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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 12, 2010

Invasion of the environment snatchers

People laughed five years ago when we pictured a “weed warrior” on our front page.

Robert Price was cutting purple loosestrife from the roadside in Knox. For years, Price, the town’s planning board chairman, had asked the town to do something about the invasive plant; in 2005, the Knox Town Board unanimously voted to remove loosestrife from town roads and to encourage residents to do the same from their property.

Invasive species — plants, insects, fish — are rapidly gaining ground as global travel and trade increase. Just this month, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced that the emerald ash borer, a tree-killing beetle, has made its way to the Catskill Forest Preserve.

“This should be a wake-up call for everyone who enjoys New York’s forests and woodlands,” said the DEC commissioner, Peter Grannis in a statement. “We know that the transportation of firewood causes the spread of this destructive pest, so everyone should do their part to protect our trees: Don’t transport firewood. Buy your wood locally.”

The emerald ash borer, which has killed millions of ash trees in North America since it was first found in Michigan in 2002, is just one of a number of destructive invasive insects. The Asian longhorned beetle kills mature trees by feeding on the heartwood; the hemlock woody adelgid, also from Asia, kills hemlock trees by depriving them of nutrients; and the sirex woodwasp kills pine trees by injecting toxic mucous in bark while laying eggs.

Some invasive plants, like the giant hogweed, which traveled to New York from the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas, is poisonous to humans who touch it, and can cause scarring and blindness.

The harm caused by alien species — those that have come from other parts of the world to flourish here — is not always so obvious as with the giant hogweed or the West Nile virus. But many invasive species, even those that aren’t directly harmful to human health, can cause harm to the environment.  They disrupt natural ecosystems and threaten biodiversity. They tend to spread rapidly since they aren’t hampered by their natural predators.

An invasive species that has just recently arrived in our midst is the zebra mussel, which is breeding in Thompsons Lake in the Helderbergs. The zebra mussel from the Caspian Sea in Eurasia first showed up in North America over 20 years ago; it is thought to have been carried down the St. Lawrence Seaway on ships in ballast water and so entered the Great Lakes.

We suspect careless boaters who didn’t clean their crafts brought the zebra mussel to Thompsons Lake. Now, as the mussels multiply, swimmers who frequent the state park will risk cutting themselves. As important as the threat to human health, though, is the threat to environmental health. The invasive mussels will eventually drain Thompsons Lake of the nutrients on which its native species feed.

But there is hope on the horizon because a team of scientists at the New York State Museum has been working for two decades to develop a biological weapon to kill the zebra mussels.

The team screened over 700 strains of bacteria to find one that would kill zebra mussels; the scientists discovered such a soil microbe in 1995 and tested it to be sure it doesn’t kill other aquatic life. The compound, marketed as Zequanox, is now being commercially developed by a company in California. Zequanox will be used instead of chemical compounds to kill the mussels that are clogging power plants. Clogged piping systems had billions of dollars of impact, which made the research financially worthwhile.

The chemicals that power plants had been using to clear their pipes killed everything, not just the mussels, and, when the chemicals flowed into natural waterways, the chlorinated compounds interacted with the organic compounds, producing carcinogens.

While a biological weapon, carefully tested, is an ideal solution since it doesn’t wreak havoc on the natural environment, funding is rarely available for such solutions. This one has an industrial use that makes it marketable.

The federal government has come up with no overarching legislation to deal with the issue of invasive species, nor has it funded a program to inhibit their spread.

Individual states are developing their own solutions and we commend the New York Invasive Species Council for its work. The council released a report in June, recommending a regulatory system to prevent importing or releasing non-native species. For the first time, New York would have carefully thought-out lists of invasive species.

The report sets up a useful tiered system that would prohibit some species, regulate others, and list still other non-native species as not being in need of regulation. It also would set up a procedure to review non-native species that haven’t been classified.

The report gives examples that make the system easy to understand and the need for it clear. The autumn olive, for example, would be prohibited because it is highly invasive and has low economic benefits as an ornamental landscaping plant.

However, timothy, a non-native grass used for livestock forage, would be unregulated. Its score for invasive ranking is “medium”; it has high economic benefits for its value as hay for horses and cultural benefits from the perspectives of history, heritage, and aesthetics, the reports says.

The council’s report goes on to recommend that the provisions of the prohibited and regulated lists be codified into Environmental Conservation Law; Agriculture and Markets Law; and Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law so they can be enforced by those agencies. Further, it recommends, “Fines and other penalties should be sufficient to serve as a deterrent and should clearly outweigh any economic benefit that would result from successful commerce in invasive plants or animals.”

We support the recommendations of the New York Invasive Species Council. It will take a concerted effort to hold at bay the ill effects of invasive species.

As the National Invasive Species Council has stressed, prevention is the first line of defense against invasive species. While we wait for the often slow and laborious process of legislation to catch up with sensible and even essential policy, we urge individuals to push the process along and, at the same time, to work on prevention.

Be a “weed warrior” yourself; eradicate troublesome non-native plants when you come across them on your property. If you’re a boater, follow the recommendations outlined by the DEC to carefully clean your craft before putting it in new waters. If you’re a camper, heed the words of Commissioner Grannis and buy your firewood locally.

The commissioner called the arrival of the emerald ash bore in the Catskills a wake-up call. Actually, the alarm has been sounding for a long time. The public just needs to hear it, stop hitting the “snooze” button, and take action.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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