DULUTH, Minn. — Greg Cleary’s saw rose and fell on the side of the road. When he finished hacking down a cluster of buckthorn trees, he marked a blue circle on the stumps’ growth rings with what looked like a bingo dabber.
Cleary is a volunteer with the Duluth Invaders R2ED team. They aim to educate, eradicate and restore land from the impacts of invasive plants like wild parsnip, exotic honeysuckle and the main issue, buckthorns.
“These things have been running wild for 150 years,” Cleary said.
Buckthorn was imported from Eurasia in the mid-1800s, and they were planted as hedges instead of fences. Buckthorn are spread by birds eating the berries and excreting the seeds.
Common buckthorn have oval leaves with deep veins; half have berries. They’re very sun- and shade-tolerant, and they hold their leaves late into fall. The trees can grow 20-25 feet high.
And, they take over forests, eliminate plant diversity and create a bad habitat for birds and other animals.
“It could be the focus of a horror film, this giant plant that grows really fast and is indestructible and destroys foundations,” said Cheryl Skafte.
When Skafte started as volunteer coordinator for the City of Duluth, invasive plants and their impact on the environment were identified as a problem area. From that, she launched the Duluth Invaders R2ED Team (rapid response and early detection). And what started as 12 volunteers has grown to 50 people tackling invasives.
After training where they learn how to identify and remove these harmful plants, volunteers are asked to contribute at least three hours a month in their designated areas.
This is a huge job, and it’s going to take years. The city can probably never get rid of it, but can manage it, said Steve Schoenbauer, Duluth Invaders, R2ED team coordinator.
From mid-June to early November, Cleary spends five to six hours a week chopping buckthorn at Hawk Ridge Nature Preserve.
Hazards of the job include rough terrain, trees falling on you and stinging insects. (He has been stung three times this year by wasps and hornets, he said.)
Cleary also broke his wrist last year after he slipped on ice. “I had no business being out there. Hopefully, it won’t happen again,” he said.
Sometimes, Cleary gets halfway through cutting a tree when the saw binds, pinching the blade and making it more difficult to cut through. When that happened on a recent Saturday, Cleary pulled his saw out of a thick buckthorn, resolving to return.
After chopping and dabbing the stump, Clearly lets the dead trees lie because hauling them would spread their berries.
Volunteers also avoid removing buckthorns mechanically because it disturbs the soil, creating an opportunity for the berries to be reseeded.
Cleary estimates he has cut tens of thousands of buckthorns since he started five years ago. “It’s really everyone’s issue when buckthorn is growing anywhere,” he said.
Fran Spears and her two dogs ran into Cleary on a recent Saturday as they were passing through her “stomping ground.”
“I spend a lot of time out in the woods, and I realize (buckthorn) are devastating our forest,” Spears said.
She has seen it at Hartley Nature Center; she has used Garlon 4 herbicide to kill it in her own yard.
“I’m thrilled there are people trying to take care of it because it’s such a big project. If everyone would just do a little bit, it would help,” she said.
“It’s not an earth-shaking job, but it does impact the greenspace in Duluth,” Schoenbauer said. “There is a degree of reward watching the population decrease.”
This volunteer work calls for persistence, dedication and commitment. Those are qualities they see in Cleary, Skafte added. And he has been with them since the beginning.
Cleary moved to Duluth in 2012 from upper Michigan. Outside of volunteering, his outdoors life is a lot of hiking and birding in and around Duluth. A birder since 1984, Cleary said he’s interested in how birds interact with the habitat, and buckthorn degrades the habitat.
What he’s doing is addition by subtraction. Every buckthorn tree that’s eliminated creates a place for native vegetation, he said.
His day job is social work, and as far as balancing a career and service, he recommended offering your time for a cause you “feel strongly about.”
He likes the idea of improving public spaces for everyone, including himself. And it was especially satisfying to work in nature, for nature, he said.
“It’s how I connect to the world and to myself.”