Roger Milliken, Jr.
Chairman of the Board
The Nature Conservancy
19 February 2009
This is an open letter written to express concern about the decision to end the work of the TNC Global Invasive Species Team. The loss of this team exacerbates the losses of natural areas and their ecosystem services to the arrival and establishment of invasive species. From the negative impacts on regulating services such as clean air and erosion control to services which include habitat protection and enhancement through resource and raw material production to informing services such as recreational use, the work of the team focused efforts to encourage a wide range of disparate stakeholders to find common ground. Quietly without fanfare your team provided a focus nationally for wide ranging efforts to stem the destructive spread of invasive species.
Invasive species are a symptom of a larger challenge, the survivability of our culture and of our current expectation for life on this planet. Currently there are groups who excel at raising awareness of other crises, but invasive species issues have been for so long centrists’ issues of insiders that no one actually notices that there is any urgency. There other major issues brewing which share a similar fate, such as the increase in world population over the rate of food production yields. Boring and seemingly non controversial, with no champions of notoriety in tow, invasive species issues slumber in the cloudy sub consciousness of our public policy attic.
Without champions at a national level, there are no funds. Without vocal demands for extreme action, there are no champions; the issues of invasive species are not glamorous. Scary perhaps, but not enough for the big time celebrities which we need to fire us up as we need the celebrity stamp of approval. Invasive species are a slow fire taking place just below our daily time horizons, too slow to make an impact until too late to stop. We expect as inevitable that kudzu will cost two states 500 million dollars annually, and then we wonder why our states are going broke. But we do nothing, we say nothing, and we learn nothing, because other issues are more important having been identified for us by the chic of the moment, by trend setters of style.
We are engaged in a public policy battle on climate change without understanding that invasive species are linked at the hip to the issue. We speak of carbon negative landscapes without knowing that invasive plants make, in general, wonderful carbon sinks. Complex webs of interactions take too much time to digest, and we have no time because we are in a hurry to get to the next new thing, and therefore wind up paying for the old thing which we failed to understand in the first place. Too hard for us to assess and respond in time; too hard to prove a negative, we build costly prisons after the fact ,just as we allow invasives to establish themselves and then deal with the expense later as if they were always a problem though we knew it cheaper to react early thereby deflecting or avoiding the coming crisis.
Our political systems work by catering to extremes; solutions driven successfully from the consensus center receive no attention and with invasive species it is no different. Successful collaboration with diverse stakeholders has led to complacency and even malaise. We move quietly towards a center, while loading future costs one upon another. 22 million acres of ash trees are dead and gone, and now a few impacted residents of the Midwest wonder why, and more practically how they will afford to cut the dead trees down, as all the while the general warning went unheeded. Some say we cannot predict well enough to protect, and convince us that it is better not to try. This is the mantra that said we could not go to the moon or cure polio and were wrong.
Invasive species are crippling the environment which provides us things we need to live: clean air, soil for food, clean water, medicines, and recreational release to name a few. Invasive species are giant hammer blows of a 900 pound canary singing in a mine, tolling for the future, warning of the change which is coming. Surrounded by so much quiet desperation, we teeter on the edge of inaction unwilling to assume one more crucial issue and so we shunt invasive species to the does-not-matter-compared-to-the-everything-else-we-must-solve arena.
But the failure of our ecosystem infrastructure will be costly whether we acknowledge it or not, and ignoring invasive species will simply pass costs on to repair and maintenance until we can no longer afford to clear our canals of the water hyacinth that can curtail our transportation of goods, or until the citrus greening removes the last orange juice tree. Do we truly believe that hardwood trees, the oaks of North America are not important as a pathogen begins to take them down on the west coast? What price to lose elms and chestnuts and maples and ash and then oaks? What tree do the un-aroused suggest take the place of all that is lost? What price to pay for cooling when the hardwoods are gone?
The homogenization of the world is refreshing at first, for we can go anywhere and find McDonalds knowing that our first meal will taste the same with no surprises. But who will visit Alaska to see salmon runs with no fish, waterways covered by Lythrum, a flower readily visible in the backyards of over 24 states of the lower 48? We want a green English landscape in the desert, but after the initial view did we actually travel to the desert to see Windsor palace or did we come to see the diversity of our planet and to recognize the power of this diversity? Our activities from trade to style encourage the introduction of species much as our city development encourages the introduction of Starbucks. We trade familiarity for uniqueness in order to get efficiency through predictability. We want this sameness because it makes us comfortable. And we are paying a price which so far we are willing to pay.
But the piper will be paid. Our system of systems that regulates life on earth will increase the costs of this homogenization until we cannot pay, much as an evening of over eating and drinking will cause a payment to be rendered of the system so abused. We expect our marketplace providers of goods for consumption to lower costs and encourage them to dismiss or not consider the environmental assessment. We do not place a price on shipping containers coming in without inspection for lack of funding and for time considerations, while we spend billions looking for grenades and bombs. We blithely ignore an unidentified ant, which loves to eat electrical wiring and is headed for Houston Space Flight Center. Rather than paying to deal early and cheaply we will suffer a five minute sound bite of recrimination when we have to move the Space Flight Center, spray it with toxins or encase it in ant proof new buildings or loose its wiring to an invasive species.
Why have a plan when we can couch the inevitable in terms of our inadequacy of knowledge, an endless loop of where is the science. We are still waiting for the complete science behind the loss of the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters when we could have done something we found reasons to delay, and now we find reason to move on as if we have lost nothing off importance. We accept the destruction of our landscapes because we have become landscape illiterate. Isolated in our silos, totally depended on our urban system services, we have forgotten that these same services are built upon the foundation of the ecosystem services whose loss we no longer cry for. We have forgotten the lessons of Aldo Leopold; perhaps we never learned.
This we need an effort such as your GIST. Surely the resources can be found to continue to protect our environment by keeping the Global Invasive Species Team in place.