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The summer of invasions

HALSEY QUINN PHOTO Like a monster staggering in a nightmare, this tree, like so many on the Island, has been totally covered by a destructive, invasive plant species.
Like a monster staggering in a nightmare, this tree, like so many on the Island, has been totally covered by a destructive, invasive plant species.

Many properties on the Island welcome a form of privacy from thick vegetation at the edges of property lines.

Unfortunately, this naturally occurring screening is often made up of invasive species that have taken over many parts of the Island.

Tim Purtell, co-founder of the all-volunteer Vine Busters organization, on a recent drive around the Islandpointed out areas along roads that are completely overtaken by these aggressive and usually non-native plants. He rattled off names: bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose — the list went on. It seemed it’s harder to find areas that aren’t affected by invasive plants than those that are.

Mr. Purtell stopped at a point on Manhanset Road. A bittersweet vine was tightly coiled around a young tree. “It looks like a python,” he said. “And has the same effect.” Young trees, especially, he added, don’t stand a chance.

Mr. Purtell, along with Dan Fokine, started Vine Busters about three years ago, inspired by a similar organization operating in Florida. As the situation with invasive species worsened on the Island, the pair decided it was time to take responsibility and do something about it. The Busters, made up of a team of about 10 to 15 volunteers, meet on some weekends in the late winter and early spring, choosing the seasons to try and avoid ticks. They’ll show up at a piece of town property with chainsaws, aiming to uncover the native species that have been engulfed by the invasives

The Busters don’t work alone. Highway Department workers come and remove plant debris that’s been cut and piled on the side of the road. It’s a town responsibility because the invasives can have detrimental effects on town infrastructure, especially the areas used by town and public utility vehicles.

“When [invasives] encroach into that area it becomes a problem for us,” Superintendent of Highways Jay Card Jr. said.

Vines also climb telephone poles and wires. “They will grow anywhere, all they need is support,” said Mr. Purtell.

Mr. Card also cited bamboo as one of the most difficult problems, along with the ever-present bittersweet vine.

While it is now prohibited to plant bamboo, existing plants continue to present problems, with roots cracking roads from below.

According to Cindy Belt, the education and outreach coordinator of Mashomack Nature Preserve, controlling invasives isn’t just a matter of protecting the infrastructure. It’s important, she said, to combat the aggressive plants even if they aren’t creeping up towards roads.

“When things are invasive, I think of them as bullies,” Ms. Belt said. “They take over and exclude things that should be there.”

The bullies can disrupt an ecosystem by affecting the pH of the soil.

Ms. Belt made sure to point out that “invasive” is not synonymous with “non-native.”

“There are lots of non-native species that are brought here and play well with others,” she added.

In Mashomack, there are plenty of invasive species that staff and volunteers have been battling for years.

“Whenever possible we use mechanical means, cutting, pulling, that sort of thing,” Ms. Belt said.

In some cases, though, herbicides are used. While not the preferred method, sometimes chemicals are necessary when mechanical means just don’t cut it, she said.

For example, Mashomack has been dealing with the hearty pale swallowwort since 1999 and currently use herbicides to keep it under control.

The Preserve also makes use of both mechanical and chemical tactics to attack the newly emerging threat, the “mile-a-minute” vine, which although not growing quite that fast, is one of the most rapidly growing invasives.

How did the Island become a breeding ground for the destructive species? No one is quite sure. Mr. Purtell speculates that many were brought here, or places in the Island’s vicinity, by design. Bittersweet, for example, produces beautiful, bright flowers that the uninitiated appreciate for the aesthetic value. Other invasives are just as eye catching, with some producing fruit.

The problem, however, is that relocating any species can have dangerous results. If there are no natural predators in the new habitat, the transplanted vegetation can and often will run rampant, overtaking and strangling the native vegetation.

Will it ever be possible to get rid of them, especially ones that are super-aggressive? Experts argue that it largely depends on the species. In many cases, Ms. Belt said it can be done with enough time, energy and, of course, money. Mr. Card agreed that “with due diligence” it can be done.

Some places, however, have given up the constant battle. On the South Fork, for example, some towns have stopped clearing invasives, with the exception of keeping public trails accessible. “It’s depressing, but understandable,” Mr. Purtell said.

A significant part of the problem remains homeowners who use invasives for privacy, Mr. Card said. “Many residents feel that they are an acceptable form of screening, which is not the case,” he added. “It’s just promoting the death of other trees and vegetation.”

Homeowners should take responsibility, Mr. Purtell said, and remove invasives either on their own or hire contractors who offer the service.