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Confronting The Woods Bully

Wally Rehm

At the Glen Helen Nature Preserve near Yellow Springs, there’s a problem. For decades, non-native plants such as bush honeysuckle have been taking over the understory of the forest.

Last November, the Preserve received a $70,000 grant from the Nature Conservancy to remediate these invasive species. The target for the South Glen Restoration Project is a 2 ½ mile stretch alongside the Little Miami River – an area the size of 80 football fields. Each Saturday this year, volunteers join the staff as they attempt to reclaim the forest. Community Voices Producer Wally Rehm went to visit them.

George Bieri is Land Manager at Glen Helen Nature Preserve. On this Saturday morning, Bieri is leading of team of nine - mostly volunteers.

“So this is big stuff guys; it doesn’t get much worse than this,” Bieri says, “We can’t even do an acre of this a day, it’s too intense. We realize now that this Oxbow is the most difficult that we’ve found.”

In the Oxbow section of the South Glen, the honeysuckle is all around. It grows in clusters and has long, arching trunks – imagine a drooping flower bouquet, only ten feet high. And instead of blossoms, a thick tangle of branches and leaves. I interrupt Andy Wilson of Fairborn and ask him to explain what he and the other volunteers are doing.

Wilson says, “Well, they’ve cut large amounts of the invasive plants, the olive and the honeysuckle and a few other things, and it’s in piles in the woods and we’re grabbing on to the cut limbs and trunks and dragging them to where they’re chopping them up so they can make other piles out of it.”

There’s lots of chopping going on. Where it’s possible, the managers prefer use a huge chipper to pulverize the plants. But this section of the Glen is remote, and today the tool of choice is the machete.

Rachel Smith is an Antioch College student; she chose this project for her spring internship. She spent the last year in Ecuador and Columbia, so she’s familiar with using machetes.

“I really enjoy using them,” Smith says, “They’re incredibly useful, and if you get a feel of how to do them I think they’re a really efficient way to work.”

I ask her, “How about the one George gave you?”

“It was a good one,” she says, “See, I switched him out, cause I was using the orange one, which I hate. I don’t like the ones that have a safety handle, so he gave me a heavier one, that was just sharpened, and it was a lot better.”

The grant from the Land Conservancy pays for two temporary employees who help lead the volunteer workdays. In prior years, there were occasional fall work weekends at the Glen, but progress was slow.

“What we were seeing was that you could go out and get a bunch of people together and over the course of a month or two maybe, maybe clear an acre,” says Nick Boutis, the director of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute.

“But do the math,” Boutis continues, “We have a thousand acre preserve and if you were taking out an acre of invasive species every year, you’re putting yourself on the thousand-year plan. We really sought to accelerate our efforts because we didn’t think that the Glen could wait that long to heal, and frankly we were just far too impatient to wait that long ourselves.”

The current glut of non-native plants traces back to home landscaping projects in the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  Amur honeysuckle, for example, was introduced as an ornamental from Asia. Birds ate the seeds and carried them, and the plant escaped cultivation. Boutis explains that the Glen’s shape makes it vulnerable. It’s narrow, about a third of a mile wide by four miles long.

“We really try and help enforce the idea that a honeysuckle plant that’s right outside of the Glen might as well be inside the Glen. And invasive species that are in our backyards will ultimately spread to natural areas. And give people the knowledge and the tools to be help be good stewards of their backyards and their communities. That’s how you protect natural areas.”

Andy Wilson is still working away at the bush honeysuckle. He says he’s come after it at least twenty times over the last four or five years.

“It does seem like a Herculean task. What do you think keeps you coming back?” I ask him.

“Just clearing a little bit at a time and seeing how good the woods look when you clear it and seeing the wildflowers come back. You’ve got to start someplace, so, you clear a little bit and keep on going,” Wilson says.

Brian Ryan is a volunteer from Xenia. He sprays herbicide on a large honeysuckle stump.

“I used to be in construction,” Ryan says, “So, how you have to look at it is… you have to look at ‘This is my little square for the week,’ you can’t look at the whole building,” he laughs. “I mean, you know, we did high rises, and you know like you couldn’t say there’s twenty stories. You had to say I’m gonna do one eighth of one floor this week. That’s it.”

Vincent Laino of Enon volunteered over 100 times at the Glen before being hired as temporary staff for the project. Laino says honeysuckle is like a bully.

“You know, the school bully? This is the woods bully. You can’t just let it go on and on without taking action. Its intention is to steal all the light from every other plant - and that’s a bully. Like someone who comes up in school and says ‘Give me your lunch money,” Laino says, laughing, “We can’t have that.”

Boutis tells me about the map in Land Manager George Bieri’s office.

“He has an orange highlighter,” Boutis says, “and as they complete an area, he extends a little box around where that land was, and is gradually able to watch the orange grow on the map along the Little Miami. We’re making good progress. But it is a big, big project. We can use some help!”

For more information about Glen Helen, including volunteer information, click here. Learn more about invasive species here.