Friday, August 28, 2009

It’s Wicked Out There

Remember the old speaker joke about the dog that was always chasing cars, until one day he caught one and didn’t know what to do with it? Well, that’s what is happening now in Washington, in nearly every dimension of politics and policy.And in no areas of debate is this more vividly apparent than in the realms of healthcare reform and the environmental movement, with its long-sought chase for solutions to global climate change. I’ll leave the contentious and near-irresolvable issues of healthcare reform to others and confine my focus to environmental concerns.
Let’s start the topic by declaring that addressing global warming is not a “tame” problem, it’s a “wicked” problem. I learned about the difference between tame and wicked problems from John Peter Thompson, former CEO of Behnke Nurseries, an ANLA member in Washington. John Peter, currently an industry consultant, has been an invaluable advisor to ANLA in developing and advancing our policy in several areas, most significantly the invasive species issue, to which he first applied the tame-wicked concept.

First, the characteristics of a tame problem:
• has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement
• has a definite stopping point (i.e. we know when a solution is reached)
• has a solution that can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong
• belongs to a class of similar problems that can be solved in a similar manner
• has solutions that can be tried and abandoned

A wicked problem is, well, pretty much the opposite of a tame one:
• has no definitive formulation—wicked problems are defined in terms stemming from one’s idea for solving it
• has no stopping rules—there are no objective criteria for which there is a “final, complete or fully correct” solution
• has no objectively evaluated solution as right or wrong—rather recommended solutions are considered better or worse in accord with personal or business interests, or ideological predilection• is unique unto itself, but can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem, connected in accord with personal or professional interests, or ideological predilection
• has no solutions that can be tried and abandoned—rather, solutions are attempted until resources are exhausted, the result is deemed “good enough” or there’s a sense in which “we’ve done what we can”

The reason I’m going into such detailed analysis is that the political debate surrounding wicked problems, such as addressing global warming, has so far been dominated by interests—for and against—in the context of tame problems, not wicked ones. Under those rules, the earliest move in the discussion is to figure out who’s on which side of the debate, join the preferred side, and then repeat that side’s pre-ordained causes and solutions, with no real change of heart or mind.
The only result is ... exhaustion, or maybe cynicism, or abandonment altogether and a channel switch to “American Idol”—a truly tame problem if there ever was one.

Here’s the point: Elections are conducted as though every thorny problem our society faces is a tame problem. Effective governing consists of learning that what were thought to be tame problems are, in reality, wicked problems. This is the reality that the dog suddenly faces when the car stops and driver walks away.Wicked problems can be better managed by not standing on opposite sides of the room (or broadcast studio table) yelling at each other.

Step one is identifying who, among all the people on both sides, is genuinely interested in solving the problem, not just barking at the noise.The second step is to acknowledge the issue as a wicked problem and begin to convert portions of that wicked problem into tame problems, however miniscule that portion may be. And repeat the second step. And repeat it again.ANLA’s work addressing the meaning of sustainability in (and to) our industry is an experiment in taking a portion of the wicked problem of environmental degradation and global climate change and taming it. Better to be the car driver than the dog.

Bob Dolibois is executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association and a member of the board of directors of the Small Business Legislative Council in Washington, D.C.
© Copyright 2001 - 2009 Ball Publishing

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pythons, People & Pathways: Invasive Species Slither In

[picture of python taken by author on visit by National Invasive Species Advisory Committee - ISAC to the Everglades]

I was asked how the Burmese pythons that now inhabit the Florida Everglades as an invasive species arrive. I quickly answered that it was not by first class reservation on a commercial airline, but rather from the pet industry. Pet industry though does not mean just the business operations but includes the customers for whom they procure a wide variety of pets. This is an important part of the discussion for it is often too easy to blame just the business side of the issue. No business lasts long that does not provide a product sought by its consumer market.

