Saturday, January 01, 2011

Invasive Species are eating your lunch; and changing your world

    Invasive species are changing your world. They are changing the landscapes right in front of your eyes, and they are literally eating your lunch. They are replacing species that you once took for granted like chestnut and elm and now ash trees, as well as changing the very texture of plants that support your world perhaps even your quality of life. And though they are doing this rather quickly, you are mostly oblivious because you can no longer read the landscape. If the grass is green and there are trees then all is well as you rush from crisis to crisis. You have become landscape illiterate because your immediate needs do not seem to correlate with the complex interactions and relationships among microbes, plants, insets, reptiles and animals and you.

    Some invasive species are so personal you do, however, take notice and great amounts of time and energy, using early detection and rapid response strategies (EDRR) to keep pathogens, diseases and parasites out of that complex biological system known to you as your body. In this you are clear: that the ideal is to prevent the disease in the first place. And to this end you create quarantines, inspections and protocols that can stop commerce in its tracks. You are very careful not to let other people's uncontrolled adventures to exotic lands and places potentially impact your biological system. You are very willing to make a second party who provides a pathway for a disease pay the cost of prevention if possible. You hold the government accountable to the personal common good and expect it to inspect and detain travelers and merchandize that risk analysis have identified as probable vectors of human illness. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria, typhoid and influenza are in an analogous sense invasive species that once introduced into your biological system are able to wreak havoc.

    We are more focused when business interests might be impacted by alien exotic agents of lower profits. Agriculture is very concerned about invasive disease, plants and animals that reduce harvests and yields, and therefore, make production costs higher than sales potential. In other words, pests like Russian wheat aphids or the European corn borer reduce the amount of grain produced per field acre, and drive up the costs of doing business and eventually the cost of food. Agriculture has recognized in the United States the idea of preemption as an effective approach to reducing invasive species impacts on production and therefore costs and profits since at least 1726 and the banning of barberry in Connecticut. There are even laws and regulation in place to protect ornamental landscapes and its nursery industry promulgated by USDA APHIS in partnership with the individual states (National Plant Board).

    When it comes to your natural areas that preserve complex and diverse systems of life with as little human impact as possible, the rules change dramatically and the problems multiply as you externalize your life on to the dumping grounds of nature. A small group of advocates struggles to create a national policy with little to success. There is a national executive council (NISC) with an advisory committee (ISAC) but there is no funding; it can meet, network and advise, but it cannot make anything actually happen. Members and staff mostly talk to each other and to those very few who see the loss in the changes brought by invasive species. The landscape illiteracy translates in to an ignorance of the dynamics of ecological systems; systems to which you are an integral part. That green expanse in the parks of the mid-Atlantic is not a harmless flow of native grasses inviting to interacting with the ebb and flow of natural processes, but rather a non indigenous species which in my unsubstantiated lay opinion may have been introduced in utility rights-of-way seed mitigation mixes, is wavyleaf basket grass, Oplismenus hirtellus ssp. undulatifolius. This grass is spreading, as shown on EDDMapS, like a wild fire changing the fundamental make-up and processes of the last historic native species aggregations of the mid-Atlantic. As it crowds out native plants and the glorious wild flowers that provide sustenance to native insects, it is reducing the complexity of the food web and reducing the resiliency of these last great places of natural beauty and doing so without you seeing anything amiss. Desperate pleas from experts seeking funding in these economic times go unheeded; even in the heyday of uncontrolled spending bothering to spend money on the early eradication of a non native invader was never fully supported by you. You preferred to wait until the invader clearly and irrevocably damaged your personal space before you were willing to push your government to action.

    A dead ash tree falling onto your house (Emerald ash borer epidemic threatens Ohio trees) because of a borer from Asia which you chose to ignore has caught your attention even as the lack of funding went mostly unnoticed, until millions of acres of ash trees began to die. Now it is a rear guard action trying to hold the line. Historically the gypsy moth showed us this scenario over 100 years ago (The Great Gypsy Moth War: The History of the First Campaign in Massachusetts to Eradicate the Gypsy Moth, 1890–1901), when you decided to un-fund early attempts at control only to watch your woodlands become defoliated by the introduced exotic pest. You have clearly said through your silence that you prefer to throw your unwanted pets out onto the street creating a feral cat assault on song birds and you waited until the 15 foot snakes from Burma entered your bedrooms before you said there might be something wrong.

    You should have a national policy discussion; you need a plan and a fund much like the one you already have for wildfires that can be applied to early detection of invasive species and most importantly money for their rapid eradication at the time of detection when the costs are very small. You need to say that your natural areas are worth saving per se; that your management of these native enclaves will include the removal of certain species, and the preemption of their introduction into these United States.

    I continue to propose the creation of an all taxa grassroots funded effort to advocate and educate members of Congress as to the impacts of invasive species.

Picture of dead trees from Natural Resources Canada

Picture of wavyleaf basket grass from forestry


Cindy said...

This is an excellent post. Landscape illiteracy is indeed the problem, and more deeply a general removal from ourselves from the environmental equation. Let me commend you on increasing the landscape literacy of those with whom you have contact. It is actually rather painful to become aware.

I do however wonder at the use of 'you' . I assume it is meant as an indictment, and does make 'one' uncomfortable..'we' would be more cooperative & friendly..but then again 'we' could pass the buck..or borer

Ben said...

Huzzah brilliant John. Blood oath, well done