Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 4:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 7:40 p.m.
A year ago, Mickey Foster and Louis Watkins never dreamed they’d be in a Hendersonville pasture on a beautiful autumn morning, dabbing herbicide on certain plants to stop the spread of non-native invasive plants in Western North Carolina. In fact, a year ago they had never even heard the phrase “non-native invasive species.”
But on Wednesday, the two worked diligently alongside site coordinator Stephen Smith, seeking out multiflora rose, Chinese silvergrass, Japanese honeysuckle and nearly two dozen other invasive species that have grown unwanted in the Hyder pasture, a bog that sits just off of Spartanburg Highway.
Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy purchased the 7.3-acre site in April and partnered with the WNC Alliance to restore the property to its natural state.
Standing in the sunshine at the Hyder pasture, WNC Alliance Ecologist and Public Lands Director Bob Gale said that when Europeans first settled in the U.S., “there were 5,000 acres of bogs. Now there are about 500 acres.”
The plant species have also changed drastically over the centuries, explained Lauren Reker, who’s in charge of the Alliance’s non-native invasive species management projects. As invasive species made their way into bogs, pastures and forests in the U.S., they replaced native species that bird and ground animals depended on for food.
“Plants set the stage for animal life,” Gale said.
To eradicate the non-native species, WNC Alliance has partnered with Green Opportunities, or GO, an Asheville-based nonprofit community development organization that provides skills training and career placement for youths and adults living in poverty, with an emphasis on environmental careers.
Billy Schweig, GO’s marketing and development coordinator, said, “We see sustainability as an intertwined set of three ideas: people, planet and profits.”
Smith started as a volunteer with GO a few years back and worked his way up to site coordinator. Working alongside Foster and Watkins in the Hyder pasture, Smith said he takes pride in helping the natural environment return to its native state while helping Foster and Watkins learn new skills.
“Working for GO means working with people to help the community, and it’s helping people get from one point to where they want to be,” he said.
Foster had earned his plumbing certification at Cleveland Community College in Shelby and turned to GO for help landing a job. For several months he took additional skills courses at GO, including electrical, home weatherization and solar panel installation. While working with GO he has had several construction and roofing jobs.
The invasive species eradication is “something new for me, but I enjoy it,” he said. “We’re the GO Busters. If you want plants removed, just call the GO Busters!”
Watkins went through a similar training program at GO, where he learned about lead remediation, home renovation and duct work, among others. The coursework took place at AB-Tech, he said. It wasn’t easy going back to school, “but you apply yourself and take it seriously.”
“GO training gives you the skills to go out and apply for a job,” Foster added. “Now that I’ve learned about non-native invasive species, I dream about them in my sleep. Sometimes we’re riding down Interstate 26, pointing out invasive species we see on the roadside.”
Smith said Watkins and Foster are learning skills they can take on to other jobs, such as landscaping.
“The whole point of GO is to give opportunities to people in communities where there is a lack of jobs,” he said. “It’s rewarding at the end of the day to see people making better lives for themselves and feel like they can then give back to their communities.”
“It’s about paying it forward,” he said. “It’s about being able to have a job so you can give back. It’s a community thing. There are no boundaries with GO. We’re family.”
Reach Tanker at 828-694-7871 at firstname.lastname@example.org.