The website, Everglades Burmese Python Project, describes the south Florida ecosystem invader as a”… Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) are large, constricting snakes, native to southeastern Asia, that are one of the most popular snakes in the pet trade.”[1] Popular means that there are many customers who think that having a python is the sine qua non of their existence, a personal necessity for their own quality of life. And the American consumer the bulwark of the global economy is not to be denied his want. As with many wants, though, the unexpected consequence of a good python owning regime is a 15 foot pet. Not unexpectedly, the cost of containment and subsistence grows with the snake leading a few owners to decide, much like gardeners heavy clipping of ivy over the fence into a park, that the snake deserves the best and nature is boundless and unlimited in her abilities to care for the now burdensome former trophy. Out of the bag and into the Everglades and the Florida canal system the soon to be lost love slithers.

EPA provides a list of invasive species pathways noting that ‘[e]scapes or intentional release of unwanted pets can be a source of new non-native species in all parts of the country.” [2] It is most likely the case that the customers are releasing the invasive species intentionally or not rather than the businesses throwing away costly inventory. Disposal of possessions non longer wanted or needed is a challenge. The idea that the land is infinite and that we can just bury our problems is becoming a costly solution, as is releasing our pets into nature out of an anthropocentric sense of kindness. Everything has a consequence even refuse and trash, unwanted plants and pets, and those cherished species that escape from out gardens and homes.

Invasive species negatively impact every one of our current ecosystem services altering the resources that the system provides. Invasive species which are top predators may expand rapidly, deplete resources and may fade away or may become established, altering the known ability of the system to create benefits for humanity. Invasive species introduction in effect create new ecosystems that are restructuring and resetting ecological interactions and while doing so creating challenges for resource predictability. Some invasive species in certain settings can enhance ecosystem services such as Miscanthus sinensis used for erosion control.[3] These diametrically opposed possibilities in part create the wicked inconvenience of invasive species and the issues that surround them

