Pupils inspire town to eliminate invasive plant

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By Matthew Sockol
Staff Writer

MILLSTONE – Officials in Millstone Township will take action to eliminate an invasive plant species after elementary school pupils identified locations where the plant is growing.

The Community Problem Solvers Club, which is comprised of 19 pupils in grades three through five at the Millstone Township Elementary School, sought to combat the growth of Phragmites australis, a plant species the club said is spreading in the community.

Teachers Beth Topinka and Jennifer Modula serve as the club’s advisers.

According to Topinka, community problem solving is part of the Future Problem Solving program international organization.

The objective of the Community Problem Solvers division is to determine an area of concern that affects a community, research the problem and develop a plan of action to address the problem and help the town. The area of concern determined by the Millstone pupils was the presence of Phragmites australis in their community.

Phragmites australis, according to Topinka, can reach reach 18 feet in height and grows in thick patches with dense root systems that spread and push out native plants and animals.

The plant is difficult to remove once it has become established in an area. It harms diversity in ecosystems, does not provide a food source for native animals, interferes with marsh food webs, affects the supply of water needed by plants and animals, and produces seed tops that can bother individuals with grass allergies.

The club members, who call themselves the Phearless Phragmites Phighters, identified locations where the plant is growing.

One area of particular concern to the pupils is a half-acre patch of Phragmites near the Millstone Township First Aid Squad building on Perrineville Road. Because Phragmites are flammable when they are dry, the children were concerned about the impact a fire could have if one started near an important building such as the first aid squad headquarters.

The pupils presented their findings to the Millstone Township Environmental Commission on Jan. 9. Commission members praised the report.

A letter dated Jan. 23 from Township Committeeman Gary Dorfman and Environmental Commission Chairman Eric Davis thanked the members of the club and Topinka for their work.

“On the behalf of the Township Committee, the Environmental Commission and most importantly, the citizens of Millstone Township, we would like to thank you and your students known as the Phearless Phragmites Phighters,” the letter reads.

“Their presentation to the Environmental Commission did an excellent job of helping us become aware of the impacts of Phragmites on our immediate community and the state as a whole.

“Having now been made aware of the Phragmites problem … the township will now be exploring options to eliminate Phragmites, starting with the priority locations the students identified,” Dorfman and Davis wrote.

The club’s efforts also received praise from Ken Thoman, the park resource manager of the Monmouth County Park System, who spoke to the pupils on Jan. 30.

“I think what you have is a pretty good model,” Thoman told the children. “Don’t even fathom that you are going to have control over all the sites, but you will have success if you want it. I am impressed with all of you.”