HANSON — As a snow squall moved in ahead of a winter cold front Thursday, Jan. 10, a strange-looking tracked vehicle passed back and forth in the marshland of Smitty’s Bog.
The last time the vehicle had been seen working in the conservation area off Route 58, the town’s Conservation office received about a dozen calls from curious residents.
What on earth was going on here?
“What we’re doing is taking this area which was obviously all about cranberry cultivation and we’re restoring, as much as possible, to wetlands and their natural ecological function,” said Conservation Commission Chairman Phil Clemons. He described the process of removing invasive phragmities from the bog — the work being done by the vehicle owned by Solitude Lake Management of Virginia with offices in Shrewsbury, Mass.
The casual onlooker might not know the name phragmities, but would recognize the towering reeds with the fluffy plumes.
“This is part of the wetlands restoration management plan that the Conservation Commission, the town of Hanson and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have been working on,” Clemons explained as tall, dried phragmities fell before the “MarshMaster’s” cutting blade. “We’ve been spending seven years preparing a plan and now we’re finally starting to do it.”
The machine is used for mowing marsh areas because its extremely wide track spreads the machine’s weight over a wide area to avoid harming underground roots. It is less likely to get bogged-down in a bog, as well.
“It’s environmentally sound,” Clemons said of the vehicle. “It’s a good thing, even though it looks terrible and we want people to know that.”
An EPA-approved herbicide was sprayed on at least three acres of phragmities-choked areas by Solitude Lake Management in September and, on the plant tops after the fluffy seedheads died back for the winter, the company was cutting down the plants. In the next growing season it will be much easier to find and treat what remains of the plants, Clemons said.
“Mowing [alone] wouldn’t do a thing,” he said. “It would probably just encourage it. There’s multiple steps over multiple years.”
The phragmities, a common reed, is an invasive species from other continents.
“We never used to have it around here until a few decades ago,” Clemons said. “When I was growing up there was none of this in Hanson. It comes in and takes over a wetland and wipes out all the other native plants.”
Cattails, lilypads and other native plants have all paid the price of the phragmities’ success in the region, according to Clemons. It also has few animals feeding off it. The plant’s “impenetrable mass” chokes shallow water bogs and natural marshes, with negative effects to stream flow and native wildlife.
“Nothing eats it,” Clemons said, noting phragmities is one of 100 plant varieties that are now illegal to sell in Massachusetts. “It is a wolf in environmental sheeps’ clothing. It’s an environmental disaster, is what it is.”
Removing the phragmities will permit the return of native plants that want to come back and insects, fish, amphibian and bird species that use that wide diversity of plants can also return.
“They will get much more benefit from that diverse mix of vegetation instead of a solid wall of junk.” Clemons said.
Common in alkaline habitats, phragmities also tolerate brakish water and is associated with larger methane emissions and greater carbon dioxide uptake than native New England salt marsh vegetation that occurs at higher marsh elevations, according to plant researchers in a 2015 environmental report. Both the state and federal governments have policies that seek to control the spread of phragmities wherever possible.
“The only thing is, it’s difficult to control and this will be a multi-year task,” Clemons said.
Federal funds are paying for the project.
“At the moment, we’re working and the contractors are working, I’m sure they will catch up with us,” he said of the potential financial impact of the federal government shutdown.