I used to buy 50 Christmas cards to cover everyone on my staff, and it was never quite enough. This year I bought 44 and had several left over. Like most parts of state government, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Plant Program is shrinking. Downsizing is hard. It is especially difficult when there is plenty of work, but money to pay people to do it is not there.
Seventeen years ago when I took this job, the Plant Division, as it was called then, received over 50 percent of its funding from state general funds (your taxes and mine). That proportion has shrunk to just 3.5 percent. You've probably noticed that state (and federal) funds are increasingly being diverted to other priorities, like schools, prisons, and health care. For us it has meant a series of budget cuts to our base funding. I don't see an end to that trend. The current Governor’s Recommended Budget includes another $500,000 cut to ODA’s Noxious Weed Control Program.
Thankfully, some cuts have been offset by additional federal and lottery funds, but these are typically tied to on-the-ground projects or national priorities. If a noxious weed or invasive pest is causing a problem, grant funding becomes available for that species. This sort of targeted funding makes for good accountability, but it fosters a reactive approach. When something bad happens, money appears; when nothing bad happens, the money disappears. The problem with invasive weeds and pests is that nothing bad happens for the many years after an introduction until the infestation has spread and starts to impact desirable crops or habitats. By then, it is very costly or impossible to eradicate the problem.
We'd be better off with a proactive strategy. Exclusion-based on early detection and rapid response (EDRR) is the most cost effective way of dealing with invasive species, but the money that used to fund our early detection surveys has largely disappeared. No one wants to pay for a prevention program, especially when there are so many other demands on public funds.
So where do we go from here? We can accept shrinking budgets and convert to reactive programs knowing they will be less successful, or we can figure out a better way to fund EDRR programs. The options I see fall into three categories:
1. public base funding, i.e., the old system
2. a dedicated fee (a surcharge on something) or
3. tax the pathways approach (small surcharges on trade and travel activities that bring us invasive weeds and pests)
Personally, I think our public invasive species programs are crucial. Because there is no profit in EDRR, I can't imagine them being done by the private sector. Who else but public agencies are going to survey for gypsy moths, zebra mussels, or kudzu? Who else has the authority to eradicate an infestation of Japanese beetle or distaff thistle no matter the land ownership?
In the next couple of years, I expect to spend considerable time trying to find stable funding for Oregon's invasive species programs. I think it is time for a fresh, comprehensive look at the needs and possible revenue sources. The first steps were discussed yesterday at the Oregon Invasive Species Council meeting. If you have ideas or passion about protecting Oregon from invasive species, we’d love to hear from you. Our chances of success are better if we work together.