When I took the California Naturalist Training program a few years ago, I focused my capstone project on the problem of non-native invasive plants in the Lagunitas watershed. I had been volunteering for the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network working to restore endangered Coho salmon in local waterways, and invasive plants were seen as an impediment to this work.
After I completed my research, it was like someone gave me a new pair of eyes. I saw invasive plants everywhere. I couldn’t look at the landscape in the same way anymore. All I saw were hordes of invasive plants: scotch broom, periwinkle, English ivy, teasel, poison hemlock, Himalayan blackberry, thistle, pampas grass, eucalyptus, iceplant, cotoneaster, and more!
Riparian zones were some of the worst affected. But invasive plants were everywhere. Any place the land had been overgrazed, cleared, developed, or cut through with roads or wires. Wetlands. Wildlands. Backyards. Beaches. Parks. Roadsides. Farms. Forests.
Invasive plants were the enemy of native lands. They were aggressive, forming dense stands that excluded native plants, trees and wildlife. They lowered species diversity. They provided little to no forage. They were toxic. They created adverse conditions in the soil. They contributed to soil erosion along stream banks. They were a flood hazard. A fire hazard. They harbored invasive vermin. They needed to be controlled, removed, and destroyed.
The 2005 Interagency Task Force of Federal Government Scientists states that invasives are: “one of the greatest threats to the Earth’s biological diversity. America is under siege by invasive species.” NASA says they are: “the single most formidable threat of natural disaster of the 21st Century“.
According to the Nature Conservancy: “invasive species damage the lands and waters that native plants and animals need to survive. They hurt economies and threaten human well-being. The estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals more than $1.4 trillion.”
California spends more than $80 million on fighting invasive plants each year. The United States spends around $13 billion.
The war on invasive plants is big business.
When I saw these large numbers, I began to ask questions. Who pays for this war? And who benefits? It turns out the Federal government pays for most of this war – your tax dollars at work. Invasive plants are controlled primarily using herbicides. The chemicals used are developed by the same companies that first developed them for use in human warfare. Dow Chemical. BASF. Monsanto. DuPont. Bayer. Syngenta.
The truth is that herbicides, largely untested and deadly poisonous, are being spread over our lands and waters, threatening the health of all life supporting systems, under the guise of an ever-expanding war on invasive species, with massive profits for a handful of powerful corporations with strong ties to government, and we are the ones who are paying.
After reading Timothy Scott’s radical book “Invasive Plant Medicine” I’ve come to the conclusion that this war is unfounded. What if invasives are serving a restorative, ecological function, one that we just don’t fully understand? What if permaculturist Toby Hemenway is right, that the spread of invasives is nature’s way of “throwing a green Band-Aid over ravaged landscapes“? What if engaging in a military approach to eradicating invasive plants is digging us deeper into ecological disaster?
A growing number of scientists purport that invasive plants prepare the conditions for succession. There is scientific evidence that they detoxify the soil, prevent erosion, clean the waters, restore biodiversity, and bring health back to the Earth’s ecosystems. If we take a long-term view, adopt a Gaian perspective, we could find that invasive plants are not the enemy after all, but part of a larger story of healing unfolding on the landscape.
Invasive plants appear in the landscape for a reason. They are there because we are dividing, disturbing and destroying the earth’s ecosystems. They are indicators of an ecosystem in trouble. Invasives don’t invade when ecosystems are intact.
Invasive plants aren’t the problem. We are.
We need to wake up to this truth, and put our energy into practices that support life on Earth, not destroy it. To do that we need to dismantle the ideological and physical structures that created this war, and shut down those institutions who are invested in killing the living earth for their own profits. We have to end this outrageous, rampant poisoning of the land and water, and let nature do what it knows best.
That doesn’t mean we don’t do stream restoration work to provide healthy habitat for the last of the Coho salmon. It means that we do this work knowing that these are damaged landscapes and poisoned waters, and that each invasive plant has a purpose, a role in healing the ecosystems we have torn apart. By carefully observing nature, and recognizing the innate intelligence of life, we might start to come into right relationship with the plant world, and our restoration efforts will become more effective over time.
In the words of Timothy Scott: “May we all come to our senses, and begin listening to these bountiful green teachers of the land, who speak with an ancient eloquence of deep ecological understanding.”