Hearing strong opposition from dozens of citizens to a proposal to use herbicides on a pilot plan to reduce Japanese knotweed and other invasives on town land, the Waitsfield Conservation Commission will consider that feedback and return to the town select board with a recommendation.

At a well-attended public forum on July 24, the conservation commission heard from state officials who work with herbicides and knotweed as well as contractors who work on knotweed eradication and a Richmond select board member who detailed efforts to eradicate knotweed on some 120 acres of riparian land in public and private ownership.

The commissioners also heard two local nonprofit community organizations who oppose the use of herbicides on one acre of the five-acre Austin parcel which lies along the Mad River north of the Lareau swim hole, Friends of the Mad River (FMR) and the Mad River Path Association(MRPA).

In statements, Kinny Perot, FMR board president, and Laura Brines, MRPA board president, said they understood the threat of knotweed and other invasives and said their boards preferred to err on the side of caution and reject herbicides in favor of manual and mechanical eradication efforts.

The Austin parcel, like a lot of riparian land along the Mad River, has a serious problem with knotweed and other invasives. On that parcel there’s a wall of knotweed on the river that is extending back towards the rest of the parcel.

This spring the conservation commission sought proposals for a plan to try to manage the invasives and settled on a proposal from Redstart. That proposal called for mowing a buffering, a buffer strip between the knotweed and the rest of the parcel, cutting the knotweed twice a year and applying the herbicides Rodeo (active ingredient glyphosate) and Polaris (active ingredient imazapyr) to it twice a year for two years. Concurrently, native tree species would be planted to try and recreate a natural flood plain forest. This project is a pilot treatment plan that will involve approximately one acre of the five-acre parcel.

After hearing from the professionals, community organizations and members, conservation commission chair Phil Huffman told the group gathered at Waitsfield Elementary School for this week’s forum, that he heard the “pretty strong sentiment in the room for an alternate approach.

“We’ve never been dead set on going forward with the herbicide approach. It emerged for us as the most practical solution. We don’t have the wherewithal as a commission to manage the volunteer-based approach ourselves. If there is a sincere commitment to put forth a volunteer approach, we’re all ears. But we can’t manage that ourselves. We’re talking about at least five years of monthly cutting,” he said.

One volunteer approach was described by John Cart from the Richmond Select Board. In 2008, Richmond began an eradication program for knotweed on the banks of the Winooski where they worked on 120-plus acres.

Cart said that they worked on the knotweed from 2008 through present using volunteers to cut and mow and also used herbicides for five years.

“You’ve got to be out there and if you don’t do that you’re telling a lie to yourself and others. We ended up with some funding for volunteer coordinators and those coordinators were doing tons of work. We used herbicides for five years and we had more than five acres of knotweed to deal with. You can do it, we did it in Richmond. Where we treated the knotweed with the herbicide, the next year native plants were coming back in. When we treated in the fall, native plants regrew the next spring,” he said.

“We started with no money and lots of energy. We did all mechanical cutting four to five times the first two summers. Then we got some money and some help with herbicides. In the second to last year, we were still cutting in the spring and fall and using herbicides in the fall and were told the plants were coming back so low to the ground that we only needed to cut it twice a year and the native forest came back, first willows and then cottonwood, silver maple and ostrich fern,” he said.

Brian Aust, who manages invasives at Little River State Park in Waterbury,, said that his efforts to manage honeysuckle and knotweed were extensive.

“We got 90 percent of the honeysuckle removed with 800 volunteer hours and no chemicals. We pulled it out and burned it. Knotweed started to invade and we wanted to address it. If the structural diversity of habitat is reduced in an area, then diversity of the wildlife will be reduced across the board. Knotweed invaded one of our beaches and I’ve been cutting it for four seasons now. It’s not a 20-feet tall, 300-foot-wide swath like you’ve got here. I can’t speak to using glyphosate, but can speak to the power of using volunteers. It worked on our park. You might be able to find a lot of people to do that,” Aust said.

Many individuals had questions for Marcus Bradley, partner in Redstart, about how herbicides would be used and many spoke in opposition to using herbicides at all given that California has labeled glyphosate as a possible carcinogen, although the federal government has not.

Ben Falk, Moretown, asked the commissioners how they justified using herbicides on invasives when the Town Plan spelled out measures to handle invasives, but didn’t mention herbicides.

“None of us has ever said that the use of herbicides to treat invasives was specified in the Town Plan. We said the Town Plan calls for using practical measures to control invasives because of their adverse effects on our native ecosystem,” Huffman said.

Zari Sadri, Warren, noted that there is knotweed from Granville to Moretown.

“If you’re successful on this parcel, what happens with the next flood,” she asked.

Commissioner Mark Haberle said that the plan is to change the trajectory of that parcel toward recreating a flood plain forest.

“We’re under no illusion that floods won’t bring it back. We’re trying to create a buffer between the river and the interior,” Haberle said.

Jon Jamieson, Waitsfield, praised the commisisoners for their efforts.

“This board has more advanced degrees and PhDs than any other board in town. I wish they were our select board. It’s ironic that I’m hearing a pretty significant assault on science from the left here, when in this country we’re hearing a pretty significant assault on science from the right. I’m amazed that we’re so concerned about this small application and not the greater watershed in general. I object to points that Ben [Falk] made in the paper. I think they are personal and inflammatory,” Jamieson said.

“There are nine of them and no one posted on Front Porch Forum about this,” Falk responded.

“Front Porch Forum is not an appropriate place for this kind of stuff,” Jamieson said.

As the forum moved towards closure, moderator Brian Shupe thanked everyone for coming and Huffman detailed the next steps that the commission will take.

“As we mentioned before we’ve been thru a thorough, vigorous process to decide to use Redstart. Took it to select board and they endorsed that approach. That’s where things stand. That meeting was covered appropriately in The Valley Reporter which has sparked the interested and awareness of this and that’s been good. We don’t have a signed contract with Redstart to do the work, wanted to provide a forum for this exchange of info and perspectives. We’ll take that into considerations. Our next meeting is August 7 and this will be one topic on it. We’ll digest what we heard and sort out where we go from here. Ultimately, it’s the select board’s decision. I’m sure they’ll be keen to hear what’s happened tonight. We’ll report back to them at their August 14 meeting. There’ not a requirement that we do something immediately but with every passing week in each growing season, the challenge we’re facing keeps growing,” Huffman said.