Letter from Washington — From the September 2015 issue

Weed Whackers

Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species

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On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Photographs of eucalyptus trees in California by Chad Ress

Photographs of eucalyptus trees in California by Chad Ress

California native-plant partisans are a committed lot, and not only in their dislike of eucalyptus trees. Many of them are influential in local government, and they yearn to restore the treeless “native” grassland that greeted the first European settlers of the Bay Area in 1769. (For centuries, Native Americans had cleared the trees to facilitate hunting.) Thus the romantic Monterey cypress is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department — even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives. The cypress is not the only item on the nativist hit list. Over the next few years, more than 450,000 trees in Oakland, Berkeley, and neighboring areas are due to be destroyed in the name of “wildfire-risk reduction.”

Defining “native” and “invasive” in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years. The National Invasive Species Council defines the enemy as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” But the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed such notions as “romantic drivel.” Natives, he wrote, are simply “those organisms that first happened to gain and keep a footing,” and he ridiculed the suggestion that early arrivals “learn to live in ecological harmony with [their] surroundings, while later interlopers tend to be exploiters.”

Even so, anti-invasive ideology is prevalent across the country, from university biology departments to wildlife bureaucracies to garden clubs. In Virginia, where I spend part of my time, a nice lady from the Virginia Native Plant Society told me that her idea of a truly natural landscape was the one viewed by the Jamestown settlers in 1607. To that end, she sternly urged me to uproot my yellow-blossomed forsythia (of Balkan origin) and replace it with a “good native shrub.” In Texas, George W. Bush used to devote much of his presidential vacation time to destroying the tamarisk trees — reviled Eurasian imports — that grew on his ranch. Many states maintain invasive-plant councils (and sometimes exotic-pest-plant councils) to monitor and eradicate alien invaders. Last year, the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council gave its annual Certificate of Excellence to two forest rangers who had detected a small patch of cogongrass — an invasive unwittingly imported from Asia in packing crates, which the Vietnamese call “American weed,” because it spread on land defoliated by Agent Orange.

As it happens, an erstwhile supplier of Agent Orange, the Monsanto Company, also manufactures America’s most popular remedy for cogongrass: glyphosate. The active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and many other weed killers, glyphosate is the weapon of choice for battling all sorts of invaders. A 2014 study by the California Invasive Plant Council found that more than 90 percent of the state’s land managers used the compound, which is particularly recommended as a slayer of eucalyptus trees. Discussing Phragmites australis, the reed found in wetlands throughout the country, Massachusetts conservation officials similarly tout this “effective” weed killer. Pennsylvania urges glyphosate’s deployment against purple loosestrife, while Illinois recommends it for Japanese knotweed. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries prescribes it for cogongrass but warns that “multiple applications for full control” may be required.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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