Izaak Walton buckthorn battle continues with quest for new recruits

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Mar. 7—John Ryder said cutting down buckthorn was a perfect opportunity to log volunteer hours as a Minnesota Master Naturalist.

"It's a spring day, the sun's out and there's not much to do," he said as he stood on the frozen pond in the Rochester Izaak Walton League Wetlands.

He was among a handful of volunteers joining five staff members from the Lewiston branch of Prairie Restoration Inc. Saturday morning with the goal of learning more about efforts to eradicate the invasive plant and tackle clearing two islands in the pond.

By the end of the scheduled workday, approximately 90 percent of one island and 75 percent of the other were cleared, with stumps chemically treated and fallen buckthorn burned.

Jen Wahls, the Prairie Restoration site manager, said it was likely the last day the group could safely reach the islands on foot before the ice melts. .

The local Izaak Walton League initially hired Prairie Restoration in 2019 after two years of working to grow volunteer efforts aimed at removing buckthorn that has spread throughout the 27 acres the nonprofit owns on South Salem Road, west of Rochester.

"It was a merry band of like four or five, with all board members," said Julie Roenigk, a former league president and the volunteer who organized Saturday's work day.

Although Saturday's volunteer numbers fell short of the goal, Roenigk expressed excitement that they came from a variety of other organizations. She's hoping the league can recruit a volunteer base to support the work Prairie Restoration has started, since it's unclear how long the league will be able to fund the paid crew.

"Our intention is to get some enthusiasm to create a buckthorn team for our property," she said, pointing to similar efforts that have been established throughout the county.

Wahls said the work that has started can fuel added interest as people see what is possible.

So far, about two-thirds of the area surrounding the site's public trail has been cleared and chemically treated, but work continues.

"It's very tedious," Wahls said, noting it will likely take years under current contract conditions to clear the buckthorn from the Izaak Walton Wetlands.

Clearing will be followed by years of maintenance to ensure the undesired trees and shrubs don't return, since dropped seeds can remain viable for nearly a decade under some conditions.

Roenigk said she's hoping volunteer efforts can help get the bulk of the removal efforts done this year, so maintenance can start and the league can begin looking at the native plants it will bring back to the islands and surrounding areas.

"That's the fun part," she said, taking a brief break from dragging the thorny buckthorn to a nearby burn pile.

She added that anyone interested in joining future efforts to clear buckthorn at the Izaak Walton Wetlands site or donating funds to the effort can contact her at jwroenigk@gmail.com or 507-254-8208.