Plague Of Thistles Works Way Into Rim Country

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This won't be the first time in recent weeks that Old Glory has been used to unite U.S. citizens against a common enemy.

Saturday, Oct. 27, the community of Young will celebrate the raising of its first permanently waving American flag while educating revelers about what resident Shawn Evans calls "a nightmare beyond people's dreams."

The evil force Evans is referring to isn't a human who has hijacked a jetliner or a cache of anthrax.

It's a prickly, noxious weed called the yellow starthistle that has already hijacked more than 15,000 acres of Gila County much to the consternation of conservationists, cattlemen, hikers, and Evans himself.

He's the vice-chairman of Tonto Weed Management, a nonprofit organization formed through the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts and established within the Tonto Weed Management Area a chunk of northern Arizona which, according to Evans, "nearly mirrors" the whole of Gila County.

"I'm billing this event as, 'raising the flag of awareness as well as raising the new flag in Young,'" Evans said. "It's not just a fund-raiser; it's a friend-raiser, open to anyone who's willing to come out and show support for this project."

The goal of the project is the eradication in Gila County of the yellow starthistle.

Once a minor annoyance, the nonnative weed has blossomed into a major menace throughout much of the West ruining rangeland and forests, choking out native plants, killing horses and stabbing man and beast with its needlelike spines.

Evans recounts the tale of a retired Young policeman who was removing yellow starthistle from a community area and "took a couple of those spines in his knee. An infection spread from his leg, through his bowels and down his other leg before they realized that's what was causing it. This is a healthy guy, about 48 years old. He lost 50 pounds, was in and out of the hospital for six months, and underwent a couple of surgeries where they tried to get those needles out of him."

Found along roadsides in grasslands, landfills, vacant lots, parks and recreation areas, the yellow starthistle quickly dominates any area it invades.

In 1965, California found about 1.2 million acres of starthistle. By 1985, it covered 7.9 million acres. Now the super-weed infests about 22 percent of the state, or 20 million acres, according to a recent study by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

On a single Sacramento, Calif. rivershed, Evans said, the state "spends $3.5 to $5.5 million a year on water conservation losses just from the yellow starthistle ... And Idaho spends about $300 million a year" trying to erase the weed from its landscape.

In Gila County, Evans said, "we have over 15,000 acres that we've identified so far of the yellow starthistle and the Malta starthistle," a near-identical relative of the yellow variety.

The latter vegetation's history in the Rim country pretty much tells the whole story of this breed of weed.

Some years back, Evans said, the Arizona Department of Transportation hired an independent contractor to handle a road-widening project near Punkin Center. To prevent soil erosion along the roadside, the contractor used straw from Yuma "and it was loaded with Malta starthistle," Evans said.

The problem?

"One yellow or Malta starthistle plant can populate an entire area within a couple of years," Evans said, "because one flower will produce about a thousand seeds, and those seeds are about 95 percent viable. In fact, they'll lay on the ground for a decade and still be viable. When those seeds take hold, those plants commonly produce 20, 30 or 40 flowers. If you miss one plant, you're in trouble."

Since that inadvertent planting, Evans said, the Malta starthistle has traveled "all the way up Highway 188 to the Beeline, all the way down to Roosevelt lake on both sides ... and down to Apache Junction." Meanwhile, he adds, the yellow starthistle has bullied it's way up and through Star Valley into the Payson area.

"It's in Payson Concrete's gravel pit, and they're loading that stuff up left and right, and shipping it all over the country," Evans said. "They have (contributed money) to help us buy another (chemical) sprayer, and they've offered to buy chemicals so we can come treat their pit so hopefully, the amount they're shipping all over the place will decline."

Combating the noxious invader can be difficult and expensive but not impossible. Burning works best, Evans said, but must be done annually for three years before it is effective. Intensive grazing by goats or young cattle is another weapon. And there are several "advanced herbicides" available.

But the first step, Evans said, is letting people know that Gila County has become a vast noxious nursery for the aggressive plant, that the problem is serious, and that without action, it is certain to become much worse.

Hence the upcoming flag-and-consciousness-raising ceremony, which Evans has extended invitations to and expects to receive RSVPs from State Representatives Jake Flake and Deb Brimhall; Chris Udall on behalf of U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth; Jake Logan on behalf of Senator Jon Kyl; an unnamed official from the office of U.S. Representative Bob Stump; Meg Bishop, the regional director of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service; Jody Latimer, the new director of the Arizona State Land Department; state weed coordinator Ed Norton; and United States Forest Service officials, among others.

In addition to a hayride through an area thick with yellow starthistles, the family event will include a dinner prepared by local 4-H Club members, entertainment, a silent auction, a raffle, and attractions geared toward children as well as the opportunity to "bend the ears of the Forest Service," Evans said.

"We've got a storm brewing on our horizon that we're going to have to get people aware of," Evans said. "I don't think Arizona wants to go there."

The flag- and consciousness-raising event will begin at 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Young Community Center. To make reservations, call Evans at (928) 462-3131.

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