Vicki Holmberg


This September, ten years after 9/11, our nation commemorated an event that left us wounded and searching for the best course of action. Preventing additional terrorism during that decade demanded extra manpower and resources, thinning the USDA and diverting its agents to the new Homeland Security Department. Other enemies, in the form of exotic species, exploited this window of opportunity. Like all successful invaders, they operated with stealth and cunning, catching us off guard and guaranteeing shocking losses, compounding the damages of earlier exotic arrivals, ongoing habitat loss and climate change.

In October 2011, using the FOIA*, the Associated Press revealed that border inspections and interceptions were in disarray or diminished during that crucial decade after 2001, resulting in more than triple the number of dangerous pests entering the US through ports and shipments that lacked proper scrutiny. Predictably, our temperate coastal regions suffered early, particularly Florida and California, owing to the vulnerability of the citrus industry. Subsequent efforts to eradicate these species are expensive- California alone spent over 80 million dollars this year-and inefficient, requiring harsh chemicals, further damaging native wildlife, land and water.

A list of particularly aggressive pests includes the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a destroyer of forests. Sequestered in inadequately treated wood shipping pallets, these insects came here from Asia. Lacking the predatory wasps that co-evolved with them, borers may eventually kill several billion ash trees in the United States, profoundly affecting the timber industry and the character of our forests and woodlots. The EAB was found in Kentucky in 2009, but lack of funding and focus means that few ash trees will be treated in time. Anticipating this slow motion catastrophe, scientists at the USDA are banking ash tree seeds with the hope of eventual restoration.

Homeland Security has acknowledged these errors, and now recognizes the importance of biological and food security; but many states are facing overwhelming tasks of restoring croplands, waterways and forests, with costs being estimated at over 120 billion USD annually.1 Movingly, the site of the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial will resemble a woodland glade. The building footprints will be “a clearing in the forest,” where landscape designers have planted hundreds of trees, notably the swamp white oak, whose roots will grow laterally in a unique base of man-made soil. A New York native, this tree will tolerate the winter well and thrive in the humid heat of the summer.

In retrospect, we could look at the recent events as an acceleration of the trend that started when Europeans arrived here; indeed, whenever mankind began traveling long distances, taking living things along, knowingly or accidentally. A number of plant species have been introduced as ornamental specimens or for practical though short-sighted reasons, subsequently escaping cultivation, and many are  still being  sold by  nurseries. In the past, physical limits were provided by the slow pace of transportation, the lower intensity of cultivated regions, or by the vastness of undeveloped areas. Now, such limits have been nearly eradicated.

Although the effects of invasive exotic species on fishing, agriculture and industry are more quantifiable, the effects on biodiversity and the health and stability of natural systems are surely as great. Impairments are obvious when invasive aquatic plants, such as Hydrilla, clog and foul waterways, leading to higher purification costs; or losses may be more subtle, as when garlic mustard plants overcome a Kentucky  forest floor, lessening the value of such lands to the photographer, bird watcher or wildflower enthusiast – not to mention the biotic losses

Disillusioned by the ability of the federal government to protect them with instruments such as the 1974 Noxious Weeds Act, states and cities are mobilizing, albeit with halting steps.

KCC’s Biodiversity Committee looked at many examples of other states in preparation for the Annual Meeting, where an expert panel discussed the options for stepping up the Commonwealth’s policies for controlling invasive plant species and for facilitating coordination between private and public efforts, such as those relating to right of way management and codes of conduct in landscaping. Not content with retreat, we also examined how native species can be promoted and supported proactively, in their own right- offsetting habitat loss- by reincorporating natives into the fabric of our economic and cultural traditions. An example of such positive and hopeful research is being done at Kentucky State University (KSU), notably by Dr. Kirk Pomper, on the pawpaw tree (Asimina). This Kentucky native tree has a number of superb characteristics, including an impressive nutritional profile in the tropical-tasting fruit, as well as value in urban landscaping and medical research. The sole host plant for the iconic Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly, the Pawpaw’s delicate beauty belies its toughness. The same bitter chemicals that make the tree virtually inedible for most insects and deer, provide substances that are already known to inhibit tumor formation, and are subjects of intense scientific interest. Yet the tree is threatened in some northern states.

KCC interviewed the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association (OPGA) at their annual meeting, to gain insight into the trees’ commercial potential. Growers sell the fruit, seasonally popular, and feature a number of cottage industry products in a popular yearly festival. As a representative of OPGA said, “A number of well-known specialty juice companies are interested, but they want to start with ten thousand gallons of frozen pawpaw pulp.” These pioneers, these entrepreneurs, are determined to find ways to grow cultivars of the fruit on a larger scale, to purchase equipment, to accommodate the short harvest season, and to rise to the challenge of creating a viable chain of production and processing.


In KCC’s next newsletter, we will present part two of this article, following up  the November 5th, KCC Annual Meeting panel discussion and describing a plan of  further action, based on our findings.

•  FOIA, Freedom of Information Act


1 Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., and D. Morrison. 2005. Update on the environmental and economic cost associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological Economics 52. pp 273-288.