Invasive and noxious weeds beware – La Plata County is reinvesting money to fight the environmental intruders after years of financial constraints that forced county officials to reduce funding for the program.
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50% – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million in 2018 – mostly a result of a steep drop in natural gas prices.
The fall in property tax revenue resulted in La Plata County having less money for its operating budget, causing the county to cut services to residents, reduce staff and not embark on as many maintenance projects, such as improving roads.
The county’s weed management program was among the causalities, said County Manager Chuck Stevens.
In 2014, for instance, the county allocated about $126,000 to fight invasive weeds. But by 2018, that number had fallen to as low as $49,500, with the county leaving vacant the one full-time position in the department.
“(Leaving positions vacant) was really effective in positioning the county to weather the storm,” Stevens said. “But it did have negative impacts across a couple departments.”
This year, however, county officials believe the steep fall in revenues has leveled out, allowing for a reinvestment in some departments, weed management included.
As a result, the county allocated about $118,000 to rehire one full-time position and put more money toward fighting noxious and invasive weeds. The department contracts crews to treat county-owned property and roads.
In Colorado, it’s estimated the economic cost noxious weeds have on agriculture, wildlife and recreation is about $14 million a year, according to a 2014 study by Colorado State University.
In the early 2000s, Colorado made it a requirement for all local governments to mitigate invasive weeds, creating a list of the unwanted plants on a ranked scale of priority. In La Plata County, a similar list was made for landowners to abide by.
A major issueBen Bain, La Plata County’s weed control manager, said he fields more than 150 calls a year from homeowners about noxious weeds and goes on 60 site visits to advise people about how to eradicate or manage the invasive plants. Bain has worked seasonally for the department for the past 10 years.
“We’ll make a document that goes over their issues with weeds and how best to get rid of them,” he said.
Invasive weeds typically come from harsher environments and are able to thrive in La Plata County’s more favorable weather. As a result, they can outcompete native plants and form monocultures.
Agriculture operations, for example, can be affected when noxious weeds push out grasses for cattle, which won’t eat most non-native plants. Some weeds can even harm or kill cattle, such as poison hemlock and houndstongue.
The CSU study estimated agricultural production in Southwest Colorado suffers a $646,800 loss annually because of noxious weeds.
In La Plata County, invasive weeds are a major issue, Bain said.
Because the county’s terrain ranges from the high country in the north to a lower elevation, more arid environment closer to the state line with New Mexico, there are a wide variety of weeds, Bain said.
The most widespread, he said, is musk thistle, which is native to Europe and Asia. Russian knapweed is widespread near Marvel, and there’s a huge amount of spotted knapweed around Hesperus.
Up by Purgatory Resort, white flowers often noted for their beauty are in fact the noxious weed oxeye daisy.
“We have around 30,000 parcels in La Plata County, and the majority of them have weeds,” Bain said. “We can’t get it all, but we can focus on small areas at a time.”
This year, the county will focus on specific isolated areas, like removing spotted knapweed around Forest Lakes, before it takes over, Bain said.
Bain said public land management agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, also spray for weeds. About 40% of the 1,700-square-mile county is federal public land.
Cost-sharing programsIn addition to consulting with individual landowners about how best to treat their property, county officials embark on a number of educational outreach programs, and the county treats the sides of county-owned roads.
“It’ll take a little longer to get back where we were,” Bain said. “People who used to use the program maybe have given up, so we’re just trying to be more publicly accessible.”
Sherry Bowman, who serves on the board for the La Plata Conservation District, said offering cost-share programs can help increase public participation.
This year, Bowman has secured several grants to offer cost-share programs to residents for purchasing herbicides at half price, as well as money to help battle the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil, a highly invasive plant that can take over waterways and has been found in the Animas Valley.
“It’s a really aggressive weed ... that can be carried to adjacent waterways, including the Animas River,” she said. “It was a big concern to try to get that done to prevent it from eventually hitting Lake Nighthorse.”
Bowman said there are also several joint projects between La Plata and Montezuma counties to fight noxious weeds on the border, as well as between La Plata County and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
“It’s a never-ending battle, it really is,” she said. “But if you stay on top of it, you can really get a handle on it. We just all have to chip in and do our part.”