One couple works to return their forest to native-only species

On trees throughout Jim Hurley’s and Susan Roth’s forest property you can see scars from Japanese honeysuckle, pictured, which is a non-native invasive plant. 

We’ve all heard the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” when it comes to keeping life in perspective. Sometimes, however, you need to see the trees in the forest to know how healthy it is.

A healthy forest supports the ecosystem around it, and creating and maintaining one is an important mission for one Stanardsville couple. One way to tell whether the forest is healthy is if it’s free of non-native invasive plants that are strangling the life from the forest. This is what Jim Hurley and Susan Roth have been battling on more than 100 forested acres off Rosebook Road at the base of Snow Mountain since moving there in 2013.

“We’re talking about plants that are so aggressive that they’re killing the native plants; they’re changing the environment, they’re changing the ecosystem,” Roth said. “The reason that’s important is that our birds, our wildlife, our insects have all evolved to eat the native plants. We’re depleting their food sources.”

The pair, whose property has a strict no timbering conservation easement put in place by the previous homeowner, are members of the Blue Ridge PRISM, a project of the Shenandoah National Park Trust, designed to reduce the negative impact of these nonnative invasive plants throughout the region. It covers 10 counties that surround the Shenandoah National Park.

“Recent research reports the huge decline of the numbers of insects worldwide,” Hurley said. “Some people want to attribute that to pesticides, but the scientific consensus is it’s loss of habitat. It’s loss of habitat from development—like paving over the world—but also just the invasive plants are taking over the native plants. We are just losing amazing amounts of diversity.”

Hurley and Roth head up the Snow Mountain Stewardship Area of Blue Ridge PRISM, which is threatened to be overrun by Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegeum vimineu) and Japenese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

“Stiltgrass is just everywhere around here. It’s all along the roadsides,” Roth said. 

“People don’t see plants. It’s pretty and green, and it’s what people know,” he said of the dense wirey, long-leafed ground level plants.

Roth noted that not all non-native plants are bad to have, especially those that aren’t known to jump garden fences, such as peonies, which also are from Asia. It’s the ones that aggressively overtake native plants that are both dangerous and destructive.

Hurley has done this type of work for roughly two decades throughout parks in Northern Virginia.

In the early 2000s, he met Georgiana McCabe in an environmental course at the University of Virginia and the two became close friends. When she was ready to sell her property, Hurley and Roth knew they wanted to move to it.

“We fell in love with the land,” Hurley said. “Georgiana put a strict conservation easement on the property with the intention to support the native forest and allow it flourish. Susan and I were in complete agreement and bought the property knowing that. We’ve just seen our work here on this property as continuing to extend the work that Georgiana had already begun.

“Have you noticed that when you drive down the roadways in the middle of July or August you’re not ending up with a windshield full of bugs?” Hurley asked. “It’s a really scary thing to contemplate.”

To that end, Hurley and Roth are in the process of converting about 12 acres of former hayfields into warm-season grasses to create pollinator meadows.

Roth said the wildflowers and grasses they’ll plant also will be plants that not only belong along the Blue Ridge Mountains, but also in Greene County, specifically.

Many of these invasive plants have been in the United States centuries, including tree-of-heaven (or paradise tree) which was introduced in Philadelphia in the 1790s.

“We’re in the centenary, though we should not be celebrating, of Japanese stiltgrass’s known introduction into the country in some crating material in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1919,” Hurley said. “The packing material had the seeds in it. And now stilt grass is thick all the way up through the national park.”

Since they’ve been able to control the stilt grass on their property, for the most part, wildflowers and ferns have started to sprout where they could not have grown before.

Walking “room to room” throughout part of their property, Hurley points out scars left from non-native plants.

“If you look at just this little track of property, it tells the story of what a lot of landowners are facing. This area was bush hogged about 20 years ago and then was never paid attention to again,” Hurley said. “The Japanese honeysuckle had all this light and food sources and small saplings to climb. You can see the grooves in the bark of the trees.”

Until all the Japanese honeysuckle was killed, it was not possible to move through that portion of the property.

In another “room” there was a donut-shaped berm of dirt that blocked a path to the stream. And throughout that area were trees-of-heaven that completely blocked the view of the forest across the little stream.

Hurley said they planted four species of native grasses that remain low to allow the view of the open forest across with a field of native irises and five to six species of ferns.

“Each area has its own separate character; it’s like a different room of a house,” he said. “In effect, we decorated this room with native grasses.”

Hurley said controlling non-native plants is about sense of place.

“It’s nothing more than your back yard,” he said. “Ask yourself what belongs in that particular space and use that to make decisions about what to plant in your gardens, fields and forest.”

The Blue Ridge PRISM has created “area stewardships” as one way to make a difference throughout the region, and using grant funds were able to help offset the costs of invasive plant control for landowners throughout the 10 counties.

“The need is huge,” Hurley said. “We want homeowners to learn what these plants are, learn what they have and begin to learn how to eradicate them.”

Programs are scheduled throughout the region each season that teach landowners the impact of non-native plant species and how to identify them.

“Land ownership is really a privilege and a blessing and we, who are just short-term, temporary residents, have a responsibility to steward and take care of the land as best we are able,” Hurley said. “Otherwise, the land and the creatures it supports, as well as the world as a whole, suffers and is degraded.”

For more information, visit Blue Ridge PRISM at blueridgeprism.org. Virginia Digital Atlas has photos to help landowners identify native and invasive plant life. Visit vaplantatlas.org. The Virginia Native Plant Society is another tool for landowners. Visit vnps.org.

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