Thursday, March 21, 2013

You Don't Know What You Got 'Til It's Gone

Every year, I travel thousands of miles along U.S. highways and byways. The best way to get a strong pulse on America is to travel through it, stopping at local coffee shops, and immersing yourself in the local politics, events, and other happenings. No matter where I've been or how long I've stayed, I've always found something I like in just about every place.

I recently vacationed in southern Arizona, and to get there, I traveled through the entire state of California, entering in southern Oregon, and departing in southeastern California. There's a lot I like about California - its beaches, wine country, national parks, and desert, to name a few. But the drive from Redding, California to Bakersfield, California on Interstate 5 would make anyone with a passion for eradicating invasive species cringe.

Why? Three reasons.

1. From the Sacramento River in northern California to Bakersfield, just about every Interstate-5 crossing is choked with Arundo donax. According to the county of San Diego, "Arundo donax was introduced to California in the early 1800s to be used as a roofing material and for erosion control in the canals. It is a reed that can grow to 20 feet or more. However, it grows in very dense stands, chokes off and kills other plant life and is unsuitable as a food source or nesting habitat for animals. Besides severely damaging the natural ecosystem, it can also clog stream flows; and is a tremendous fire hazard." It is amazing to see how this plant has transformed entire riparian corridors and river systems, just south of Oregon's border.

2. You have to travel through a town called Weed to get to Bakersfield on I-5. The good news is that the town is actually named after the founder of the local lumber mill and pioneer Abner Weed, a Maine transplant that came to California with his wife in 1869, settling in the Truckee area near Lake Tahoe. He moved to the Mount Shasta area and discovered that local strong winds were helpful in drying lumber. In 1897, he bought the Siskiyou Lumber and Mercantile Mill and 280 acres of land in what is now the City of Weed, for the sum of $400. By the 1940s Weed boasted the world's largest sawmill. Until I learned how the town of Weed got its name, I just assumed it was named for the abundance of invasive species present in and around the community, particularly along the I-5 corridor that splits the town. Anyway, I'm just glad there are no Oregon towns named after anything invasive (at least none that I know of). I just wouldn't want to give presentations about Oregon and have to reference the town of "Feral Pig, Oregon" or "Hydrilla, Oregon."

3. When you leave the town of Bakersfield heading east toward Tucson, Arizona, you traverse a highway called Weedpatch Highway, and once again, there does seem to be an abundance of weeds in this area. Weedpatch was featured in the Grapes of Wrath - it was the location of a government rescue center for distressed migrant workers fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl agricultural disaster, during the Great Depression. I settled back in the drivers seat, reflecting on the fact that I'm glad Oregon doesn't have an "Orange Hawkweed Highway" or "Garlic Mustard Boulevard."

I also reflected on how adaptable people are - people are capable of no longer see invasive species as invasive because they have become part of the landscape. It reminded me of the Keep America Beautiful litter campaign in the United States in 1971 - few recognized that litter was changing the landscape of our country until a public outreach campaign, featuring a tearful native American in a television commercial, captured the hearts and motivation of many. The resulting call for action changed the culture of how people view litter in our country.

A few years ago, scientists in Oregon compared the number of invasive species in Oregon rivers and streams to those of neighboring states, and the results were impressive - they indicated that Oregon has a lot to protect. We haven't lost the fight against invasive species in Oregon, and there remains places in our state where native species thrive. Our mental picture of what Oregon should look like retains many of the qualities of natural functioning ecosystems.

My recent trip to Arizona did a lot to instill in me the need to keep fighting the fight. Because those that have lost what once was no longer see what they have lost. And I never want our state song to be, "You don't know what you've got' til its gone."

Lisa DeBruyckere

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