[1] Dr. Michael Dorcas. Davidson College Herpetology Laboratory
Dr. Michael Dorcas and the Davidson College Herpetology laboratory are assisting the National Park Service, Dr. Frank Mazzotti, and his laboratory in their studies of Burmese Pythons in Everglades National Park and surrounding areas. Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are large, constricting snakes, native to southeastern Asia, that are one of the most popular snakes in the pet trade. Unfortunately, most pet owners do not realize that their 3 foot, hatchling python may grow to be longer than 15 feet. At this point, owners are frequently unable to care for such a large snake and release them. Researchers believe this is the initial reason for the population of Burmese Pythons in the Everglades; however, over time these captive snakes have bred in the Park and now there appears to be a well-established population. These snakes thrive in the Everglades because they are habitat generalists and the park has an abundance of prey available to them (nearly any animal that exists in the Everglades). These snakes have the ability to consume large animals and potentially pose a threat to threatened and endangered populations of Florida Panthers and Wood Storks among others in the Everglades. Thus, researchers are studying these animals to discover the best ways to eradicate or control the Burmese Python population. Researchers are conducting road surveys to capture snakes and are radio-tracking pythons in the area. Their goal is to determine how Burmese Pythons are using the habitat available to them in Everglades National Park and document the impact the snakes are having on native animal populations. We have been assisting with this project by conducting surgeries to implant transmitters and temperature dataloggers, aiding data collection along roads, and assisting with GIS analysis
[2] Pathways for Invasive Species Introduction Globalization has vastly increased long-distance travel and commerce, and highly altered waterways. These and other factors have increased the frequency by orders of magnitude by which non-native plants, animals and pathogens are introduced to new areas, sometimes with costly results. Invasive species can enter important aquatic habitats including riparian zones and wetlands by several common pathways listed below.
Ballast Water: Since 95% of all foreign goods by weight enter the U.S. through its ports, the potential for invasive species impacts on coastal communities is immense.
Boat Hulls, Fishing Gear and Other Recreational Pathways: Boat hulls, fishing boots (felt-soled wading boots transport whirling disease organisms from stream to stream) and equipment, diving gear, and other recreational items that are transported among several water bodies have been known to spread invasive species problems to new waters. Some zebra mussels and milfoil have been introduced via these pathways.
Aquaculture Escapes: Non-native shrimp, oysters and Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest, are just a few examples of non-native mariculture species that have generated concern over disease and other impacts that might arise from their escape.
Intentional Introductions: The introduction of non-indigenous species into ecosystems with few controls on reproduction or distribution.
Aquaria Releases: Escapes or intentional release of unwanted pets can be a source of new non-native species in all parts of the country. The invasive algae Caulerpa is thought to have been introduced to U.S. waterways after being discarded from aquaria.
Live Food Industry: The import of live, exotic foods and the release of those organisms can result in significant control costs, e.g. the snakehead fish in Maryland. Asian swamp eels are spreading through the Southeast after introduction as a food source.
Vehicular Transportation: Both private and commercial transportation are major factors in the movement and range expansion of non-native species throughout the U.S.
Escaped Ornamental Plants, Nurseries Sales, or Disposals: Many invasive plant problems began as ornamental plantings for sale in nurseries and garden shops. Purple loosestrife, for example, is sold as an ornamental plant but takes over native vegetation in wetlands, and can clog western streams preventing water withdrawal and recreational uses. Only some problem species are currently banned from sale.
Cross-basin Connections: From small channels to major intercoastal waterways, new connections between isolated water bodies have allowed the spread of many invasive species. Great Lakes invasions increased markedly after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.
Fishing Bait Releases: Discarding unused bait can introduce species that disrupt their new ecosystems and eliminate competing native species; examples include non-native crayfish, baitfish that overpopulate certain waters, and earthworms that are depleting the organic duff layer in northern forests where no indigenous earthworms existed (Conover, 2000).
Illegal Stockings: Although prohibited by law, people release fish into new waters and sometimes cause severe impacts. Yellowstone Lake's world-class cutthroat trout fishery is now jeopardized by an illegal release of lake trout.
Domestic Animals Gone Feral: The impact of feral house cats on birds and small mammals in natural areas is well documented; escaped feral pigs from farms have recently begun to do significant damage to soils and plants in the Smokey Mountains.
Pathogens Spread by Non-natives to Vulnerable Native Species: Non-native species problems include pathogens carried by resistant non-natives to vulnerable native species. Whirling disease, which has decimated rainbow trout in many western rivers, was originally introduced when European brown trout, tolerant of whirling disease, were imported to U.S. waters and hatcheries.
Disposal of Solid Waste or Wastewater: Seeds, viable roots or other propagules of invasive plants may be easily spread to receiving waters through wastewater discharge, then spread by water flow to distant areas downstream.
Science/laboratory Escapes, Disposals or Introductions: Accidental or intentional release of laboratory animals has introduced some non-native species into U .S. waters.
Seafood Packing and Disposal: Much seafood is packed in seaweed prior to distribution. Because seafood is transported long distances, organisms in packing seaweed may reach new waters as an unintended by-product.
Biological Control Introductions: Ideally, introducing a second non-native species to control an invader should result in diminished numbers of both species after control is accomplished, but some introduced controls have backfired because they attack non-target species. Mongoose introduced in Hawaii to control rats have wiped out many native bird species.
Past Government Programs: The establishment of a new invader is sometimes an unanticipated outcome of a government program; kudzu, for example, was originally introduced through a government-sponsored erosion control program.
Moving and Depositing Fill in Wetlands: Seeds and viable parts of invasive plants contained in fill material may rapidly colonize the new substrate, which then compete with native species within the wetlands.
Land/water Alterations That Help Spread Invaders: Many invaders are adept at rapid pioneering where soil has been disturbed or water levels or routes have been changed, leaving a temporary gap in occupation by native flora and fauna.

