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Managing Invasive Species: Breaking open the poisons doesn't make us safer

Published January 3, 2006 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."

- RACHEL CARSON

Silent Spring, 1962

It is so easy to foul up an ecosystem. It is so hard to fix it again.

In fact, it may be impossible.

That's the dilemma the Bureau of Land Management faces as it drafts plans to attack some of the "invasive species" of plants that are altering the landscape of the American West.

Rapidly spreading non-native flora such as cheat grass, tamarisk and Russian olive have taken over rangelands, dried up streams and made land inhospitable for animals that have lived there for centuries.

As the name of their agency mandates, BLM officials seek to manage that situation by trying various means to remove those squatters from public land.

But the whole concept of management, a term usually associated with directing human beings, may be just as foreign to local ecosystems as any of the offending plants. And deliberately trying to transplant that human concept to the natural world could be at least as destructive as any invading species.

Proposed techniques of eliminating, or limiting, invasive species include, but are not limited to, aerial spraying of herbicides. And that, understandably, is always a red flag to environmentalists who remember the days when saturating both wild areas and human habitations with poisons was an unfortunate habit of Americans.

The reason that pesticides got such a bad name, starting with Silent Spring and continuing through the ban on DDT, is not that they don't have a purpose, but that they were used indiscriminately, in huge amounts, often in places where they did no good.

The amount of poison needed to kill off, or even manage, stands of invading plants that already have a beachhead in the West stands to be huge. And huge amounts of pesticides generally don't stay where they are put, migrating through the water system, the food chain, all the way up to humans.

Reserving the right to object, all of us should keep an eye on the plans the BLM finally adopts for this problem. And we should make sure that the agency isn't allowed to attack a possibly insoluble problem by poisoning whole ecosystems just to claim they've done something.