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Weed warrior retires after three decades of victories

French battled variety of plants that disrupted grazing


For the Capital Press

CANYONVILLE, Ore. -- Ken French's 31-year battle against noxious weeds in southwestern Oregon has come to an end. He retired as a noxious weed control specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture in April.

French wasn't ready to retire, but was forced to by health issues. He's been dealing with a slow-growing cancer in his small intestine and liver for almost 20 years. Despite interruptions for three major surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, French has continued to work toward eradicating noxious weeds from the hillsides of Douglas, Coos, Curry, Jackson and Josephine counties in southwestern Oregon.

"Believe me, it's been an honor to work here," said the 54-year-old French, a Canyonville resident. "It's been an honor to be part of the agricultural community and to help as much as I could with the weed situation. My plan was to work a couple more years and finish up some projects, but that's not going to happen now."

Through the years, French worked in cooperation with ranchers, soil and water districts, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to control such weeds as rush skeletonweed, tansy ragwort, Italian thistle, distaff thistle, Paterson's curse, Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry.

Those weeds can easily take over grazing and hay lands, decreasing the amount of feed available to the livestock industry. If eaten, the weeds can cause weight loss or mortality in some livestock.

French said one highlight of his career was getting rid of 90 percent of the distaff thistle in the area.

"It's a matter of protecting a valuable resource," French said of controlling weeds. "We have some of the most productive forage in the world here, but it's also fertile for thistle."

"Ken has continued to be a cornerstone as far as the noxious weed work we do in that part of the state," said Tim Butler, supervisor of the Oregon Department of Agriculture Noxious Weed Program. "He's had a true passion for what he does. I think our cooperators in that part of the state would definitely agree with that."

Butler credited French with putting a lot of effort into working with landowners beginning around 1980 to control rush skeletonweed, placing bugs at numerous sites to biologically control Italian thistle and in recent years working to control distaff thistle, Paterson's curse and alyssum.

Longtime ranchers Ken Bare of Roseburg, Ore., and Bob Hall of Dixonville, Ore., said French had earned the respect of the agricultural community for his work with weeds.

"He took everything to heart," said Bare, who was a 54-year member of the Douglas County Weed Advisory Board and a four-year member of the Oregon State Weed Board. "Everything for Ken was about taking care of the weed problem. He took his job seriously and was dedicated."

"He's contributed a lot toward agriculture in this area," Hall said of French. "We had a serious problem with tansy ragwort in this state and distaff thistle and he worked really hard to get them under control. They're not eradicated entirely, but they're not taking over like they used to."

French said he'll miss educating and helping landowners with their weed problems.

"I just hope people continue to be aware of and to support future efforts against these weeds," he said. "A lot of people underestimate how destructive weeds can be. It's really important that the high priority weed projects continue."


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