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Noxious weeds are vexing county, townships, landowners

Hubbard County ag inspector Greg Hensel, in the passenger seat, sprays a ditch on Highway 64 for spotted knapweed and thistle this week. County crews have been out daily to get ahead of the weeds. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County has a growing weed problem.

But the spread of noxious greenery isn't primarily on county and state roadways, said county agriculture inspector Greg Hensel.

A spraying campaign to eradicate loosestrife, spotted knapweed, thistle and other voracious migrants that choke out native vegetation is allowing the county to get the upper hand in their spread, he maintains. But private landowners must also do their part, the county maintains.

The issue, much like the troublesome weeds, arose spontaneously when commissioner Dick Devine mentioned Wednesday the townships in his district are "having terrible weed problems. They want to know what we're going to do about it. I've explained to them we're spending a ton of money and seem to be going backwards.

"I'm not blaming anybody," he said. "But do I tell them it's too big for us to handle?"

Hensel, who admits he gets complaints from private landowners and townships, was directed by the board to advertise the county's weed-killing services to its townships and prepare bids.

If townships want to invest the approximate $100 per mile to have the county spray both sides of a roadway, Hensel's department - actually Hensel himself since he's a one-man department with occasional help - will spray the affected areas next spring. He already does some of the townships now.

The department's annual budget, $35,000 of county funds and $15,000 from the state to cover the cost of spraying state highways, is meager compared to the vast seas of weeds throughout the county.

"Are we holding our own?" wondered Devine.

"We're gaining on the ditches but the private landowners..." Hensel said.

Last year, he said the county sent out 270 letters reminding landowners they must spray their own properties, by law. This year about half that amount of letters was sent. Compliance is spotty, Hensel admitted, with no time for enforcement.

Devine said he's heard from some landowners the problem is so bad, their crops are in danger.

Noxious weeds come from a variety of sources: gravel pits, hay brought in that's not tarped on the truck, farm and road equipment and airborne sources.

"Thistle seed blows well," Hensel said.

Some counties have embarked on a gravel pit certification program and find it to be working well, Hensel reported. In neighboring Clearwater County, gravel pits sign up for seven years to be part of the certification process. Each pit must pass three inspections a summer, enabling the owner to sell gravel certified to be weed-free.

Hensel said 80 percent of Clearwater County's gravel pits have enrolled in the program and county officials are happy with the resulting decline in the spread of noxious weeds.

Another weed problem arises when homeowners spread infected topsoil over their property without spraying it. And agricultural areas are ripe for the spread of weeds.

"It's been a problem since we decided we wanted to farm," county board chair Lyle Robinson said.

"The spotted knapweed probably came in on a piece of grain," Lake George farmer and commissioner Cal Johannsen said.

Hensel said knapweed is especially tenacious to eradicate. "It puts all its energy back into the roots for next year," he said. It also kills all other vegetation in its path.

But spraying, such as Hensel and a co-worker were doing Thursday along stretches of County 64 should eradicate the thistle and knapweed for next year, Hensel believes.

And the weather has contributed to the magnitude of the current problem. Weeds thrive in poor soil and under dry conditions.

"I don't see it out in the irrigated fields," Robinson observed.

The county has a hard time forcing private landowners to take care of their weeds when government is waging its own battle, Johannsen said.

So until private landowners take the initiative, the county's battle will likely always be an uphill climb.