Land Trust re-considers approach to invasive plants

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 5:00pm

A casual inquiry to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council has led the Block Island Land Trust and other conservancy organizations to rethink the approach to phragmite management at Mosquito Beach.

The invasive phragmites have obscured the view of the Great Salt Pond and two months ago the Land Trust was asked about the possibility of mowing down the tall reeds along a stretch of Corn Neck Road. The request came from Scenic Block Island, an organization that town Highways Supervisor Mike Shea has recently joined.

One month ago, Shea came to the Land Trust’s meeting to discuss the idea further. The simplest plan seemed to simply mow a narrow stretch along the road. As the area slopes down towards the pond that would open up the view. All seemed in favor of the idea and it was decided that the best approach might be to make a preliminary call to the CRMC about the idea.

At the Land Trust’s meeting on Friday, Dec. 13, Harold “Turtle” Hatfield informed his fellow trustees and representatives from The Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Conservancy that the CRMC’s answer was “no.”

“Did you frame it as invasive species mitigation?” asked TNC Associate State Director Scott Comings.

“Yes,” said Hatfield.

Comings said that the TNC has done about 30 acres of phragmite removal on the mainland, using Goosewing Beach as an example.

“It’s more sensitive,” said TNC Block Island Program Director Chris Littlefield. “It’s right against the water.”

Land Trust attorney Joe Priestley suggested putting a plan together that might be more appealing to the CRMC.

“CRMC loves access. This isn’t an access point,” said Hatfield.

“Talk about invasive pressure, not the view,” said Comings, adding that the health of the salt marsh could be emphasized. “There are different ways of approaching it.”

That started a debate on the merits of mowing versus removal and restoration, a much more involved process.

“This is really up to the town,” said Land Trust chair Barbara MacMullan. “We just have an easement.”

“It’s high quality habitat beyond the phragmites,” said Comings. “Phragmites are a symptom of a system out of balance.”

“It’s a small enough area you could use a weed-wacker,” to mow it down, said Littlefield. “You could spend a lot of money on this for not a lot of gain.”

“You’re doing this forever,” said Comings. “Every year it comes right back. But it would benefit the environment,” he said before volunteering to come up with a plan.

Obstruction of the view is also a problem at the Solviken property, but this time the culprits are poplar trees. Land Trust Clerk Heidi Tarbox presented the Land Trust with the application to the CRMC for the board’s approval. The application asks for permission to “top” the trees “to not less than four feet to preserve the views of the pond.”

“You might want to ask for a multi-year assent,” said Comings.

Littlefield concurred, adding that if the trees are cut back to four feet, they “explode to eight feet in a year.”

The Land Trust approved the application for submission to the CRMC. They expect it will take about three months to be approved. Once it is, the project will be put out to bid.

Meanwhile at the Solviken, the Block Island Gardeners have decided to forgo their plan to install a pollinator garden and other plantings, given the difficulty of the harsh environment and the need for water. MacMullan said the Gardeners are now focusing their efforts on the Ocean View property.

While the trustees batted about various locations at the Ocean View – along the old hotel foundation, around the pavilion, or down by the road, ultimately the decision will be made by the Ocean View Foundation.

“Improvements to Hull Pond” were also briefly discussed. The pond, a popular ice-skating spot, was acquired by the three conservancy organizations last winter. Comings reported that the trail has been mowed and areas cleared of brush “as much as can be done without environmental approval.”

MacMullan thought it would be nice to have a little dock for the pond – a place where in winter, people could sit and put on their skates.

“If we’re lucky enough to get ice, we could put something out there,” said Comings, although he also said he “wants to wait and see how people are using it,” before making more improvements.