Thursday, April 24, 2014

Two ways to fight invasive plants

Two ways to fight invasive plants

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio | MP3 download

What’s wrong with garlic mustard? Ask Marilyn Leger, and she’ll tell you that no plant is bad, but that garlic mustard is one of many plants that can produce bad effects when people establish them in the wrong place. And natural areas in Illinois are definitely the wrong place for garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard was brought to North America by European immigrants in the 1860s as a culinary herb, but by the late twentieth century it proved to be one of the worst plants ever introduced in the northeast and Midwest. Left alone, garlic mustard crowds out native plants, which can lead to any number of bad effects, from depriving insects and the animals that eat them of an important food source, to depriving birds of the cover they need for nesting, and more.

Leger is co chair of the Invasive Plant Task Force, a committee of the east central Illinois Master Naturalist Program. The task force also works toward change in the policies and behaviors that promote the spread of invasive plants, and combats invasive plants through direct action.

Currently, it is conducting the fourth annual Great Garlic Mustard Hunt, a weeks-long series of opportunities for volunteers to help control garlic mustard in natural areas by pulling the plants. (It’s important to do that in the spring, while the ground is soft and before they go to seed.)

[Photo by Marilyn Leger. Past Great Garlic Mustard Hunt participants, left to right: John McWilliams, Nathan Hudson, Eileen Borgia, Mike Daab, Cindy Strehlow, Susan Campbell. At Homer Lake Forest Preserve.]

Last year’s hunt involved more than 150 participants, who together removed more than seven tons of garlic mustard from sites including Allerton Park near Monticello, Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

Unfortunately, pulling garlic mustard is a rearguard action. It is nearly impossible eradicate weedy plants once they become invasive, despite the good will and hard work of dedicated volunteers. The most effective way to fight the establishment of invasive, exotic plants is through effective regulation at the state and national levels.

For thoughts on that, I turned to Fran Harty, who is currently a director of special projects with the Nature Conservancy Illinois. In a former role with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Harty was among those who in the 1980s helped call attention to the widespread problems caused by purposeful introductions of exotic species in the state, and developed strategies for dealing with them.

For intentional introductions such as landscaping plants or biofuels, which are planted widely, Harty suggests that the cost of early detection, eradication, and control of invasive exotic species be “taken off the shoulders of the taxpayer and placed where it belongs, with the purveyor.”

His sense of a business model that would work best in the case of intentional introductions is for the purveyor to pay to the state an up front, irrevocable  “environmental insurance bond” as a cost of doing business. Money generated by these bonds would go into a “biosecurity” fund, which would be invested and used to pay the costs associated with monitoring and handling the consequences of widespread introductions that go awry.

Harty reasons that purveyors who want to introduce exotic species would be highly selective in their decisions about what plants to try if they were required to pay a significant amount up front, say $500,000 per species. If a $500,000 bond seems high, Harty points out, consider that it represents miniscule percentage of the $7.7 billion U.S. taxpayers spend every year to control invasive species.

Check the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist facebook page for details:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Field expedition to Costa Rica provides students rich opportunities

Field expedition to Costa Rica provides students rich opportunities

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio | MP3 download

Over the recent spring break, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with a colleague and a class of 21 U of I undergraduates. Our mission: experience how the concepts students explore as majors in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability play out in a nation that occupies only about 35 percent of the land area of Illinois.

In one class meeting prior to the trip, we had learned about coral reefs from graduate students working under UI professor Bruce Fouke: the complexity of coral organisms, the diversity of life reefs support, their sensitivity to changing conditions (especially the acidification taking place as oceans absorb the increasing amounts of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere) and more.

On the Caribbean coast at Cahuita, we spent a morning snorkeling to observe a living reef. Seeing a stingray close up was a highlight for many in the group, but even those of us who missed that enjoyed the opportunity to look upon living coral and swim among tropical fish sporting a wide range of vibrant colors. 

Before the trip we got a crash course (with Powerpoint) in the geology of Central America from SESE director and professor of geology Steve Marshak. Through that we learned how the isthmus connecting the north and south of the New World arose, and why it’s the site of so much volcanic activity.

[Photos by author. Above, Anibal Torres explains how coffee is grown on a conventional plantation; below, Oldemar Salazar fields a student question about growing coffee sustainably at his organic and shade-grown farm.]

