By Paul Schwennesen
This may be no surprise to the rest of you, but down here in border country, we are surrounded by immigrants. Aliens at every turn. Invading the places we live and work, they threaten the very stability of our established order. They are particularly hard to police, being resistant to almost all attempts at legislation or regulation. It is, in the words of some, a problem of "unprecedented scale." That we are under assault is as plain as a tamarisk post. Clearly something needs to be done, and quickly.
A concerted extermination campaign? Certainly, especially if it can be coordinated and funded by other people's money. Uproot the interlopers. Weed them out. Send them back from whence they came.
I refer, of course, to the onslaught of "invasives," the noxious flora and non-native fauna that now draw our collective attention like Gypsy moths to flame. Local governments spend $1.7 billion annually on invasive species programs. The actual damage caused by these non-natives is, according to the same source, about $830 million, but let's not get lost in the (ahem) weeds. Imagine instead how much worse it would be if we weren't spending two of your dollars for every dollar in damage...
Federal spending on invasive species programs is about $1.2 billion to boot, so it's clear that they're not kidding around. There is even a presidential executive order, 13112, establishing a "National Invasive Species Council." This council, created before 9/11, coordinates the efforts of 13 federal agencies to combat invasives. Presumably it was connecting the dots and stymying ecological attack long before their compatriots at the FBI and CIA...
I submit this as a suspicion only, but might our fascination with biotic menace be somewhat overblown?
Aldo Leopold, America's poet-laureate of Conservation, was fond of saying: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." As a fellow agrarian, I'd like to add a third spiritual danger in not owning a farm: supposing that nature exists in a delicate balance. I've been told that my ecological sensitivities are unfashionable, but I harbor a view of nature tempered by actual, living, symbiotic proximity. This experience informs me of an important observable fact: the much-vaunted precarious equilibrium of nature simply doesn't seem to exist.
What exists, rather, is a profoundly robust, extremely fluid dynamic equilibrium defined by countless species competing (and cooperating) for resources. The only thing "delicate" is a theoretical construct, the aesthetic determination of what constitutes "pristine." Nature doesn't build champagne flutes, it builds root mats. It doesn't dither its time creating tremulous houses of cards, we do. I suppose it should come as no surprise that our species, bent as it is on building fragile structures, would come to see the rest of the world that way.
Federal classifications do little to ease the hysterics. Invasive Species are: "Non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." Does that leave anything out of play from a policy standpoint? Since the definition addresses neither the temporal aspects (is it still "non-native" if it were introduced by Native Americans 1,000 years ago?) nor the relative damages aspect (is it "harmful" if grass chokes out cactus?), the definition can become a convenient façade to conceal pet projects.
The definition of "Invasive" is a bureaucratic judgment call. Perhaps, to be "invasive" is simply a taxonomic distinction. Never fear, bean-counters tell us, like Potter Stewart's pornography, we'll know it when we see it...
Scum of the Earth
The desert Southwest has its share of bugaboos and darlings. Amaranthus palmeri, considered a quaint native by unanimous consent, was almost certainly introduced and farmed by Puebloan peoples around the time of Christ.
Meanwhile, the despised Salt Cedar, introduced by Angloan peoples around the time of Christian Science, tops the list of local invaders and warrants a multi-million dollar campaign of helicopter-borne chemical terror. Never mind that it seems to have reached a kind of ecological détente (and is even losing ground in my riparian areas) with our native Fremont-Goodding Cottonwood-Willow alliance... And dare not mention in polite company that it appears now to be habitat of choice for the endangered Willow Flycatcher, which doesn't have the common decency to stick with its namesake...
Public enemy numero uno (in Tucson anyway) is the kingpin of all nefarious invaders, Buffelgrass. It presents the anathematic menace of a grass with the audacity to thrive in a desert. This frightens us, apparently, because it can act as a 'ladder fuel,' a fiery vector for singeing the offspring of the noble, scenic and curiously hominid Saguaros that define modern conceptions of our current landscape. By this logic, however, the much-maligned wholesale grazing of the late 1880s, which removed vast swathes of standing grassland, ought to be cheered. Cheered, for the clearing of these grasses must, logically, have helped advance the frontlines in the 9,000-year northern march of Saguaro cactus that displaced the deciduous forests of the Holocene...
