NEW ULM - What started out as a walk in the park turned in to a lot of work for Mike Mulder.
When Mulder first moved to New Ulm he and his wife, Deb Pribyl would walk the trails at Flandrau State Park.
Several years passed, the couple moved up to Indian Point Drive, and they started to walk their dog along the Indian Point trail. This time Mulder noticed a difference, something was taking over the park and choking out all of the undergrowth beneath the trees.
Mike Mulder demonstrates how he and his neighbors remove buckthorn using a special tool that pulls it out by the roots.
"It was kind of shocking how much it had changed in those 10 years," Mulder said. "It had just ballooned up and spread a lot more than I ever thought it would."
He did some research and discovered that what was doing the damage was buckthorn.
Buckthorn is a non-native species of shrub that was imported from Europe in the mid-1800s. It's now illegal to buy or sell it but it can still be seen in older neighborhoods around Minnesota and also in areas around New Ulm.
What is Buckthorn?
Buckthorn was first brought to Minnesota from Europe in the mid-1800s as a very popular hedging material.
Shortly after introduction it was found to be quite invasive in natural areas.
The nursery industry stopped selling it in the 1930s but many buckthorn hedges may still be found in older neighborhoods throughout Minnesota.
Why is it such a
* It competes with native plants for nutrients, light and moisture.
* Degrades wildlife habitat.
* Threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies and other natural habitats.
* Contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor.
* Serves as host to other pests, such as crown rust fungus and soybean aphid
* Forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation.
* Lacks natural controls like insects and disease that would curb its growth.
"Buckthorn is an invasive shrub that is a big problem in Flandrau," said Gary Tiepel the Flandrau Park Manager. "It's spread to a significant portion of the park. It's not just in the park, its around town as well. While we work in one area to clear it out, it moves in from other areas."
"It was shocking that it was much more of a problem than it was until after we got into it," Mulder said. "We didn't realize how it has crowded out everything. The park is definitely worth saving. You can just see if we had a big wind storm, if we didn't do anything, the only thing that would be growing up there would be buckthorn. Well that wouldn't be much of a park and it is such a good resource for the community. It would be too sad to just let it continue to deteriorate."
Mulder decided to take it upon himself to remove as much buckthorn from the area near the Indian Point Trail he could. He is off to a good start.
"We didn't really have a plan," Mulder said. "But once we got started we thought, 'wow, this really looks good.' So we decided to do the rest of the circle."
With the help of his wife and children and other residents of Indian Point Drive, they eradicated a good portion of the area on top of the hill on the Indian Point Trail.
"We are almost done now that circle is almost done," Mulder said. "Maybe 10 hours? I'm not sure, the weather isn't really cooperating that much."
But removing the buckthorn turned out to be hard work. It can't just be cut down, it needs to be pulled out from the roots.
Mulder started with a shovel and tried to dig up the weed, with little success. He then went to Tiepel and Craig Beckman, who manage Flandrau State Park for advice.
They gave him some special tools that pull the buckthorn out by the root, a much easier process than digging. Mulder eventually bought some tools of this own as well.
"If it's small enough you can use a what is called a 'weed wrench' and pull it out of the ground," Tiepel said. "We [the park staff] also do a chemical treatment in some areas as well."
There are male and female buckthorn plants and it's the female that are the most troublesome because they carry berries that are easily spread by birds.
"When we try and remove and treat an area we are concentrating on the females," Tiepel said. "We want to stop the berries from being spread. The birds are eating the berries and then spreading the seeds to other locations."
Mulder has the goal of eliminating buckthorn from the entire circle on top of the hill, which he figures is about two-and-a-half acres worth of land. Now he and the other volunteers have put in about 350 hours worth of work removing the buckthorn. He never thought it would take as long as it has.
"We were really naive," Mulder said. "We didn't think it would be near this long. My first indication was when we did the first 100 feet along the path and it took like 70 hours. That was the first clue this was going to take a lot longer than we originally thought."
Tiepal isn't surprised about how long it has taken.
"He talked to Craig about it and when Craig told me about his plans, I thought, 'wow there's a lot of buckthorn up there," Tiepel said. "I was kind of curious how far they would actually get. Both Craig and I are impressed with the amount of work they have done up there."
Mulder had a special surprise a few weeks ago, several of his neighbors threw a buckthorn pulling party for his birthday.
"We typically have a birthday celebration in our neighborhood," neighbor Roger Ryberg said. "We thought with his interest and passion with buckthorn, what better could we do than go down, pitch in and help him with his passion. We got a lot accomplished."
When Mulder first told Ryberg of his goal, he wasn't sure what to think.
"I have to admit, I thought he was a little crazy," Ryberg said. "It's such a mammoth challenge. I've lived on Indian Point since 1990 and I've watched the buckthorn grow and populate and just choke off the woods. I was a little taken aback by his challenge but he has done a lot of the work himself and he has inspired others too."
He definitely caught the attention of the park staff.
"We are really impressed with the group that is up there doing this," Tiepel said. "People from that area have been very involved with Flandrau in the past. A lot of people in that area have been very strong park supporters and I think that it's great people have taken this on as a project. We would hope that there are other home owners on the border of the park that would be interested in doing this as well."
Ryberg, for one, says Mulder is an inspiration for others.
"I think it's very admirable," Ryberg said. "He has combined a very worthwhile community service along with a community spirit and some physical conditioning. He is accomplishing multiple goals with one action. He has had a lot of fun with it and so have the neighbors.
"I hope it inspires others. There is only 588 more acres to do. The park is such a valuable resource to the community and we should all do a little more to pitch in to support it and help it out."