Weed Whackers

Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species


On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.


Photograph of eucalyptus trees in California by Chad Ress
Photograph of eucalyptus trees in California by Chad Ress


California native-plant partisans are a committed lot, and not only in their dislike of eucalyptus trees. Many of them are influential in local government, and they yearn to restore the treeless “native” grassland that greeted the first European settlers of the Bay Area in 1769. (For centuries, Native Americans had cleared the trees to facilitate hunting.) Thus the romantic Monterey cypress is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department — even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives. The cypress is not the only item on the nativist hit list. Over the next few years, more than 450,000 trees in Oakland, Berkeley, and neighboring areas are due to be destroyed in the name of “wildfire-risk reduction.”

Defining “native” and “invasive” in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years. The National Invasive Species Council defines the enemy as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” But the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed such notions as “romantic drivel.” Natives, he wrote, are simply “those organisms that first happened to gain and keep a footing,” and he ridiculed the suggestion that early arrivals “learn to live in ecological harmony with [their] surroundings, while later interlopers tend to be exploiters.”

…finish reading the article on Harpers Magazine




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