Weeding the Angeles National Forest, one plant at a time
On a sweltering morning deep in the San Gabriel Mountains, Katie VinZant donned work gloves and boots, hoisted a pickax and began bashing alien species.
The 31-year-old botanist enjoys a Sunday in the Angeles National Forest as much as the next person. But when it comes to weeds that have colonized and multiplied since the 2009 Station fire, she’s a terminator.
Slender and trim in a T-shirt, grubby pants and tattered straw sombrero, VinZant swiped the sweat stinging her eyes. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said, “but I plan to get rid of as many weeds as possible. They don’t belong on the landscape.”
One plant at a time, one weekend at a stretch, VinZant is helping to weed the 640,000-acre forest that is the playground and backdrop to Los Angeles.
This is weeding on a Herculean scale. But the U.S. Forest Service employee and pioneer in the Angeles National Forest’s weed removal program is unstoppable. She leads a team that aims to map and remove entire populations of 48 nonnative plant species crowding out alders, cottonwoods, willows and chaparral.
With a dozen employees and volunteers she calls “my die-hards” on a stretch of the Santa Clara Divide Road, 16 miles northwest of Pasadena, with the temperature 100 degrees and tarantulas climbing up their pant legs, they dug and pried thickets of Spanish broom from the hard ground and granite crevices along a crumbling asphalt road on the burned slopes west of Mt. Gleason.
These stands had grown 4 feet tall, with spiky green branches that spread 3 feet across. The root systems of the spindly, highly flammable yellow-flowering Mediterranean native can be so dense that toads can’t burrow into the sandy soil.
A crew member began with a pair of shears, lopping away the top branches. Then another moved in with a spade and trowel, methodically exposing the root. About an hour later, they crouched together and attached the steel jaws of a weed wrench to the main root. Then they began rhythmically rocking back on the tool’s 4-foot handle. Eventually, the soil heaved and the root released its hold with a soft pop. They left behind a hole about a foot deep and 2 feet wide.
After a five-minute breather, they moved to the next quarry a few yards away.
“Spanish broom is awful — just awful,” VinZant said. “And a pain to remove.”
Introduced in a misguided erosion-control program in the 1930s, Spanish broom and other imported plants and trees were spread by vehicle tires and now thrive in the ashen shadow of the county’s largest wildfire. But removing the invader from the wilderness is not as glamorous as the ongoing effort — being undertaken by hundreds of volunteers — to plant 3 million pine and fir trees over the 10,000 acres scarred by the Station fire.
“Everybody wants to plant trees, which is hard work but also fun stuff,” said Vance Russell, director of California programs for the National Forest Foundation, which administers private gifts and funds for the benefit of the national forests. “Pulling weeds in the Angeles National Forest is a Sisyphean task; with some weeds, you could have all the people in Los Angeles going after them for 50 years and not make a dent.
“That is why plants, compared to animals, often get less attention and funding. Yet they are the base, after the soil, in a thriving habitat, and bringing back species people want to see, from flowers and Manzanita to bobcats and migrating birds.”
Small signs of progress keep VinZant and company going. She pointed to a mountainside a few hundred yards to the east, the rising slopes peppered with green. “We took hundreds of brooms off that slope, and they haven’t come back,” she said. “The green patches you see there now are native plants and grasses that are flourishing again.”
Then she turned uncharacteristically glum. “We still have five miles of road to go, and it’s the cruelest section of all because the brooms are really dense.”
Dick Sailors, 68, a retired Pasadena middle school teacher, seemed unfazed. He joined VinZant’s war nearly two years ago, after the Station fire scorched more than 161,000 acres of chaparral, oak and pine forests. Since then, unwanted imports have infested an estimated 3,400 acres in the burn area.
“Come on out, you son of a gun,” said Sailors, pulling back hard on the handle of a weed wrench. When the 4-foot root ripped from the soil, he heaved a deep sigh and pointed to a knee-high green shrub a few feet away. “That’s a native plant known as yerba santa. It’s one of the little guys I’m up here trying to protect.... Every weed we yank out of the ground brings us a little bit closer to natural,” Sailors said.
“But Katie is the big reason I keep coming back,” he added. “Her dedication, hard work and unstoppable optimism are a wonder, and infectious.”
Cody Coeckelenbergh 28, a consultant for Southern California Edison, put it this way: “Katie has made a huge contribution in healing a badly degraded watershed. She is also the face of the new generation coming up the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service. I’d like to see people like her take over the agency one day.”
VinZant received the 2010 National Forest System Invasive Species Program Award for her “leadership in recruiting and staffing a noxious weed team, leveraging funding and developing an approach to restore lands burned during the Station fire.”
The botanist grew up in a small town near Wichita, Kan., and her love of landscapes and plant harmony began with excursions into the countryside with her father, a doctor, and mother, who tended a lush home garden. In 2002, she earned a biology degree and landed a job as a conservation land management intern for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
She also is a woodcut artist specializing in landscapes and native birds and flowers. The San Gabriel Mountains are her muse, and she is determined to protect them.
On this particular Sunday, her day off, VinZant and the crew removed 25 Spanish broom plants, piling them along a 200-yard stretch of road. The thunk of shovels and cries of victory as weeds popped from the soil died down as the low slant of amber sunlight bathed the mountainside.
“All that blood, sweat and tears pays off,” she said, surveying the piles of removed weeds. “Native vegetation will thrive in the light, nutrients and habitat we’ve given back to it.”
Giving the sweaty, exhausted crew an approving nod, she added, “Are we proud of what we accomplished here today? Hell, yes!”
VinZant took a deep breath and focused her gaze across the ridge lines. Sprawling for miles in all directions were blackened skeletons of oak and pine trees.
She took stock of the unmistakable signs of an unnatural regrowth cropping up in the canyons that had been reduced to charcoal. Western bluebirds flitted over patches of manzanita and lodgepole pine. Bees zig-zagged over buckwheat — and scores of new weeds, just a few inches tall.
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