In Costa Rica, we hiked a flank of Arenal volcano, the best known of the country’s six active volcanoes, and the one that’s been the most trouble since a massive, surprise eruption in 1968. On Arenal, our local guide provided detailed accounts of the volcano’s eruptions, gesturing toward relevant parts of the mountainside with a stick, which he also used to draw very effective diagrams in the sandy soil at our feet.

And then there were the coffee plantations. We saw first a conventional operation, which bore one sort of beauty. It was “clean” in the way a typical cornfield in Illinois is—straight, evenly spaced rows with little growing other than the crop that yields direct economic benefit.

Later the same day, we visited a place where “shade grown” coffee comes from, and we experienced beauty of a different sort altogether. The pleasingly complex scene there included coffee bushes, of course, but also various bananas, oranges and other fruits, as well as native overstory trees. Surrounded by the diversity of life in that environment, it was easy for me to understand why the farmer (our guide) responded “a day picking coffee” when a student asked what part of his work was most satisfying.

Beyond our field experiences in Costa Rica, we were also treated to classroom time with some amazing people.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of our trip was the opportunity to sit with Marvin Rockwell and hear him tell the story of how four Alabama members of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers) established a settlement at Monteverde in the early 1950s. That settlement has benefited conservation in Costa Rica and the wider world in innumerable ways, and Rockwell, now 91, was one of the people who went to incredible lengths to make it happen.
Credit for the success of this trip goes to my colleague in the School of Earth, Society and Environment, Anna Nesbitt, who collaborated with Anibal Torres from the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica to put it together. Our students and I owe them both a great debt of gratitude.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Now is the time to catch woodland wildflower show in Illinois

Now is the time to catch woodland wildflower show in Illinois

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio | MP3 download

The beauty of a single Virginia bluebell would be enough to draw me out to Allerton Park this month. But I am all the more compelled to go when I think of bluebells in context of the extended wildflower show that takes place each spring in the woodlands of Illinois.

It begins with a prelude in February, when skunk cabbage takes the stage. An unconventional beauty, perhaps best appreciated by botanists and the carrion flies that pollinate it, skunk cabbage generates its own heat, enabling it to grow right through the frosty soil of late winter.

The show gains momentum in March, as two prettier flowers make their entrance: Snow trillium, named for the fact it sometimes appears through the snow, and sharp-lobed hepatica, whose other name, liverleaf, calls attention to the deep reddish brown color taken on by its leaves as they persist through the winter. [Upper photo, sharp-lobed hepatica; lower, bloodroot. Both taken by author at U of I Allerton Park near Monticello.]

Over the course of April, another ten or more players fill the scene. Among them are bloodroot, whose inch-and-a-half wide white flowers bloom only for a day; Dutchman’s breeches, whose flowers resemble, well, you know; and spring beauty, a flower that makes up for being tiny by being numerous, and tolerating a wide range of growing conditions.

The show reaches its climax in early May, at which time an observer might count more than a dozen species flowering at once. These include idiosyncratic stars who may be more widely recognized by name than appearance, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and blue-eyed Mary among them. In May, the woodland flower show retains none of its earlier subtlety, and the hiker who didn’t think to look for skunk cabbage or who overlooked hepatica blooming cannot help but pause at the sight of a bottomland forest carpeted in Virginia bluebells.

The Illinois woodland wildflower show winds down in June, as the trees above leaf out completely to claim the sun’s energy for themselves, and most of the players quietly disappear from the stage once the work of producing seeds is done. Although they are out of sight, they persist underground as bulbs or other structures, awaiting their cues the following year.

For me, the beauty of woodland wildflowers exceeds that of flowers “improved” for gardens by human art precisely because it developed without regard for our tastes, and because it is out there free for people to enjoy wherever they have access to intact wooded areas.

Of course, how Illinois’ woodland flowers fare in the future depends largely on how well we treat our woodlands. Few woodland flowers can be restored to an area once they have been eliminated by intentive logging, grazing or other development, so it is crucial to protect habitats where they still thrive. It is equally important that people maintain the existing quality of woodlands by helping to keep in check the exotic invasive plants that might otherwise overrun them.

Where to look

In Piatt County, the trails at Allerton Park and Lodge Park offer excellent opportunities for finding woodland flowers, but residents of Champaign-Urbana need go no further than Busey Woods to get a taste of what’s out there. In Vermilion County, try the Forest Glen Preserve, or any of mature woodlands within the state and county natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.