SCARBOROUGH – Route 1 in Scarborough offers motorists a view of the expansive and serene Scarborough Marsh. But beginning next month, motorists can expect to find construction equipment and workers traipsing through the marshy wetlands.

The construction, however, is not a matter of marsh destruction, road construction, or subdivision creation, but rather an effort to preserve and protect the marsh for years to come.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will be conducting a three-year project to attempt to rid the 3,100-acre marsh of Phragmites australis, considered an invasive species known to choke out existing marsh flora, said Katie Fellows, a member of the Friends of Scarborough Marsh, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving the marsh.

The project, which is set to begin in August after the bidding process ends in late July, will be done in partnership with the Friends of Scarborough Marsh, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited and Maine Audubon.

Fellows said the three-year process will cost between $80,000 and $90,000 and be financed through grants from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the state of Maine, and a small amount of money from the Friends of Scarborough Marsh.

Fellows said Phragmites australis, which typically grows near the fringes of wetlands in brackish climates where salt water and fresh water mix and was introduced from Europe in the 1800s, perhaps from ship ballast, is a quick-spreading marsh grass that grows at the expense of other, native plant life in the marsh.

“Not only does it grow so thick that it chokes out other plants, it also is not a good host for wildlife,” Fellows said.

While Phragmites australis, which can grow more than 10 feet tall, is spread out across 100 acres of the marsh, much of it can be seen along the Route 1 corridor and other roadside locations. Because of this, the bulk of the work will be done on Route 1 and Black Point and Pine Point roads.

According to a 1996 University of Southern Maine undergraduate research project, Phragmites australis in the Route 1 area increased 50 percent between 1986 and 1995.

Because of the quick spread of the invasive plant, Fellows said it is next to impossible to eradicate it without a huge effort, such as the one planned.

“It is not a problem just here in Scarborough,” she said. “It is seen throughout Maine, New England and the East Coast. Some places have done something about it, some have not.”

Nothing has been done to control it in Scarborough, at least in recent memory.

“There have been studies done as to how to attempt to mitigate the problem, but there has been no real coordinated effort to control it,” Fellows said.

“Many people have been working for years to assess the threat and formulate a plan to address it,” said C.D. Armstrong, president and co-founder of the Friends of Scarborough Marsh. “This Phragmites-control effort is critically important to the long-term health of the marsh environment.”

While the exact course of action cannot be determined until all of the bids are received, Fellows said the proposed work plan includes low-impact, state-approved machinery coming into the marsh to mow the Phragmites australis down to the ground. An herbicide called Rodeo will then by placed on the plant sites to get down to the root system.

Rodeo, which has been approved at the state and federal levels, will eliminate every plant over the application area, not just the Phragmites australis, but it will not impact insects or wildlife. The marsh plants will then eventually rebound, taking over the site in lieu of the Phragmites australis.

“It has been used extensively in other areas for this purpose with success,” Fellows said of the herbicide.

The work will be done three times: in the fall of 2010, the fall of 2011 and finally, 2012. Through this effort, officials are striving to remove at least 95 percent of the Phragmites australis in the areas targeted.

To prepare for the work, over the past six to 12 months the Friends of Scarborough Marsh have been using global positioning devices to conduct a survey of where Phragmites australis is located in the marsh. Those maps were given to prospective bidders as part of the request for proposal bidding.

Last weekend a group of trained volunteers headed out into the marsh to survey the marsh for Phragmites australis, as well.

Phragmites australis spreads in a varied of ways, Fellows said, including by passing motorists, wildlife, and moving water. Once it is introduced to a new part of the marsh, it doesn’t take long to completely take over.

An invasive plant called “Phrag” threatens local plant life in Scarborough Marsh, but Katie Fellows and the Friends of Scarborough Marsh are putting up a fight. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

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