Is buckthorn too thorny a problem for cities to take on?

A bill that would let cities require property owners to battle the invasive shrub has advanced in the House but stalled in the Senate. Among the concerns? That for one property owner in particular -- the state -- clearing the plant could consume more resources than are available.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview, but is the inspiration of an 85-year-old North Oaks woman who has gamely battled buckthorn on her property and has channeled her considerable energy to getting it out of her wooded city.

"The injustice is even if you clear your property yourself, [your yard] still can be reseeded by people who have the buckthorn and have ignored it," said Joan Brainard, noting that birds spread the seeds.

Gardner's bill would have taken a larger swipe, by giving cities statutory authority to "adopt an ordinance to eradicate buckthorn on all public and private property within its geographic boundaries."

This was the second time that he has introduced this type of legislation, and the first time it's made it out of committee and to the House floor.

He said it was purposely written to give cities flexibility to call for either outright removal or control, for example pruning berries before they ripen. Cities also could partner with volunteers who could work with elderly residents or others.

How big a tab?

The bill was picked up in the Senate by Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, but was tabled until supporters can come up with an alternative.

Here's the rub: The words "public and private" mean that any ordinance would apply to federal, state and county park land, for example. Including Minnesota Department of Transportation rights-of-way.

It wasn't possible to figure the cost to the state if the bill were to become law, said Scott Peterson, director of MnDOT's Office of Government Affairs; the cost would depend on how many cities acted and how much MnDOT land was affected.

"We do know that it would require us to invest more in buckthorn monitoring and eradication than we currently invest," he said. "We have lots of competing uses for our funds, potholes, guard rails, street lights, stoplights, construction, snowplowing, drainage, maintenance. All those things we task our people with performing, if we defer them to manage buckthorn, it necessarily takes away from time and resources they can use to tend to some of those other costs."

Cities face some of the same challenges from their neighbors as residents do. Even in buckthorn buster Brainard's North Oaks, Mayor John Schaaf noted that land falls under several kinds of ownership. And those birds don't know city lines any more than they recognize property lines.

"A city could do everything within its power to eliminate it, but we clearly would have to have the cooperation of our adjacent sister cities," he said.

In his city, education and peer pressure have done wonders, he said.

Buckthorn first was imported from Europe as an ornamental shrub in the mid-1800s. It now is illegal to import, sell, or transport it in Minnesota, but the plant still has spread into 68 of the state's 87 counties by an unpredictable courier: bird poop.

Birds eat buckthorn berries, and seed them by their droppings. Free of natural enemies that checked it in its own habitat, the plants choke out native flowers and tree seedlings.

Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin said she's battled buckthorn on her own land, after a landscaper recommended "the wonderful English shrub that keeps its leaves way into the fall and has wonderful berries for the birds," she said. "Now I spend every waking moment trying to get rid of it."

A group of volunteers cleared around the community center, creating a pile 80 yards long, she said.

"Volunteers can't solve the problem," she said. "I enjoy the county open space in Shoreview, and the buckthorn in those areas is just thick. I know they've been working on it, too. It's a huge, huge problem, no matter how much we dislike it. But it's hard to know where the funding's going to come from to get rid of it."

And Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki worried that the city wouldn't be able to police its own land much less residents' and other property owners.

"All these things are good ideas," he said. "But I'm afraid of passing a law that as a city we couldn't comply with but yet we'd expect our citizens to comply with it."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409