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“Miracle Plants” or “Noxious Weeds”? EPA Weighs Status of Invasive Species

Photo (courtesy US Dept of Agriculture): aerial view of arundo near Big Bend National Park.
Photo (courtesy US Dept of Agriculture): aerial view of arundo near Big Bend National Park.
October 23, 2012

ROCKPORT, Texas - Its cultivation is banned in Texas, but it is poised to become a lucrative crop in other states if proposed new federal rules are approved. Conservationists are concerned that some species being considered for bio-fuel status by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) will cause more problems than they solve.

Arundo donax - the "giant reed" - once welcomed in Texas as an ornamental windbreak, is now spurned as an invasive "hazard," says National Wildlife Federation legislative representative for agriculture policy Aviva Glaser.

"It crowds out native species along rivers; it uses a lot of water; it creates a fire risk; it spreads very quickly. There's a huge economic and ecological hazard that is associated with the invasion of adrundo donax."

Ranked 10th-worst troublemaker on the Global Invasive Species Database, the giant reed is also categorized as a noxious weed by the Texas Department of Agriculture. Glaser says EPA officials can learn a lot from Texas, where multi-million-dollar eradication efforts have failed to keep pace with the giant reed's dominance of waterways.

Every year, the EPA requires that a greater percentage of the nation's fuel supply be derived from plant-based ethanol. Corn has been the main source, but with a drought-related shortage - as well as longstanding concerns about the amount of land and water corn uses - the agency is expanding its list of approved crops. While Glaser applauds efforts to promote alternative energy sources, she warns it is crucial to take a "look before you leap" approach.

"There's a lot of interest in looking at different types of plants that can be more environmental friendly - and that's a pretty good idea. But it has to be done in the right way. Every plant has a different risk of becoming invasive, so we think we should be starting with those lower-risk species."

Large-scale cultivation of arundo already is gearing up in some states. Backers call it a manageable "miracle crop" because it grows extremely quickly and uses much less land than corn. Opponents say it is simply impossible to contain, because nature has myriad ways of helping it spread.

The Austin-based Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center tracks alien species through its "Texas Invasives" database, which lists 785 areas where the giant reed has taken over. Sightings are compiled by volunteers, such as Rockport resident Kris Kirkwood, a member of the citizen-scientist group, Texas Invasives. She says it has been spreading fast in south Texas.

"Every place there's water, there's a stand of that stuff. It doesn't provide good food and cover for wildlife, but it's so thick that nothing else can grow there."

This week, 208 scientists and ecologists from around the nation - 27 from Texas - sent a letter to the Obama administration warning against the risks of promoting invasive crops. A decision is expected at any time.

The Texas database is available at The global database is at The scientists' letter is at The EPA rules proposal is at Federal Register.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX