or budget, to begin spraying there. But Goode hasn’t wavered in her belief that herbicide use is the only way to effectively combat the spread of arundo. She says that the Parks Department has by no means ruled out herbicides in Lower Topanga in the future, but for now has other priorities in their restoration of the area.

“Our department’s focus now is on getting the structures out,” she says, referring to the homes that have been vacated by the relocated Lower Topanga community. “And on working with the RCD [Resource Conservation District] to get funding to remove the berm that has deflected the creek flow for all these years.”

Earl maintains that the partial success he and the volunteers have achieved could be expanded with more time and knowledge, such as the ideal timing for repeated re-cutting.

“I’m very confident that as we understand more about it we could change our timing and defeat the other sites that have done better. There’s only so much that we know. But there are certain sites that are dying, and the so-called experts said you couldn’t kill it by hand-cutting—so the experts don’t know either.”

Discussions are taking place among the dedicated arundo-cutting volunteers and anti-herbicide Topangans as to how to keep their efforts going. An admitted weak point of the project has been a lack of consistent documentation of the effects of the re-cutting. Photographs of the sites at various points in the process are being compiled.

Another weakness has been the dwindling number of volunteers. But here, too, Earl points to the bright side—the turnout may not have been overwhelming, but a core group has come out consistently, month after month to work the arundo fields.

“This group came out 29 times in a row—the community did—they’re there for the long haul. And arundo isn’t the only problem down there. Who’s going to get the Cape Ivy, who’s going to get the fennel?” Earl asks, referring to other non-native invasives. “Are they going to have to keep getting grants? These are the people who would do it—the community, doing it for free.”

So what might it take to continue this approach? Goode, while not overly encouraging, gives a clear answer.

“People would have to approach us with some kind of plan,” she says, admitting that an unpaid volunteer coordinator isn’t out of the question. “It’s possible. It depends on who that is. The project is winding down and I’m not that enthusiastic about it.”

Matt Horns says that he doesn’t consider use of glyphosate in Lower Topanga the biggest threat to the Topanga watershed, but he sees value in volunteer efforts. In particular, he sees the community’s involvement and commitment as an opportunity for increasing environmental education and awareness of watershed issues.

“It’s a very valuable project,” Horns said.

SIGNS, BUT NO SIGNIFICANCE

Ironically, last month also saw the appearance of two new signs along Topanga Canyon Boulevard “announcing” the arundo project. Local residents and arundo-cutting volunteers were confused and worried—was this a signal that the herbicide spraying was about to begin? No, explains Suzanne Goode. These signs were a requirement of the original grant obtained by the MRCA several years ago.

“It just took us a while,” Goode says. “There is no significance to it, we’re just late getting them up.”