“Weed Whackers, Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species”

coyote in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler
coyote in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler

Harper’s Magazine describes itself: “the oldest general-interest monthly in America, explores the issues that drive our national conversation, through long-form narrative journalism and essays…”  Harper’s has just published an article by Andrew Cockburn, an experienced investigative journalist with an impressive track-record of informing the public of some of the darkest secrets in our country.  The article is available here:  Cockburn – Weed Whackers

Invasion biology and the “restoration” industry it has spawned deserved his attention and we are indeed fortunate that he has brought his journalistic skills to this task.   The public is largely unaware of the billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money being wasted on futile attempts to eradicate “invasive” plants.  There is even less knowledge of the quantities of pesticides being used by these projects or the toxicity of those pesticides.

Mr. Cockburn has interviewed many of the key players in this crusade against nature, on both sides of the controversy.  And he has visited specific projects to illustrate one of his key points:  “invasive” species are symptoms of environmental change, not the cause of them.

This article ( Cockburn – Weed Whackers )  deserves to be read, so we will not summarize it further.  Please share it with your friends, whether they are native plant advocates or critics of invasion biology.  We are deeply grateful to Mr. Cockburn for his even-handed treatment of this controversial issue, which is dividing communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mount Sutro Forest. Courtesy Save Sutro
Mount Sutro Forest. Courtesy Save Sutro

20 thoughts on ““Weed Whackers, Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species””

  1. So much of the restorationists’ dream seems just that: a dream to go back to the Golden Age, the mythical time when there was harmony and peace (add whatever other good conditions come to mind) before the Fall. It is a fantasy.

    They are also dangerous as they have the authority to decide what shall be allowed and what shall be forbidden and the means, legal and chemical, to carry out that authority.

      1. It’s a big business now that includes people who can identify plants and animals and know which are native and which are not, people who map out populations of these organisms, and people who kill them. In the government sphere soil and water conservation districts, wetland regulatory agencies, natural resources and forestry departments all have “invasive species specialists” who place huge burdens on landowners.

        The authority was, I think, gradually given over by environmentalist organisations, big and small, who wanted to preserve or protect habitat. I saw during the 1990’s a shift from protecting species from land speculators to a war on weeds and pest animals. And there has always been, I think, a Golden Age mentality in the environmentalist movement that is easily convinced in accepting the premises of the “native species only” movement.

        To get it back? A long uphill struggle as the major players have connections in industry and government. Also, the government efforts directed against non-native species is overseen by DHS or its many sub-agencies like FEMA.

        1. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The jobs the “restoration” industry is creating is definitely a factor in its persistence. I have audited “ecology” classes in which legions of undergraduates are being trained to participate in that industry. But the industry also creates opportunities for workers without college degrees who do the manual labor. So it’s a sweet spot for politicians who are always looking for “job creation,” whether it does anything useful or not.

          The environmental laws that were passed 30 years ago are definitely a factor in the proliferation of “restoration” projects. Here in the Bay Area many of the projects have been funded with “mitigation” money mandated by NEPA and its California equivalent, CEQA. It works like extortion. The deal is that a developer is allowed to build some huge development in exchange for millions of dollars of “mitigation” money that is used to fund useless projects like destroying all the non-native vegetation in our watershed and attempting to replace it with “native” vegetation. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is presently spending $50 million on such projects. One of the projects planted toyon infected with a pathogen that has killed everything that was planted. Smart, huh?

          Surely the taxpayers will eventually get fed up with this scam. It’s up to us to make them aware of what is going on. Until it happens in their backyard, the public rarely takes an interest.

          1. Having worked in that industry I’ve seen firsthand some shocking projects. The worst involved removing close to 100 acres of native wetland shrubs to, and this is the weird part, restore the wetland habitat. This isn’t some isolated wetland but is directly connected to Lake Superior by way of a major river.

            Today, students in ecology classes in this area are being told that a species X or Y or Z doesn’t belong and must be gotten rid of. Other criteria include whether or not someone thinks it is a pretty plant. Both are highly subjective ways of measuring. What is “doesn’t belong”? What is “a pretty plant vs and ugly plant”? Arguments from an economic point are also suspect. How much of the effect is tied to agriculture? What difference does it make if purple loose-strife grows in some swamp where there is no economic interest? How is phragmites really affecting a river that is already seriously degraded by dredging, piers, and a dam that altered the cyclical spring floods? Now there is talk of killing all cattails because of hybridization between Typha latifolia and T. angustifolia, introgression, and a hybrid swarm that cannot be untangled. Therefore, all cattails are now alien invaders.

