The Great American Kudzu Forest shows no sign of slowing down. This, despite two or three years of drought in Atlanta and beyond, where I sojourned this summer. Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), a Japanese native vine of the pea family, is a poster child of the campaign against introduced exotic pest plants. It has spread across a belt of the Middle South from Mississippi to Virginia. A twiner, it ascends any handy vertical support in preference to covering the ground.
In the few days of travel, I did not see a single tree that was obviously killed by kudzu. This vine does, however, shade out the understory beneath, and thus can create an unhealthy forest ecology. Its spread is discontinuous -- one might go for miles without seeing a single kudzu, while if traveling an interstate, would think the entire world at risk of Kudzu suffocation. And Kudzu is deciduous. Certain early-to-rise, early-to-bed understory herbaceous perennials, such as mayapple, hepaticas or Erythroniums, might never know there was a problem in the forest upstairs. The actual impact of Kudzu is thus a complicated matter, more suitable for all-week government interagency symposia than as the cornerstone of an anti-exotics hysteria. But it does provide great visuals.
The spread of Kudzu is used as an example of the risk presented by unregulated introduction of plant material into the USA. Many other introduced exotics have become widespread and are, or would qualify as, exotic pest species: scotch broom, gorse, pampas grass, tamarisk in the Pacific states, many others in more humid parts of the country. Virtually all crop weeds qualify also. Locally, anti-exotics activists have demanded clearcutting of the Presidio of San Francisco of its forest of Eucalyptus, Monterey Pine and Cypress, earning them the name of "Plant Nazis" for their nativist programme of genetic cleansing. But not all anti-exotics campaigners are crazed plant Nazis. Persons of great influence, serious Sierra Club members, university biologists, National Park volunteers, paid lobbyists and herbicide manufacturers are all numbered among the foot soldiers in the campaign. In response, the Clinton Administration in 1996 created an interagency committee to study the problem. Its practical effects are just now being felt, and in strange ways.
Here in California, in mid-July the U.S. Forest Service declared war on upon yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), a livestock-spread weed now ubiquitous in non-arid waste areas (once-disturbed but otherwise little-used acreage, such as highway rights-of-way) of the state. The nonflammable annual, whose small seed hitched a ride into the U.S. in bulk shipments of other kinds of seed, remains green and succulent all summer. Yet it was described in an agency press release as a "great danger during the fire season."
There are no feasible means of reducing the populations of the star thistle, yet last week, CalTrans, (the California highway department--cooperating with the Forest Service) began, for the first time, spraying the shoulders of Interstate 280 with herbicide, particularly directed against this menace. Star thistle, it turns out, is a neurotoxin, and its presence greatly reduces the desirability of national forest cattle grazing allotments to existing and potential permittees.
To coordinate all the federal efforts that fall within the scope of invasive exotic plant species control, the multi-agency Invasive Species Council was created in February 1999. It has received a budget of $28.8 million to fund the cost of coordinating the $300 million spent by all federal agencies to control invasive exotics. In August, the Council will have published its recommendations, which encompass the prohibition of importation from abroad of any plants or parts of plants, dead or alive, including seeds and fruits. The Department of Agriculture is to draw up a "White List" of officially approved plants that may enter the United States in the future.
The White List represents a fundamental change, not just in the concept of free trade, but also of ordered liberty. At present, all plant material may enter this country, except that listed on a four-page publication of APHIS (the USDA’s quarantine service), representing an incalculable fraction of all the world’s species. Under the White List, all foreign plant material is contraband unless specifically exempted by name. A procedure for obtaining exemption is expected, perhaps comparable to that used by FDA for approving pharmaceuticals, or EPA for pesticides; the burden is on the applicant to demonstrate scientifically that no risk of harm will result from entry of the plant or seed.
It is apparent that at least some of the anti-exotics activists intend for the White List to reach more than the plants at our borders. Faith Campbell, of American Lands Alliance, was quoted in Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "You’re talking about restructuring everything this country does, both public entities and private entities, starting with imports and going to what you plant in your garden."
The White List is intended to prohibit the introduction of novel and interesting plants from abroad by CRFG members, which in seed form is now lawful and efficiently conducted at our ports of entry. We will no longer be able to experiment with new crops or unusual forms of plants, excepting those having prior approval of the competent authorities.
The period that has been scheduled for public comment is brief. Look for the White Paper regulations in the Federal Register. It should appear at your public library in August, or you can search for it on the Web. (One place to start looking is <http://www.nara.gov/fedreg/> --Editor)