FARMINGTON — Utah Division of Wildlife Resources staff spent the past two weeks mowing down an invasive reed that dominates the wetlands surrounding the Great Salt Lake.
With the help of three Marsh Master machines — “the king” of rideable lawnmowers that resembles a small tank — just three people cleared 400 acres of the invasive reed in Ogden Bay and Farmington Bay wetlands, on the east side of Great Salt lake.
Called phragmites, but referred to by many DWR staff as “phrag,” the reed’s growth is so thick and dense that it can make the wetlands impassable to humans and wildlife, said Chad Cranney, DWR’s wetland manager. It grows from 10-12 feet tall, similar in some ways to bamboo.
“It takes over all the native vegetation around the lake. That native vegetation is what wildlife depends on ... to live here, that’s why they’re here,” Cranney said.
In the fall, it had been sprayed with herbicide, so most of it is now dead, Cranney said. To mow it down while it was still alive would make things worse by spreading it. The remains of the dead reeds are left in the wetland areas, but the mowing helps them decompose more quickly, Cranney said.
This project will make it possible for the wetlands’ native vegetation to thrive in the spring and support the wildlife that depend on it, particularly birds.
The largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere, the Great Salt Lake is home to five globally significant bird areas, according to the National Audubon Society. The wetlands are popular nesting areas for migrating birds in the spring, but phragmites impedes their nesting.
Because phragmites grows thick, it accumulates sediment and changes the way water flows, Cranney said, sometimes causing parts of the wetlands to dry out.
It’s also a fire hazard.
“That’s kind of a big issue, especially with a lot of these wetlands — how close they are to urban development now,” Cranney said.
In general, whenever one species of vegetation dominates an area, that area is more vulnerable to disasters like fires, said Tyler Thompson, watershed program director for Utah Department of Natural Resources and director of Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, or WRI.
“A diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem,” Thompson said. “The more diversity in plant species, the more diversity in different types of vegetation stages ... (they) react differently to fires and to other natural disturbances ... and it’ll help them bounce back a lot faster.”
If trees are thick and consistent, dominated by one or two species, a fire can burn quickly and continuously through them, Thompson said. Diversity in vegetation naturally slows fires down, allowing firefighters time to respond.
WRI is a collaboration of more than 500 partners representing public, private and nonprofit organizations, and it’s funded significant work with vegetation to improve the quality of Utah watersheds, among other projects. Regional teams of partners evaluate project proposals and select those that will be funded.
For fiscal year 2021, 165 projects totaling $55 million have been proposed, and about half of those can be funded, Thompson said. The phragmites removal project has been selected for funds every year staff have applied in the northern region, Thompson said, because it addresses so many of WRI’s priorities — including watershed health, biodiversity, water quality and the sustainable use of resources.
In addition to sustaining wildlife and protecting nearby communities, the phragmites removal project also serves anyone who recreates in these areas.
“We do this work for hunters, for people that want to spend time on the lake and in those areas enjoying wildlife, whether you go down there to hunt them or ... to take pictures of them and ... just sit and enjoy the solitude and refreshment of nature,” Thompson said. “It’s a huge part of people’s well-being, especially here in Utah.”
Far from being a niche interest, Thompson said the concern about nature is a community concern, consistently showing up in survey feedback, public feedback solicited by DWR and in the priorities of Utah legislators.
“It’s always been one of the biggest things we hear from our constituency is that they enjoy living close to nature,” Thompson continued, “so it’s our job to do what we can to make sure that nature is healthy and provide that service to people that live here.”