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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Alien Invaders Beware

Air Date: Week of February 5, 1999

The Clinton Administration wants to combat exotic species of plants and animals that are crowding out native species. They've proposed spending $29 million next year to get the job done. But that figure pales in comparison to the $123 billion that exotics are estimated to cost the U.S. economy each year. As reporter James Jones discovered, the alien invasion is especially visible in Rock Creek Park, in Washington, DC.

Transcript

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The Federal Government is on a search and destroy mission against alien species. The Clinton Administration has signed a new Executive Order to combat the spread of exotic and invasive plant and animal species, and is asking for nearly 30 million dollars to do the job. New studies now show predatory species are costing the US economy more than $100 billion each year. These so-called global hitchhikers are taking advantage of the growth of international trade and travel. As James Jones reports, battling back the bio-invaders is more than just a matter of throwing money at them.

(Footfalls through grasses)

JONES: Walking through one of the country's largest urban parks, Rock Creek National Park in Washington, DC, it's easy to see the footprints of the bio- invasion.

SALMONS: This is Japanese honeysuckle. And this is multi-floral rose.

JONES: Susan Salmons is the Vegetation Management Director at the park.

SALMONS: You can see the effects on these trees of the honeysuckle and porcelain berry. But mostly honeysuckle, in that trunks of these small trees are corkscrewed. They look like they've been twisted. Which they have been twisted by the vines themselves.

JONES: Two-hundred-forty-eight exotic species have made Rock Creek Park their home. Forty-one are considered invasive and pose a threat to the natural ecosystem. This park is surrounded by homes with gardens that include exotic plants, and human activity has made it easy for alien species to take up residence in the park.

(A running stream)

SALMONS: All of the exotics, all of the worst-affected areas are along this stream edge, where we've got lots of flooding. And along roads where there's high sunlight. We are in danger of seriously altering the ecosystems, especially in the flood plain, if we don't do something about it.

JONES: Rock Creek Park is just one example of how the exotic plants and animals that find their way to this country can alter the ecosystem. As world trade has increased, they've entered through the ballast tanks of ships, on packing crates, and in the backpacks of world travelers. Until recently, exotics haven't received much attention, but that's changing, according to Bob Devine, author of a book on exotic species called Alien Invasion.

DEVINE: Invasive species certainly are a serious problem. It's considered by most scientists now to be one of the major environmental problems in the United States and in the world. Ranks up there with habitat destruction and pollution.

JONES: And Devine says exotics pose some unique challenges.

DEVINE: If you spill a gallon of oil, you've spilled a gallon of oil. That gallon of oil will not proliferate into 10 million gallons of oil. On the other hand, invasive species are alive. They reproduce, they spread, they crawl and swim and fly.

JONES: That's exactly what's happened over the years, and Devine says the pace of invasion is rapidly accelerating. Zebra mussels imported from the Baltic Sea now clog water intake pipes in the Midwest. Sheet grass [name?] from China has completely taken over large sections of the Western Plains. And North America has returned the favor, exporting a jellyfish to the Black Sea that attacked the plankton there, decimating the region's fishing industry.

The invader species are imposing some steep costs on the US economy, according to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, who recently tallied the price tag of the damage exotics cause and the expense of controlling them.

PIMENTEL: The final number that we had, and again this is a conservative estimate, was $123 billion annually as a cost to the nation. The costs relative to these biological invasions will continue to increase because there is no way that we can 100% assure that we'll have no more invasions.

JONES: The White House is directing the Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture Departments to cooperate in controlling the alien species. The new budget calls for nearly $29 million for a new Inter-Agency Task Force to combat the problem. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt calls the situation a crisis.

BABBITT: And what that means is we have to coordinate our efforts across these agencies to achieve modest goals of containment that will minimize the economic damage and the damage to the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they reside.

(Footfalls through grass)

JONES: Back in Rock Creek Park, Susan Salmons says the attention and more funding will help, but she says it will take more than money to stamp out exotic plants in her park.

SALMONS: We will never have enough money and resources and person-power to be able to address all the issues ourselves.

JONES: Salmons says the job can't be done without the help of people who live around the park, and scientists and educators say the problem won't be solved until people understand the value of the native landscape in their own back yard. For Living on Earth, I'm James Jones in Washington.

 

 

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