Assateague Burns Will Begin Soon

ASSATEAGUE- The ongoing battle against invasive phragmites on Assateague Island is expected to resume anew any day now with extensive smoke and open flames likely visible from the mainland as federal officials begin the latest phase of the effort to rid the barrier island of the destructive grasses.

Assateague Island National Seashore officials last week announced the National Park Service would initiate several prescribed burns in vast areas of the barrier island as early as next week. The planned burns are part of an aggressive attack on the proliferation of noxious phragmites from one end of the barrier island to the other. Phragmites are prolific, non-native and highly invasive plants, or weeds, that take over salt marshes and other areas by stunting the growth of indigenous plant life attempting to coexist with them.

The first phase of the plan to eradicate phragmites on Assateague began in 2008 with an aggressive aerial treatment with an herbicide called Habitat, which kills the invasive plants with little or no collateral damage to native vegetation. Last spring, the National Park Service followed up the aerial spraying program with an extensive prescribed burn program, removing remnants of the invasive species in vast areas of the park.

The process was repeated this year with aerial spraying in different areas of Assateague completed in August. Now, National Park Service officials are planning to follow up that aerial spraying effort with prescribed burns that could begin as early as next week.

“This is a continuation of what we started last year,” said Chief Ranger Ted Morlock. “We reduced the stands of phragmites with aerial spraying late in the summer, and then we come behind in the sprayed areas and reduce the vegetation with controlled burns, or prescribed burns as they are called.”

Morlock said the plan is to reduce the noxious weeds as much as possible, but eliminating them completely from the barrier island is not realistic. The effort undertaken last year was successful, at least temporarily, in limiting the spread of phragmites, but the process is ongoing and the war is never completely over.

“Realistically, this is more of a containment effort,” he said. “We would like to eradicate them completely, but this is pretty tough stuff. It’s a very persistent exotic and we’re trying to keep it in check.”

Park officials will ignite on purpose the prescribed fires planned on Assateague under a pre-determined set of conditions including the weather in order to accomplish the specific resource management objectives. All prescribed burns will be accomplished under the guidance and direction of trained and experienced National Park Service personnel.