And the desert Southwest is hardly alone in this choose-your-own-adversary game. The Southeast suffers its epic siege by Kudzu, which inveigled itself aboard a steamer after choking its native parents China and Japan to death. Like some kind of vegetable Blob, it grows a foot a day and southerners are warned to keep their windows shut at night lest tentacles of Kudzu whisk away the children... It now covers 7 million acres and covers 150,000 more every year. Scary stuff. I have a hard time panicking though. Something tells me Kudzu is past its zenith and its day of global domination will be a long time coming. Some kind of Kudzu superbug, a previously unknown fungi infection, or maybe a new fad in eco-diet to replace now-passé ginkoba and kombucha? Who knows? But life will find its way of slowing Kudzu's advance for nature abhors a monopoly. The real danger is our own stupidity: Whereas farmers could get federal money to plant kudzu in the 1940s, the same federal agency now helpfully offers to cost-share the application of aerial herbicides to kill it all. Kudzu will meet its match (if it hasn't already) in the form of natural ecological reality, and this reality will not even require assistance from our friends at DuPont.
Wherever you live, a non-native nuisance surely lurks, usually threatening some cherished aspect of local ecological identity. In Montana, for instance, they are quite beside themselves about Leafy Spurge, which is apparently intent on overrunning the bucolic rangelands of Big Sky country (it won't). In Florida it's the Air Potato that "destroys" local forests (it can't). In Washington, the New Zealand Mudsnail threatens photogenic rivers and lakes (it'll meet its match). In Nebraska, ranchers complained to me of a growing infestation of pine trees! My hands are full with a foxtail infestation at the moment or I would love to trade nuisances...
I will get passionate mail about this, from both sides of the political spectrum. Lengthy explanations about how "Species X" is truly awful, replete with firsthand accounts and acreage metrics. And it's true; change is afoot, sometimes as a result of species introduced by human action and often counter to our current preferences. And for the record, I am not suggesting a completely hands-off approach to highly competitive interlopers (be they plant, animal, or even human). I am simply arguing for less extreme tactics based upon a reasoned strategy free from inflammatory adjectives.
The question we need to persistently ask is whether the cure is worse than the disease. As of yet, no invasive has been caught directly picking our pockets, but they hardly need to. They seem to be particularly good at indirectly hijacking our wealth. As a public service, I've composed a few questions that may help tune a cautious ear toward this extractive tendency:
- Is the species "out of control," "runaway" or otherwise intimidating?
- Does it harbor some special (even toxic) characteristic giving it an "unfair" advantage?
- Does it require our immediate action or (better yet) donation?
- Does it require a new department or agency to counter its menace?
If the answer to any of these is in the affirmative, perhaps a cautionary restraint might be in order.
The war against invasive species is surely anthropomorphism at its finest. The National Invasive Species Council even employs as its logo and letterhead a pair of suspicious-looking eyes peeking out from behind presumably native foliage. Perhaps our fascination with invasives allays some kind of collective guilt complex. Maybe it's just fun to have a project. For the non-native species extraordinaire to behave this way is, however, a bit over the top.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared weeds to be "plants whose virtues had yet to be discovered." I have to agree. The frantic hand-wringing that accompanies most descriptions of "invasives" betrays a glaring lack of faith in the resilience of our natural world. More to point, perhaps, is the curiously rare recognition that life, in its perennial pursuit to fill vacuums, generally creates abundance and profusion. Attempts to artificially prevent this usually cost more than the supposed damage to be mitigated.
Yes, the parallel to our current political border crisis is built along similar foundational lines. Extreme attempts to stifle illegal human immigration are as counterproductive as extreme attempts to stifle life's ecological imperative.
Can we please, just this once, be careful what we ask for?
Follow Paul Schwennesen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@pschwennesen