Sunday, December 09, 2012

Mt Rainier, Maryland, Faces Wickedly Inconvenient Invasive Bamboo Problem

Yellow groove bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata invading a natural area
image by Caryn Rickel, Institute of Invasive Bamboo Research,

               For each community there comes a time when the invasive impact of a charismatic mega species finally causes an epiphany and an interest in one century of concern takes hold. Most of us are comfortably landscape illiterate and cannot be bothered with an invasive species especially if it is a plant, because most of us identify a plant as a tree or shrub, flower or grass and, then, quickly move on to our morning coffee.  We no longer know the common names, and sure enough cannot deal with the impossible to pronounce alien-exotic sounding names such as Phyllostachysaureoculcata McClure (1945) at any time of the day.

               Mount Rainier, a small town in Prince George's County, Maryland, my county, has found itself under attack from past landscape practices of its own doing, and now wants action and proposes a ban on all invasive plants. The immediacy of the idea obscures the question as to what exactly is an invasive plants, but oppressed homeowners and beleaguered politicians seldom let actual context interfere with well-meaning intentions. The press, of course, does not have the time or resources to actually talk to people who know a little or much about invasive species, but rather focus on factoids that sell news by fanning the flames of simplistic thinking.

               Invasive species issues are seldom, if ever, linear. They are not solved by direct line thinking. Simple solutions like a city ban will not solve the existing problem. This is the wicked inconvenience of invasives. Simple solution will inevitably cause unintended consequences and more problems. Invasive species impacts are wicked problems because they involve many vested interests, ill-defined definitions, limited resources  and short, near term frame of mind goals (interest is lost easily). For example, a land manager invests the money and time to remove a weed from a play ground but does not have a long term plan for what comes next, resulting in a new species quietly establishing because there was no EDRR plan put in place as part of the original plant removal. 

               Mount Rainier has a bamboo problem. Which bamboo exactly is causing the problem? This is a trick question because almost assuredly they have no idea that there are 26 species in the genus. Most likely, they are dealing with one of two possibilities, but what reference are they using to establish that identification. More worrisome is the idea that a ban will solve the problem. A ban will solve tomorrow's neighbors' incursion but today's property owners will still be left with the financial burden of mitigating the damage to get back full use of their land. The real issue is how to make existing property owners whole. Who is responsible for the loss of the use of my land when a neighbor's invasive species jumps the fence?

               There is little doubt that some species of invasives especially certain bamboos can rip part patios, chew through foundations, uproot asphalt, grow through concrete, and otherwise make practicable use of a property impossible for any reason. And these few specific bamboos are not alone in the invasive category  - just ask the Confederacy about kudzu, fire ants and pythons to name a few. It is good to remember that in spite of these facts, bamboo, as of now, mostly impacts managed gardens, properties, and landscapes. Because the term of art invasive species comes out of ecological and natural land management investigations, the labeling of bamboo as 'invasive' causes definitional problems.[1] It would be better, perhaps,  if historically we had not separated the idea of weeds and invasive plants, but we have. The so-called 'running' bamboos are destructive, aggressively harmful,'noxious' landscape weeds that do not fit well into classic invasive species categories especially those that require harm to natural areas and that require seeding pressure (something these bamboos do not do - yet). 

               For over thirty years a generation of dedicated volunteers and professionals has been trying to get the rest of us to notice that we have a problem, but until the problem costs us personally, we do nothing preferring to be ecological ostriches.

               Mount Rainier needs a plan before a law. It needs to put a cutting edge comprehensive program together that involves sustainable landscaping practices (SITES). The town needs an outreach program to its citizens on what the problem is and what they can do about it personally.  The town needs to support through information web sites best management practices for new installation and old landscape maintenance strategies (integrated pest management practices: IPM). The town should be putting together an early detection and rapid response (EDRR) program do ensure they never have this kind of problem again. And finally, Mount Rainier should be advocating for a county-wide policy, for every community is part of an ecosystem, and invasive species issues must be managed holistically at the ecosystem level.

[1] As per Executive Order 13112 an "invasive species" is defined as a species that is:

1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and

2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

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