The Fort Ord Weed Crew
A new type of soldier has emerged to help return Fort Ord to its natural beauty…
In 1994 the United States Army closed the Fort Ord military base in Monterey County, California. Since its establishment in 1917, the base has helped train some of the best soldiers to serve and protect our country, but one enemy slipped through undetected: invasive plant species.
Capitalizing on disturbance, invasive plant species tend to dominate areas where human impact is heaviest. Miles of old roads, scattered impact zones, and a lack of natural predators provide the perfect opportunity for species such as iceplant to establish themselves, sometimes forming dense infestations. Despite the disturbance, the U.S. Army was able to protect and preserve large areas of intact native vegetation including vernal pools, oak woodlands, grasslands, and rare maritime chaparral.
Maritime chaparral is one of California’s most uncommon and highly threatened vegetation communities and is usually found in only small patches along the central California coast. It is a diverse blend of various manzanitas, wild lilacs, and a variety of wildflowers, many of which are rare and endemic to Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Maritime chaparral is a fire dependent plant community where many species are obligate seeders and require fire in order to reproduce. The rare Monterey manzanita (Arctostaphylos montereyensis)
is one example of a species that reproduces only from seed. Although occasional germination from seed may occur in disturbed areas along trails, such species usually require fire to scarify their seeds and exposed mineral soil to allow for reproduction at an ecologically meaningful scale. On Fort Ord National Monument, maritime chaparral is threatened by lack of fire in some areas and the spread of invasive exotic species such as pampas grass, iceplant, and French broom.
In 1996, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acquired 7,212 acres of land from the U.S. Army, the Fort Ord Weed Crew was established to assist with restoration and management of these habitats. The Weed Crew’s primary objective was to develop a program that would efficiently reduce the amount of acres infested by invasive plant species, while helping to promote native plant coverage through various management and restoration techniques. Included in the program is an additional 7,446 acres of land still owned and managed by the Army, including many of the former ranges, which are scheduled to be transferred to the BLM at a future date.
It was clear from the beginning that with a program this large priorities needed to be established. Of the weeds being treated, 13 are considered 'special concern:' jubata grass, iceplant, French broom, klamathweed, Russian thistle, stinkwort, harding grass, fennel, poison hemlock, veldt grass, velvet grass, hoary cress, and yellow starthistle. Some of these species occur in only a few small locations and are just getting established on Fort Ord National Monument lands, while other species are well established and have spread over a large portion of the former military base. In order to control and contain the various species and infestation sizes, the Fort Ord Weed Crew uses a diverse set of manual and chemical tools to assist in the effort of controlling their spread. Many factors, including weather, life cycle of the plant, terrain, and habitat type provide for a difficult management scenario, but one of the most important factors in selecting the proper management technique, especially in the Army ranges, comes in the form of unexploded ordnances.
In the Army ranges, also known as the Impact Area, decades of activity have produced a soil profile that is littered with old shells and other potentially dangerous items. With safety a major concern, the Fort Ord Weed Crew has been trained in ordnance recognition, safety procedures, and communication protocols associated with working in these areas. To further mitigate the risk associated with unexploded ordnance, the Fort Ord Weed Crew employs herbicide application as a primary tool to reduce soil disturbance while successfully managing target species.
Current BLM administered lands within the Fort Ord National Monument were originally used for maneuver exercises; this minimized the amount and dangerousness of potential unexploded ordnance. During management of these lands, hand-digging tools like a Pulaski, trowel, or shovel can all be used to remove target species. Herbicide application is not out of the question, but it is used only when manual removal is impractical. An additional method, propane flaming, can effectively control small infestations of French broom and poison hemlock by rapidly heating water within the cells of the plant, causing the cell walls to burst. Although there is a core set of tools to remove target species, the Fort Ord Weed Crew is constantly researching new methods to streamline management techniques.
The Fort Ord Weed Crew patrols the oak grasslands, steep gullies, tall mesas, and chaparral shrublands on a daily basis in an effort to preserve and enhance one of the most beautiful ecological reserves of the Monterey Peninsula and one of the crown jewels of California’s Central Coast.