Photo by Brett Wilbur; The Evil Weed--Ice Plant Olympians and Weed Warriors Kevin Ghalambor, Laura Lee Lienk and Jefferey Summers hold aloft the spoils of war.

On this overcast Friday morning, it''s a safe bet that most CSUMB students are still snoozing or enjoying the beginning of the upcoming three-day weekend. But on the campus at 3rd street the Ice Plant Olympics are about to begin, and the athletes are warming up, pulling on gloves, bending over to yank a few strings of Carpobrotus edulis out of the dirt. It''s a scene of incipient slaughter, really; if they could, the ice plants themselves would be running far, far away.

But it''s all for the greater good. This weed-pulling event offers such categories as the Ice Plant Hammer Throw and a contest to see who can build the largest ice plant pile. Two worthy competitors-Kevin Ghalambor, a recent CSUMB graduate in Earth Systems Science Policy, and Jefferey Summers, a current ESSP student-stand fully gloved on a small hillside, ready to enlist students in the "good fight." Both work for the CSUMB Watershed Institute in the Return of the Natives program as "Weed Warriors." Their job is to restore native plant diversity and wildlife habitat to Monterey County, and that means booting the plants that don''t belong. The fast-growing succulent that covers the dunes and blooms with bright pink and yellow flowers is one of them.

The two don''t wait for the starting bell, judges, or other student contenders. They just hunch over and start ripping into the ice plant covering the hill. Already waist-high piles are forming. Fellow student Jen Whitemore shows up to help conquer the non-native invader and perhaps take the gold in one of the events.

It''s a far cry from the days when Col. Stilwell ordered Army soldiers on Fort Ord to guard precious baby ice plants from being trampled. Brought over from South Africa to stabilize sand dunes, ice plant quickly became The Plant That Ate California. Now it''s on "Monterey County''s Six Most Unwanted Weeds" list, along with pampas grass, Cape ivy, French broom and other botanical interlopers. Ice plant is proving to its would-be removers that it''s not to be easily evicted. It rapidly forms mats, choking out all other species and disallowing a diverse ecosystem.

"Ice plant only provides a habitat for rodents," says Summers.

"It just sucks," adds Ghalambor.

Although the method of removal for this site is manual labor, that''s just not practical for larger areas. It''s backbreaking work, as the group must continually return to the same site to beat back the regenerating beast.

"The state parks have to use some herbicides," says Ghalambor. "If you''ve got 750 acres of sand dunes along Highway One in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, and 75 percent are infected with ice plant, it''s demoralizing to spend eight hours ripping it out and know you''ve only made a minor dent in it."

Shouts of "Woo hoo!" and "All right, Weed Warriors!" come from below the laboring crew. A black and white dog named Howie runs barking up the hillside, followed by two more Olympians. It''s Laura Lee Lienk, self-described Weed Warrior Mother, CSUMB professor and interim director of the Watershed Institute. With her is Drew Ready, program coordinator at Return of the Natives.

Lienk''s energy perks up the team members, who start flinging ice plants with abandon.

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Summers has an apparent advantage in the hammer throw, with a wild toss of the rubbery plant landing far down the hillside. "Let''s attempt some accuracy," chides Whitemore, who gives a more elegant windup to her throw. Meanwhile, Ghalambor''s steadily adding to the recently uprooted ice plants and stands on the mushy pile for a better view.

Lienk scouts the nearly empty campus for more participants.

"You guys here for the Ice Plant Olympics?" she calls out cheerily to two young guys walking by. One laughs sarcastically and says, "Yeah sure" as they walk on. Lienk isn''t easily dissuaded. She runs over to examine a tiny native plant taking root in the cleared soil.

"This is truly phenomenal!" she exclaims. "It''s a Ceanothus that the kids put in two years ago. These guys have 20-foot roots that make an underground ecosystem that hold water in the soil, unlike the non-native grasses that have shallow roots," she explains. "We should think about where we get our water and have the ground hold as much as possible so we can use it."

For all the good reasons to eliminate weeds, not everybody is thrilled with the removal of ice plant, which is perceived as good erosion control and fire prevention.

"I got a reply e-mail when I announced the event," says Ghalambor. "This guy basically told me that ice plant saved his house from burning down, and he has no intention of removing it." To educate the public on the seriousness of weeds, the Watershed Institute partners up with state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Game, to host regular weed removal and native planting events for the public. Return of the Natives is about to present awards to local property owners who succeed in weed eradication.

"The goal is to involve people in natural communities and build human communities at the same time," says Lienk. "If you want to build a sense of responsibility to a place, you do it by physically engaging with it-you go beyond sending in a check."

The event winds down quietly. There are no TV crews to pack up, no Bon Jovi to croon to the fans, no angry ice skaters to think about.

"I''m a little discouraged that no students came," says Lienk. "But this campus is pretty subdued-everyone drives-and a lot of people don''t have class today." Still, today''s small crew has wiped out more nasty ice plant. Is it ever really going to be vanquished?

"If enough people got involved and made a conscious effort, sure," says Ghalambor. "But it definitely provides us with job security."

To join the War on Weeds, call 582-3687.

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