Field Work: At Work Battling Invasives with Jeff Taylor

Field Work: At Work Battling Invasives with Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor makes an herbicide application to Japanese knotweed at the Mink Brook Nature Preserve in New Hampshire. Photo by Ehrhard Frost.

The first time that invasive plant specialist Jeff Taylor laid eyes on the Mink Brook Nature Preserve in Hanover, New Hampshire, he didn’t want the job. “I couldn’t even see the brook. I basically wanted to throw my hands up and walk away,” he said.

But he didn’t. Taylor, who works for Vegetation Control Services in Athol, Massachusetts, agreed to help the Hanover Conservancy – which owns the preserve – eradicate the glossy buckthorn and Japanese knotweed that infested the 112-acre parcel.

The effort began in 2009 and initially focused on a 34-acre white pine stand. Its understory was thick with buckthorn, a large shrub native to Europe that was introduced to the United States in the nineteenth century as an ornamental. It leafs out early, shading native plants, and produces fruit from June to October. Birds eat the fruit and spread the plant’s seeds, which remain viable for up to nine years. Once glossy buckthorn gets established, it takes over – and much of the Mink Brook Nature Preserve had been taken over. “It was probably the most challenging buckthorn stand I’ve ever dealt with,” said Taylor.

The project was already underway when he came on board and the plan was to cut each buckthorn shrub and apply a small amount of herbicide to the stem, along with a basal spray application. “I was concerned because [that plan] was very labor intensive, and you end up using more herbicide,” Taylor said. The basal spray also had an oil-based surfactant, and Taylor worried about the proximity of the brook. Instead, he suggested a foliar spray that was oil-free and much less concentrated. The project moved forward as Taylor suggested, and was followed up with reapplications of the spray and hand-pulling of any new growth.

Seven years later, the white-pine stand now has an understory of young birches, maple, and oak.

“Jeff is great to work with,” said Ehrhard Frost, owner of Full Circle Forestry in Thetford, Vermont. Frost also worked on the Mink Brook project and has collaborated with Taylor on several other projects over the years. “He is incredibly, incredibly knowledgeable.”

Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, was equally impressed working with Taylor. “He’s been marvelous. So prompt and respectful of the landscape.”

It was a love of the land – specifically, the New England forest – that led Taylor to his career, which started when Richard Nixon was president, gasoline was 36 cents a gallon, and the practice of managing unwanted plants was changing radically.

Taylor is 68 years old and lives with his wife Susan in Richmond, New Hampshire, where they run a Christmas tree farm on their property. Taylor grew up in Athol, Massachusetts, and his happiest childhood memories are of the outdoors: sugaring in the spring, finding the perfect tree to cut at Christmas, romping around his uncle’s Vermont farm. “I just developed a natural love of the land,” he said of his early years.

After high school, Taylor attended the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Massachusetts, where he studied arboriculture and park management. The program required working in the field from April to September, which is how Taylor ended up at a logging camp with the Weyerhaeuser timber company in Oregon. He loved the West, with its vast coniferous forest and its association with iconic figures such as John Muir, but he longed for home. “I missed the stone walls. I missed the white birch trees, and I missed the sugar maples,” said Taylor. “It just cemented in me that I wanted to be in New England.”

Which is where Taylor has been ever since his brief stint in Oregon. He completed his associate’s degree in 1967 and went to work for a local logging company in Massachusetts. His boss there introduced him to a man named Laurey Kenerson, who had recently started a company called Vegetation Control Services, Inc. When Kenerson was ready to hire his first fulltime employee, he turned to Taylor. “He was such a sincere young man,” remembered Kenerson. “He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Just an ideal guy.”

It was 1970, and unwanted vegetation was no longer being managed solely through mechanical means, but also with herbicides. In fact, chemical control quickly became the predominant and preferred form of managing unwanted plants. Most of Taylor’s work was for utility companies, getting rid of brush along their lines and preparing sites for paper companies to plant trees.

