What if we looked beyond the notion of invasive species as enemies, and instead harnessed them for beneficial uses?
Beyond the War on Invasive Species offers just such a bold alternative to the chemical and intensive eradication efforts, one that is holistic and inspired by permaculture principles.
First-time author Tao Orion makes a compelling case that we need to manage invasive species for beneficial uses, such as food, medicine, compost, nectar for bees, bioremediation, and more.
Invasive species are too often perceived as threats, resulting in an ongoing war that unleashes a steady arsenal of bulldozers, chainsaws, and herbicides with the goal of complete destruction. Meanwhile, the colliding effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and changes in land use and management practices go overlooked as possible causes of this proliferation.
Orion urges readers to look beyond the idealized notion of restoration, and to embrace nurturing practices that can create conditions in which all life can thrive.
In the following interview with Chelsea Green, Orion tackles one of the core topics of her book: Why has the eradication of “invasive species” become such an ingrained part of conservation, gardening, and agriculture? Also, at the end of this interview, check out a list of all the invasive species profiled in her book and the regions where they thrive.
A Conversation with Tao Orion
CG: Why have we been led to believe that all invasives are bad and must be eradicated at all costs? But, what are those costs to our ecology, our health, and even our economy?
TO: The concept that there are ‘bad actors’ in nature that can be controlled with the addition of chemicals is prevalent in the conventional agriculture model. ‘Pests’ like insects, non-crop plants (‘weeds’), and diseases are treated with a vast array of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other biocides with the belief that removing these organisms is a necessary part of growing food. However, as many organic farmers know, the prevalence of any of these organisms is not necessarily due to the fact that the ‘pest’ is present on the farm, but that it finds suitable habitat there – whether that be stressed plants susceptible to disease, low organic matter, or overtilled soil. None of these conditions are solved by the addition of pesticides, thus the concept that they can be sprayed out of existence is irrational from a whole systems perspective. However, strong corporate interests reap huge financial returns from marketing this very concept, and these same interests are at work in the field of ecological restoration and have promoted the notion that invasive species are ‘bad actors’ in parks, wetlands, forests, and other natural areas.
When it comes to food, many people are aware of the potential dangers of pesticide exposure and choose to purchase organically grown products. I don’t think many people are aware that some organizations involved in ecological restoration and maintenance of public areas like parks use the same chemicals – including glyphosate, 2,4-D, and Imazapyr – in the hopes of controlling plants and animals considered invasive. These chemicals have serious health effects on humans and other creatures, and the fact that they are used as a means to ‘restore’ ecosystems requires close scrutiny. Ecological restoration should be grounded in holistic, ecologically rational practices instead of a conventionally-based, pesticide industry-sponsored approach.
CG: In his foreword, David Holmgren writes, “In the process of asking the questions about how best to restore nature, Orion exposes a deep ethical corruption at the heart of both ecological science and the environmental movement.” What is this ethical corruption, and what are the questions that we should all be asking as it relates to restoration?
TO: The “ethical corruption” that Holmgren describes is the dangerous trend in the science of invasion and restoration ecology to narrowly focus on restoration as a practice of attempting to return certain ecosystems to an idealized former state. This concept paints invasive and novel organisms as disruptive to ecosystems, and tends to miss the bigger picture of how ecosystems have changed and are constantly changing in response to human and non-human impacts upon them. That large conservation and restoration organizations like The Nature Conservancy are allied with pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto, which have essentially manufactured the war on invasive species for their own financial benefit, is something that we have to think about very closely. This approach for managing species invasions does little to restore ecological functionality, especially on a larger scale.
Restoration as a practice also tends to focus efforts on certain landscapes and not others – restoration is generally not part of the planning process of planting an 8,000 acre field of soybeans, clear cutting a forest for plywood, planning a housing development, or adding lanes to a highway. However, ecosystem services and the organisms they support are heavily affected by agriculture, forestry, and urban/suburban development, and the way that these activities are carried out deserve at least as much scrutiny for their role in degrading ecological function as do novel species.
Invasive species are perhaps an easy target for identifying changing ecosystems, and I think many people would rather ecosystems stay the same. We mourn the loss of biodiversity and habitat destruction, but can feel powerless to do anything about it. That restoration as a practice has become so focused on eliminating invasive species, while not addressing or working on changing standard operating procedures of world biodiversity loss – agriculture, forestry, urban/suburban development, etc. – means that “restoration” as we know it is misguided. If we desire landscapes rich with diverse native species, then we have to design our lives in ways that meet this goal.