[3] Ann Perry. August 21, 2009. “A Hedge with an Edge for Erosion Control”. One way farmers can preserve soil and protect water quality is by planting grass hedges to trap sediment that would otherwise be washed away by field runoff. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the agency’s National Sedimentation Laboratory in Oxford, Miss., have calculated how much soil erosion these hedges prevent and verified predictions of the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation version 2 (RUSLE2).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Invasive species & novel, emerging ecosystems; a challenge

Invasive species wreak havoc upon existing, native ecosystems. Invasive plants can crowd out, consume resources, and provide a platform for pathogens and pests that prey upon existing species. Sometimes invasive plant species can achieve such density as to completely eliminate any competition. The result is a mono-culture – a biological desert. Even if they do not reach this level of damage to an existing ecosystem they can alter it creating damaged or novel ecosystems sometimes referred to as “emerging” ecosystems. A US Forest Service publication defines these altered systems that result when “…species occur in combinations and relative abundances that have not occurred previously within a given biome.”[1] (Hobbs 2006)

Noting that many invasive plants are, for example good carbon sinks, a wicked inconvenience arises. It may be that some novel emerging systems are better at providing many ecosystem services than we think. We have a built in prejudice that disturbed systems are bad; we are judgmental about the negative impacts because of species loss which colors our further considerations. The assumption that pristine is the “best” state leads to the assignment of “bad” for all other choices because we are looking at the historic perceived steady state. Invasive species reduce the number of ecological interactions. They reduce species diversity a major component of our valuation of good.

However invasive species can and do participate in regulation services of ecosystems such as atmospheric gas exchange, erosion, food, biofuels and storm impact processes. What we do not know because there is so little study, is the degree to which they contribute basic ecosystem services. The question arises then: are ecosystems like capitalism powered by creative destruction, a dynamic that not only never is but never can be stationary. Creative destruction describes the process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation.[2] A pristine ecosystem invaded by exotic species is a system subject to radical innovation.

Much of the work of natural area land managers and researchers is geared towards preserving undisturbed environments and biomes. They are working to prevent outside (exotic, alien) species and forces from changing the internal systems of the pristine area. When an invasion happens the loss is forever; the complexities of the original system, the balances, are changed with no possibility of return. And this permanent loss is judged to be bad because it is self evident that if you are trying to preserve something, radical change that disrupts and alters the status quo is bad by definition.
When we add climate change we may be fighting a rear guard action as we try to preserve ecosystems that cannot be sustained as the climates change. For what is native at 600 ppm atmospheric CO2? It will be the invasive species that act as earth’s bandage while new ecosystems come into being. They will provide the fundamental regulation services needs to reestablish functioning biomes. Humans may or may not be a casualty of this reorganization for we are dependent upon these ecoservices that we are paving over, drawing down and mostly taking for granted. Air and water, as well as hydrocarbon, as infinite resources unevenly distributed are a couple of assumptions that influence land use and development decisions. The fact that these resources are finite and depended upon ecosystem services is obscure and not generally part of the conversation.

Does this mean then we give up and let the destruction run rampant because the cause is lost? No for just as the gardener and the farmer daily fight the good fight so environmentalist must do the same. When we remove invasive plants from natural areas, aren’t we just weeding albeit on a larger grander scale? Preserving ecosystems is gardening on a large scale after all.

[1] Hobbs,Richard J.;Arico, Salvatore; Aronson, James; Baron, Jill S.; Bridgewater, Peter; Cramer, Viki A.; Epstein, Paul R.; Ewel, John J.; Klink, Carlos A.; Lugo, Ariel E.; Norton, David; Ojima, Dennis; Richardson David M.; Sanderson, Eric W.; Valladares, Fernando; VilĂ , Montserrat; Zamora, Regino; Zobel, Martin; 2006. Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global Ecology and Biogeography, (Global Ecol. Biogeogr.)15, :1–7.

[2] ^ "$200 Laptops Break a Business Model". New York Times. January 25, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-01-27. "Indeed, Silicon Valley may be one of the few places where businesses are still aware of the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist who wrote about business cycles during the first half of the last century. He said the lifeblood of capitalism was “creative destruction.” Companies rising and falling would unleash innovation and in the end make the economy stronger."