Taylor loved his job, but as environmental awareness increased in the 1970s and 1980s, he grew increasingly uncomfortable telling people what he did. Chemicals were getting a bad rap, said Taylor, and the general public didn’t understand that what he did wasn’t haphazard spraying, but focused and strategic treatment.

Taylor conducted public outreach to educate people about the role that herbicides can play in an integrated approach to plant management. Really, though, it was the spread of invasive plant species that caused the biggest shift in public opinion regarding the use of chemicals to control plant growth. As people became more aware of the spread and impact of invasive species, there was a realization that herbicides have an important role to play in protecting native species. “Herbicides can control the roots of the plants we don’t want and allow room for the plants we do,” explained Taylor.

Frost, who has spent decades growing food organically, agreed that when it comes to invasive species in the forests, herbicide application can play a role. “It’s the only real viable option of any scale,” he said.

In 1999, Vegetation Control Services was contracted by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to eradicate a multitude of invasive plants from several sites the agency managed. One area, in Leyden, was overrun with multiflora rose, a shrub originally from Japan that was introduced to the United States during the nineteenth century. For decades, it was used as a living fence for livestock, but the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) now categorizes it as a noxious weed because of its tendency to take over the landscape and choke out native plants.

The parcel Taylor and his colleagues were charged with clearing was a popular hunting site where pheasants were released every year. But the multiflora rose had grown so thick and thorny that hunting dogs couldn’t get through it. In fact, nothing could. When the team from Vegetation Control Services arrived at the site, they had to spray the massive plants from a truck because they could not get close enough to the center of the thickets on foot. Taylor reports that the area is now a mixture of low-growing shrubs and grasses, easily navigated by dogs and hunters alike.

The contract with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife was the beginning of a new kind of work for Taylor and his coworkers – not just to control particular invasives, but to reclaim entire landscapes. Soon, the company had contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state and local government agencies and municipalities, all grappling with the problem of invasive species.

Even more interesting, said Taylor, has been working with organizations that were once among the biggest critics of herbicide use, such as the Audubon Society. With the New Hampshire and Maine chapters of the organization, he has worked on projects like the mowing of brush followed by selective foliar-herbicide applications to invasive plants. The shift in clientele has been a pleasure for Taylor. “I enjoy working with groups and organizations that have a long-term vision of how to manage the land,” he said.

After more than four decades in the business, Taylor is now semi-retired but continues to be active in his field. In addition to his work for Vegetation Control Services, he is a member of the New Hampshire Invasive Species Committee and the New Hampshire Board of Pesticide Control, and serves as the chairman of the local conservation commission. “He doesn’t stop,” noted Frost. “That is the hallmark of someone who is a professional. Someone who approaches everything they do in a professional manner and is always trying to do a better job.”

Along with running the family Christmas-tree farm, he and his wife enjoying fishing together and taking trips to visit their five children and seven grandchildren. As they travel, Taylor can’t help but point out invasive plants to his wife or even detour to check up on sites he has treated. “He’s very passionate about it, so he makes it interesting,” said Susan, who worked as the bookkeeper for Vegetation Control Services for many years.

In his many years of evaluating sites and selecting the best methods for control, Taylor admitted that there have been a few tracts of land he considered unsalvageable – parcels so choked with invasives that the best one could hope for was containment.

But such cases are rare, and Taylor is optimistic about the future. He loves to visit the pristine forests of far northern New England that remain largely untouched by invasives. They are a reminder of what once covered all of New England, and what may again. “It gives me inspiration,” he said.

Carolyn Lorié lives with her two rescue dogs and very large cat in Thetford, Vermont.

Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.

  1. Tim Harty
    Aug 03, 2016

    Jeff performs work for the company that I work for and I can’t say enough great things about him.  He is the best at what he does and when he fully retires the industry will lose the best mind it has.

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