City man winning solo battle against invasive phragmites

With trusty hoe in hand, Hal Regnier patrols Sarnia’s Point Lands on the lookout for new eruptions of phragmites. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

You can find Sarnia’s very own ‘Phrag Fighter’ each week at the Point Lands, hoe in hand.

For the past two years Hal Regnier has made it his one-man mission to protect one beautiful piece of city parkland from phragmites, a choking reed so aggressive it’s regarded as Canada’s worst invasive species.

And he’s winning. The Point Lands today are almost free of mature phrag, though during a recent visit Regnier was quick to point out young shoots coming up again.

“Are they going to wear me down before I wear them down?” he asked, while chopping at roots. “Who knows, but I do think I’m making a difference.”

Regnier was walking dogs for the nearby Humane Society when he was alarmed to see the western side of Sarnia Bay overrun with phrag.

He went to municipal officials and struck a deal. City Hall would loan some hip-waders and he would fight back, at no cost to taxpayers.

Hal Regnier’s efforts on The Point Lands is giving native vegetation that was once choked out a chance to regenerate. Troy Shantz

Phragmites grows in wetlands and along shorelines. Since its arrival here it has vigorously choked out cattails and the wildlife that depend on them. It reaches heights of five metres (15 feet) and produces a toxin lethal to surrounding plant life.

“Hal does a great service for us,” said Patti Ross, Sarnia’s manager of parks, forestry and horticulture. “He checks in regularly with updates on his phrag work. We’re very appreciative of Hal.”

Regnier, 70, is a retired Imperial Oil fire chief who spends about eight hours a week at the site. He also volunteers with St. Joseph’s Hospice and the Red Cross.

“I’ve been doing this for three years and haven’t had any go to seed yet,” he said. “It’s something that I can hack away at.”

His primitive but effective eradication is a welcome addition Sarnia’s phrag control. A multi-year spraying and cutting program is also underway in Canatara Park, Howard Watson Nature Trail, Suncor Nature Way and the Telfer Drain.

Regnier hopes his effort will allow cattails and other native plants to return to the small pond in the centre of the Point Lands.

He’s also taken to swinging his hoe at phragmites infestations near the Sun curve, near TransAlta. There in a ditch he found a holdout population of cattails surrounded by encroaching phrag.

“It’s too bad I couldn’t get anybody to kind of say, ‘Hey you’re doing a good job, do you need a hand?’” he said with a laugh.

Visitors to the Point Lands overwhelmingly encourage Regnier and thank him for his dedication. A few suggest he’s on a fool’s errand.

“You get the odd, ‘You’ll never get rid of them,’” he said.

“I use it as part of my workout, that’s the way I look at it. I’m out in the fresh air and I think I’m making a difference here.”