Thursday, January 3, 2013

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Another new year is upon us, complete with a significant percentage of the population vowing to implement new years' resolutions, from lifestyle changes that take off the extra pounds gained from holiday festivities and age, to those pledging more time to volunteer and help those in need.

I've always been somewhat ambivalent about the new year - it seems like if something needs to be done, we have the capacity within each of us to do it "now," not wait until a certain date on the calendar. Why even talk about falling off a fiscal cliff when we can make a decision months in advance that prevents the cliff from ever forming? Do we need the threat of a catastrophe to act? In some arenas, apparently so.

We see the need for a crisis in order to act play out time and again in the invasive species arena. We don't realize we've got a garlic mustard problem in one part of the state until several hundred acres of garlic mustard "suddenly" appear on the landscape. Quagga and zebra mussels, first introduced in the Great Lakes region of the country, suddenly jump several states, appear in a different region of the country, and remain a threat to places like the Pacific Northwest, despite what we know about how this species moves. Japanese beetles invade our state on an annual basis, threatening our nursery and agricultural industries (not to mention my back yard gardening), yet in 2012, the Oregon Invasive Species Council had to declare an "emergency" to find funds to fill the gap and allow treatment programs to occur. And feral swine, a species on the global 100 Worst List of invasive species, continue to spread across North America, while we give birth to television shows that celebrate their presence, such as "Hogs Gone Wild." Given our understanding of invasive species pathways and vectors, we should not have these recurring episodes. It's like Groundhog Day playing itself out over and over again.

We're missing the forest for the trees. We often forget the most important part of the invasive species equation is people. Of all the issues associated with natural resource management, the human dimensions aspect is the most challenging and unpredictable, yet offers the most hope and our greatest chance for success. In other words, we're the problem -- and we're the solution.

We make investments in one stretch of a watershed, while ignoring the fact that new invaders from upstream areas will inevitably set back those initial investments. We point fingers at other regions of the country, saying "They're the problem". We don't acknowledge the tradeoffs that must occur with global commerce -- and set aside adequate funds to pay for treatment programs to eradicate species that are introduced on a regular basis. We try to make good of a bad situation and create short-term economic benefits by selling wild hog hunts (illegal in Oregon), spawning a recreational "opportunity" from what is, quite literally, an ecological disaster. Or we put all of our eggs in one basket, claiming one particular invasive species is and will be the greatest threat ever to our state and region, lessening our ability to communicate the need to deal with high risk species in the future.

What we haven't done is take a step back, remove ourselves from the emotional struggles and hard work that comes along with dealing with invasive species, analyze the human dimensions aspects of each of these issues, and then take strategic steps to prevent them from recurring. Sure, we need more funding and more resources for invasive species prevention -- no argument here. But we especially need to focus on effective positive behavioral changes in people -- and do so by modeling good behavior.

  • An "A" listed noxious weed in Oregon wouldn't suddenly appear in a patch spanning hundreds of acres if Oregon had a healthy statewide early detection rapid response program that engages people in rural and urban areas alike to watch for and then report suspected sightings of these high risk species. We can do a better job of informing the public about high risk species, and creating the infrastructure for them to report and for experts to respond.
  • We can prevent the introduction of quagga and zebra mussels from invading the Pacific Northwest if we work collaboratively with our neighbors already under siege, developing a multi-pronged approach that focuses on pathways and vectors -- and that could serve as a model for how we deal regionally with invasive species issues. 
  • If we accept the fact that global commerce is important to Oregon's economy (and few would doubt that, despite a healthy "buy local" perspective), then we need to convene the industries that unwillingly transport these hitchhikers into Oregon and develop new, cost-effective ways to treat cargo and shipments at the source as well as obtain a long-term commitment to adequately fund treatment programs for any invaders that slip through the cracks. It has to become the "cost of doing business." We can convene industry representatives, assist with providing the science on invasive pests, and help industry problem-solve this issue.
  • We can stem the spread of feral swine in Oregon. The recently launched "Squeal on Pigs" outreach campaign is a good start at raising awareness about and reporting suspected sightings of feral swine. Everyone in Oregon must understand the human health, natural resource, and economic threats this species has to our quality of life. We've developed a Facebook page, Squeal on Pigs, and are about to launch a smartphone application for use by every state in the nation. Our ability to eradicate this species relies heavily on public sightings and reporting.
We must begin to approach each and every invasive species issue with an understanding of the human dimension elements that foster continued reintroductions, barriers to engaging in healthy and productive discussions about prevention, and creative ways to engage the public in this important long-term fight. It's worth looking past the trees to save Oregon's forests.

Lisa DeBruyckere


  1. Well said, Lisa. Oregon has a lot to lose if we don't get better at keeping invasive species out of the state.

  2. Yes, very well put. It seems to be human nature to only focus on issues once they have reached the crisis stage. I applaud all the efforts across the state to try to meet these problems before we get to that point. I do feel we are having an impact, and simply repeating the message goes a long way towards awareness in the greater community.