Shout Down Phragmites Plan

A plan to use a chemical herbicide to kill phragmites in Napeague’s Walking Dunes has been postponed until spring amid controversy. Russell Drumm

    A state plan to rid approximately five acres of invasive phragmites within a section of the Walking Dunes on the eastern end of Napeague using an herbicide has been delayed until spring so as not to threaten the annual cranberry harvest.
    The decision by Brian Foley, deputy regional director of the State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, was made on Friday. The Parks Department, which had earlier approved the use of chemicals to stop the spread of the invasive beach reeds, oversees the scenic expanse of inland dunes on the western edge of Hither Woods.
    The department reversed its position after a group of cranberry pickers were surprised to find the operation under way. The pickers brought their concerns to the Concerned Citizens of Montauk environmental group and the East Hampton Town Department of Natural Resources. The office of Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. was also brought into the phragmites fracas.
    The stand of phragmites in question grows in the midst of the dunes’ sweeping concavities that got their “walking” appellation because of their centuries-old northwest-to-southeast migration across the Napeague isthmus. The dunes are home not only to cranberry bogs, but also to a number of rare species of plant life, including a type of prickly pear cactus.
    On the weekend of Oct. 13, a group of cranberry pickers were alerted to the start of the project by the sound of chain saws. The project, which involves the application by wick of the herbicide AquaPro, a glyphosate herbicide, was announced in the Environmental Notice Bulletin of the State Department of Environmental Conservation in August. A call for bids was published in Newsday. The state awarded the winning bid to Warren’s Landscaping of Water Mill.
    Larry Penny, former director of the town’s Department of Natural Resources, said on Tuesday that he had seen the call for bids and brought it to the attention of Warren’s Landscaping. He said he had signed on as a consultant out of concern that the Walking Dunes ecosystem would be lost to phragmites. The reeds in question were beginning to take over one of the Walking Dunes cranberry bogs.
    Mr. Penny said annual cutting of the phragmites stand had been tried but was unsuccessful at stopping its spread. “In fact,” he said, “cutting alone might spur additional shoot development. The rhizomes are so deeply imbedded, cutting can’t get to them.” Prior to the outcry, the plants in question had been cut close to the sand and were about to have the remaining stems wicked with AquaPro, he said.
    Mr. Penny said the goal was to prevent a monoclonal stand, acres wide, like the one to the north of the Walking Dunes that stretches nearly all the way to Goff Point. Such stands crowd out all other plant life, including cranberries.
    The former natural resources director said he was in the process of obtaining a state license to administer herbicides in both upland and aquatic environments and had planned to help Vicky Bustamante, a Montauk resident and botanist working for Warren’s Landscaping, apply the herbicide.
    “The invitation to bid was very exacting,” Mr. Penny said. He said AquaPro was registered with the state as acceptable if used properly by trained applicators who applied the herbicide by hand to avoid the danger of affecting other plants by spraying. The work had to be done near the end of September or early October. “Now it won’t be done until next spring,” said Mr. Penny.
    Maybe and maybe not. “Because of the cranberry harvest and the chemical, they’re going to hold off until spring, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Jeremy Samuelson, executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. “This is a transparency issue,” he said, referring to the fact that the project took the local community by surprise.
    “Beyond that I’m not sure it’s the right solution. There are state and federally protected plant species there. They need to put a map on the wall. People are harvesting food there,” Mr. Samuelson said.
    Kim Shaw, East Hampton’s director of natural resources, said on Tuesday she had asked for a meeting with state officials, and would seek information regarding the herbicide from the Suffolk County Water Authority and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. “This is a pristine environment, if the state wants to experiment, they have other opportunities.”