- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2018

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - State officials say foreign invasive plants are continuing to take over Georgia’s forests and grasslands.

One of them, Asian privet, now infests more than a million acres in the state, The Athens Banner-Herald reported . That’s according to recently released Georgia Forestry Commission statistics.

The report shows that privet’s hold on Georgia grew from an estimated 637,916 acres (258,155 hectares) in 2009 to 1.1 million acres (451,597 hectares) in 2015.

The forestry commission recently released its latest “Dirty Dozen” list of the top 12 non-native invasive plants.

One of the better known invasive plants - kudzu - is only No. 6 on the list, at 35,981 acres (14,561 hectares). That’s a fraction of privet’s spread.

The forestry commission and conservation groups aim to push back the invasive plants.

Privet, the same plant that forms the famous Sanford Stadium hedges, is native to China, brought here for ornamental landscaping centuries ago.

It’s been spreading ever since, but now it and some other invasive plants seem to have reached some kind of tipping point, said GFC Forest Health Coordinator Chip Bates.

“There are points in time where different invasive species hit critical mass, where this stuff really goes crazy,” he said.

One of the forestry commission’s biggest priorities is actually one that’s not spread widely, at least not yet. Cogongrass is only at No. 12 on the Dirty Dozen list in Georgia, but it’s spread widely in some states that didn’t act to stop it before if got to be unmanageable, like privet.

Foreign invasives have the ability to simply blot out native species, with serious and sometimes unanticipated results, the Athens newspaper reported. Insects, birds and other animals native to Georgia have evolved along its native plants, and when the foreign plants take over, those animals can lose food sources or foraging grounds.

In the Athens area, the Athens Land Trust is helping ramp up local efforts to combat the invasion, organizing a group called the Northeast Georgia Invasive Plant Cooperative with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the GFC and other organizations. The land trust also got grant funding to launch a “Young Conservation Stewards” program, a summer job and educational experience for a half-dozen area high school students.

Last week, they were getting their first training and experience out at Beech Haven, a publicly-owned garden estate off Atlanta Highway that’s become choked with bamboo, privet, wisteria and other invasive species, but they’ll also be heading out to other places to do their work over the next several weeks.

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