            Restoration and mitigation projects and requirements are like extortion (as you point out) and I think cause harm to the environment. They allow some perfectly good natural habitat to be degraded beyond recognition if a restoration project is undertaken somewhere else. Wetlands can be destroyed IF you “replace” them by building new wetlands.Almost always the replacement is on an upland site which is destroyed in the process. Weeds quickly move in to the disturbed soils and years of herbicide application follow.

            I think, as you say, that this won’t end until taxpayers are made aware of the waste of money these projects cause and how they permit more damage to the environment than they fix.

            That’s interesting about the toyon being infected and spreading the infection. I have not seen anything like that happen here but I have seen non-native (European) varieties of species planted as “native” in restoration projects (it’s too late then) and the introduction of grass species from prairie states into grassy openings in boreal forests thus increasing the fire risk in a forest type already prone to burning.

          2. PLEASE write a guest post for Million Trees about your experience with “restoration” projects. There is no substitute for direct experience, especially when accompanied by before and after pictures. The readers of Million Trees are very receptive to guest posts. They help people to understand what we are up against. It’s not just a problem in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a problem EVERYWHERE.

  2. I read the article and “a symptom, not a cause” stuck out. I also was smiling at the horsetail reference, how Roundup does not kill it which it doesn’t, but I had no idea it actual made it bigger and stronger. It really does point out how much we interfere on both sides of the issue.

    1. Invasion biology seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. The more pesticide we use, the more quickly the target evolves resistance to it. Some of the target species will survive the poisoning because of the genetic variation that ensures a range of vulnerability in the total population. Those individuals that survive will provide the genetic material for the next generation, so that each successive generation that is poisoned will be that much stronger against the next dose. In effect, we are breeding super weeds and super insects. Evolution dooms both methods of eradicating species, i.e., pesticides and biocontrols. These facts about evolution are not a secret, but the manufacturers of pesticides and biocontrols have succeeded in preventing this information from being widely known. The media laps up whatever story-line the corporations and the non-profit foundations they create to carry their message and few in the media know enough science to critically evaluate what they are being told.

      Add to that toxic mix that the public is told that pesticides are required to produce our food at the prices we can pay and what you get is a public that is largely blindfolded to the fact that we are poisoning ourselves needlessly.

  3. Wow, this is one of those stories that 20-30 years ago would have put a company like Monsanto on the ropes. What a travesty that the “environmental movement” has capitulated and, in my opinion, is using ‘Invasion biology” to try to find relevance in a world that desperately needs help.

    1. Just creating new markets, Dave. Like any red-blooded American company would. Running out of customers? Just convince someone new that they need what you are selling. Then you help those new customers to sell it to their buyers, etc., etc. In this case, the buyer is the American taxpayer. Where are the tax-averse Republicans when you need them? Why haven’t they identified this particular boondoggle?

  4. Who is over seeing the logging of Tilden? Saw piles of wood chips, 24″ or more, with feathers sticking out of it. this can only mean one thing. what about the mitigations monitoring, if there are any?
    So barbaric to kill birds like Night Herons and Owls in this way ( or to kill them at all)!
    if they want less fire hazards how about not allowing BBQ’s in Tilden and banning smoking?
    color me sad and disgusted at the SC for actually promoting the logging and spraying of round up. Who is paying them off??

    1. The logging in Tilden Park is being done by the East Bay Regional Park District. Tilden Park is one of their properties. Their “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” was approved in 2011 and they have been destroying trees on their properties since then. They have Measure CC funding which was approved by voters to complete most of those projects. Only about 600 of the 1,600 acres covered by their plan will be funded by FEMA and that portion of their projects is on hold pending resolution of two lawsuits against the FEMA projects.

      You can help us by expressing your opinion of the project in Tilden Park. Go to this website: http://www.saveeastbayhills.org/take-action.html. Click on the “Take Action” page. You will see a list of the officials who are responsible for these projects. Write to those who are responsible for East Bay Regional Parks District. If you live in Oakland, you should also tell your Council representative what you think of these projects.

      If you haven’t already signed the petition to the Sierra Club, you can click on the purple button on this website to sign the petition. You can also write to the Sierra Club to tell them what you think of their support for these projects: info@sfbaysc.org

      Thanks for your interest in this issue.

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