- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

FORT PICKETT, Va. Kudzu has pushed out native plants, marched across crop fields and disrupted ecosystems with a smothering blanket of green leaves.
Now the virtually indestructible alien vine is taking on the U.S. Army.
Already it has overrun training areas at Fort Pickett, and Pentagon officials say it is a problem at such posts as Fort Bragg, N.C., Redstone Arsenal and Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, and Fort Jackson, S.C.
Infantrymen, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and even the 68-ton M-1 Abrams tank, which laid waste to Iraqi armor during the Gulf War, steer clear of kudzu fields.
Paul Carter, the Fort Pickett forester and resident expert on the tenacious plant, said no tank driver in his right mind would venture into the stuff because it renders the terrain invisible.
"This is a road," said Mr. Carter, pointing to the ground as he waded into a 20-acre field of 5-foot-high kudzu. Nothing could be seen except a sea of kudzu stretching to a line of distant trees, also being overrun.
"It's got the entire field," he said. "It just kind of engulfs everything."
Perhaps to make its point, the botanical beast enveloped an abandoned, obsolete tank in another field until a concerted herbicide assault forced it into retreat. Now, a year later, it is reoccupying the field.
Foot soldiers wouldn't dream of doing battle with kudzu. "When you get out there, it can tangle you up, wrap around you," Mr. Carter said. "You can't see where you're stepping."
Mr. Carter added that kudzu fields are also a "likely place for copperheads" poisonous snakes that cool themselves and hunt rodents beneath the kudzu canopy.
Native to China, kudzu made its way to Japan and was introduced in the United States in the late 1800s, originally as a climbing ornamental plant at upscale homes. In the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided kudzu could be used for erosion control and distributed 85 million kudzu seedlings in the South. It was later discovered that kudzu's erosion control properties were limited because its vines grow horizontally and slightly above ground, branching out as much as 2 feet a day.
The USDA removed kudzu from its list of recommended cover crops in 1953 and in 1970 declared it a weed. Since then, efforts have been aimed at eradication.
Mr. Carter has burned it, sprayed it with herbicides and even pulled up individual plants by hand. But the kudzu usually reappears, mainly because of a robust root system that burrows up to 14 feet into the ground.
It covers 128 acres at 18 sites on Fort Pickett, a training post used by the National Guard, Army, Marines, Navy SEALs, and the elite and secretive anti-terrorist unit Delta Force.
Kudzu is not the only problem invader for the Army. At Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., an Army Reserve training center, the thorny yellowstar thistle "is so thick and grows so aggressively it actually hinders the mission considerably," said Bill Woodson, an Army natural resources specialist at the Pentagon. "Soldiers just can't go in there," and paratroopers "don't like to land in the thistle."
Mr. Woodson said the Army plans a survey of installations with invasive plants later this year. The service does not keep track of the cost of controlling the alien growth, but Fort Pickett soon will have a $58,000 contract for kudzu control. Redstone Arsenal treats 300 acres of the stuff annually at a cost of up to $400 an acre.
Jim Miller, a kudzu expert with the USDA's Forest Service in Auburn, Ala., said the vine has to be treated persistently with herbicides over four to 10 years before it can be controlled or eradicated.
He said exterminators should target the plant's root crown, "the heart and brains of kudzu" that lie just below the surface of the ground. "If you can kill that, the size of the root doesn't matter," he said.
Kudzu has spread to New England, Illinois and the Pacific Northwest, where eradication programs are under way, Mr. Miller said.
Future success lies with biological control in which native insects and fungi that feed on kudzu are unleashed against it in the United States, he said.
Forest Service scientists are in China surveying kudzu's natural enemies.
President Clinton signed an executive order in 1999 to create an interagency task force to find ways to stop the attack on military and civilian lands by invasive, nonnative plants such as kudzu, yellowstar thistle, spotted knapweed, Chinese privet, purple loosestrife and the tree of heaven.
The government estimates that the loss in production of the nation's primary agricultural commodities is about $7.4 billion annually because of invasive plants that cover about 100 million acres in the United States.

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