Volunteers Remove Invasive Buckthorn Shrub, One Saturday at a Time

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Jim Pivarnik for ELi

Justin Drwencke, Community Events & Park Stewardship Specialist for the City, helps direct volunteers.

This weekend, the East Lansing Environmental Stewardship Program will hold a volunteer workday on Oct. 10, 2020, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. to weed and maintain the planter beds and rain garden at Patriarche Park, located at 960 Alton Road.

Attendance is limited to 25 volunteers. All volunteers must wear a facemask or covering and maintain 6 feet of distance from others. Washed and sanitized gloves and other necessary tools will be provided. Those interested can register here.

Those interested in what a volunteer workday may look like can read Chris Gray’s article, which originally ran on Feb. 18, 2020.

Original Article:

Above: Mike Vasievich helps lead the clearing of invasive species in East Lansing parks (photo by Jim Pivarnik)

At the start of the snowbound Saturday morning, a thick bramble of invasive buckthorn bushes blocked the view of the houses on Groton Way from Henry Fine Park.

But by noon, a covey of volunteers had cleared 50 cubic yards of biomatter from the East Lansing park — and stacked the brush in a row along the park’s central path like a military barrier. And the view of the houses was clear.

“It was just a brush thicket before and now we can see through there,” said Mike Vasievich, a retired forester and East Lansing resident who lent his abilities at the chainsaw to cut down the bushes while others — mostly college students — picked up the brush and stacked it.

The volunteers came out for an environmental stewardship day, part of the East Lansing park system’s invasive species removal program, which attempts to clean up park natural areas and rid them of plants that are not native to Michigan and which make it difficult for native plants and other species to survive.

“Buckthorn is an invasive woody shrub,” said Justin Drwencke, a park stewardship specialist for the City of East Lansing. “It’ll crowd everything out. The goal is to make the parks more healthy.”

Above: Volunteers head out to work (photo by Jim Pivarnik)

The section of Henry Fine Park where the buckthorn-clearing happened is called a shrub-carr, a waterlogged wooded terrain that starts as a reedy marsh and, if left to nature, eventually becomes forest. “Carr” comes from the Old Norse word for brushwood. The low-lying wetland provides a natural wetland buffer behind the houses on Groton Way in the Pinecrest neighborhood.

Some of the volunteers who came out to help were aspiring foresters at Michigan State University. Others were on hand as a social activity of community service, like students from the Muslim Student Association.

“It’s part of our faith to give back to the community, to give back to the earth,” said Yacer Mirza, a student from Dearborn Heights.

“I think it’s important when you’re not from a community to give back to that community,” said Menar Muflihi, from Dearborn. “As college students, it allows us to take a step back.”

Above: Mikayla Manthiram clearing brush (photo by Jim Pivarnik)

Thad Swart, a forestry student, had helped out previously, in November. Mikayla Manthiram, a freshman Forestry Forever Scholar, needed the volunteer hours, but she’d also enjoyed invasive species removal in her hometown of Detroit.

She rode to Henry Fine Park with a classmate, Morgan Nash. “I’ve been feeling so cooped up this winter.”

Nash was handed a machete to cut down vines. Other volunteers were given large tree pruners, while one woman got to handle a brush cutter that cut smaller woody clumps of buckthorn as Vasievich and an assistant operated the chainsaw on the thicker woody stems of larger bushes.

But most of us were scavenging the woodlot and picking up the brush left behind by all the cutting.

Above: ELi reporter Chris Gray providing embedded reporting from Henry Fine Park (photo by Jim Pivarnik)

2008 natural features inventory of Henry Fine Park conducted by the Michigan State University Extension Office for the East Lansing Parks and Recreation Department showed a good deal of native forest trees over 27 acres such as silver maple and red oak of impressive size, but an understory dominated by two invasive shrubs: glossy and common buckthorn.

These species of buckthorn are native to Europe and the Middle East and were brought to North America in the 19th century as an ornamental hedge. They escaped from cultivation and invaded natural forests near developed areas.

Vasievich said one reason for this is tied to another ecological problem in East Lansing — the abundant white-tailed deer, which prefer native plants. He pointed to a young evergreen that the city planted, recently girdled by a male deer. “The deer are one of the reasons we have all this buckthorn. The deer do not eat buckthorn. They eat the oak and cherry saplings.”

Above: Volunteers from the MSU Muslim Students Association helping with the stewardship day, from left: Menar Muflihi, Hammam Saeed, Yacer Mirza, and Hijab Shamim (photo by Jim Pivarnik)

The bush spreads and crowds out native brush like nanny berry and gray dogwood, which can still also be found at Fine Park. The dogwood is distinguished from the buckthorn by its reddish twigs, adding a glint of color to the winter woods.

Not all non-native plants pose a problem. Clearing out the buckthorn exposed a Scotch pine, which had evidently been planted. Vasievich also decided to leave a white or Russian mulberry, which the birds enjoy and doesn’t dominate a woods the way buckthorn does.

Buckthorn had been successfully removed from other parts of Henry Fine Park in previous years by as many as 90 volunteers who later planted 400 saplings to kick-start the succession.

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