CG: Why has this habitat restoration model lasted for so long, especially given what we know about some of the chemicals that are contained in herbicides? Not to mention, the use of fossil fuels to power dump trucks, bulldozers, and other land-clearing equipment?
TO: I think the marketing undertaken by pesticide manufacturers has been very effective in constructing the concept of invasive species, as well as in convincing people that herbicides are safe and benign substances, and necessary for the restoration of native plant communities. The eradication ideology knows no bounds in terms of the tools that are put to use in order to achieve the narrow and short-sighted goals of invasive species removal. I believe many people in the industry are uncomfortable with these practices, and question their efficacy, but still believe that invasive species are ‘bad’ and must be removed at all costs. When placed into a larger context, it becomes apparent that there is more to the story of invasive species, and the conventional approach to restoration starts to seem inadequate at best.
CG: Do you ever find it necessary to remove an invasive plant, and if so, what is your approach – both in terms of removing the plant, and how you manage the overall ecosystem?
TO: Yes, I deal with invasive species all the time, and remove them as part of a larger management strategy on my farm. I have several large patches of Himalayan Blackberry on my site, and am slowly transforming them into more productive and diverse plantings. The largest one has been home to two rotations of pigs, and this winter after noticing that they had eaten a good portion of the roots, we terraced the area, planted blueberries, and sowed a thick perennial clover cover crop beneath the blueberry plants. There are still a few canes resprouting (down from several thousand), but these are easily clipped or pulled out. So, we mimicked the ecological functions that the blackberry canes were serving – slope stabilization, erosion control, bird habitat, nectar and pollen for pollinators, and fruit resources for birds and mammals – with our own more diverse and productive mixture of plants. I take a similar approach with Scotch Broom – use its prolific nitrogen-rich biomass as mulch for fruit and nut trees. Its proliferation is a sign that the ecosystem where it grows is tending towards forest, and we can hasten and direct that process towards diverse and abundant ends.
Anytime I plan on removing an invasive species, I think less about taking it away, and more about what I can add to the system that accomplishes what the ‘invader’ is doing in a manner that makes the ecosystem even more resilient, diverse, and productive. In some cases, such as in more difficult to manage areas like waterways, invasive species are really the best things going in heavily degraded ecosystems. Consider how zebra mussels are removing PCBS, heavy metals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the water of the Great Lakes. Native mussels can’t survive in those conditions, so we should be glad that something is there doing it. In this case, I wouldn’t seek to remove the mussels, but consider how I could enhance their effectiveness so that over time, the lakes can once again host a wide array of diverse aquatic organisms.
Invasive Species profiles (and their regions) from Beyond the War on Invasive Species
Orion put together this handy list of invasive species (a list that’s not in the book itself), and the regions they are located. Do you recognize any of the plants here? If so, Orion’s approach offers a new way of working with these plants, rather than trying to exterminate them – and likely other species – in the process.
Kudzu – Southeastern U.S. through North Carolina Salt Cedar – Colorado River and Southwestern U.S. Asian Carp – Mississippi River, Chicago area Zebra Mussels – Great Lakes Spartina – Coastal California, Oregon, and Washington (particularly Puget Sound/Willapa Bay area) Japanese Honeysuckle – Mid-Atlantic states Garlic Mustard – Northeastern U.S. Scotch Broom – Pacific Northwest and Northern California Emerald Ash Borer – Northern Midwest to Northeastern States and Quebec Tree of Heaven – Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. Star Thistle – California and Southern Oregon Giant Reed – Southern California Cheat Grass – Eastern Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana Spotted Knapweed – North and South Dakota, Montana Cane Toads – Australia Brown Tree Snakes – Guam Japanese Knotweed – Pacific Northwest and Northeastern U.S. Barred Owl – Northern California and Pacific Northwest Himalayan Blackberry – Northern California and Pacific Northwest Strawberry Guava – Hawaii Water Hyacinth – Florida Albizia (Silk Tree) – Hawaii Yellow Lupine – Central and Northern California Coast Multiflora Rose – Midwestern to Mid-Atlantic states Sea Buckthorn – Northern Midwest states Russian Olive – Southwest