"It's a bomb about to go off."
It's one of life's little ironies that hurricanes should figure so
prominently in the career of Rick Guffey, a soft-spoken man from the landlocked hills of North Alabama. He is the Director of Conservation Programs for the Nature Conservancy, Mississippi Chapter. He spoke in a serious, urgent tone.
"I don't mean to be alarmist, but we need to do something now or we will see the ecological makeup of our forests and landscapes totally changed."
The combined impact of hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina and Rita this year has created an unprecedented opportunity for invasive species to virtually wipe out acre after acre of coastal habitats and begin to encroach upon commercial forestry and agricultural resources. Two plants in particular, the Chinese tallowtree (Triadica sebifera) and Japanese cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica), are poised to create an ecological -- and economic -- tragedy.
These plants spread quickly, are resistant to drought and disease, aggressively crowding out native species. The main thing they require is an abundance of sunlight. The hurricanes of the past two years tore through great swathes of forests in southern Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, clearing a path for a second natural disaster with even longer-lasting implications.
"Many of my constituents had all their assets literally blown away by Hurricane Ivan," said Congressman Jo Bonner in a meeting last month. "We have got to find a way to help these forestowners." That hurricane alone created more than $1 billion in lost timber values.
One of Alabama's most important industries is forestry, so addressing these losses is a priority. At the same time, scientists, landowners, environmentalists, the timber industry and the public must address the rising threat of invasive species, or these timber producing regions will cease to be a valuable natural resource for our state.
"Over the last decade it has been a slow-moving but pervasive problem," Guffey says. "But the combination of these major natural disturbances with the disruptions caused by upcoming recovery efforts takes the problem to a much higher level." The Chinese tallowtree has the potential to become the dominant species in several different habitats, and once established, is very difficult to control. It has even been shown to alter soil and water chemistry.
Alabama is blessed with a remarkable biological diversity. Within a few hundred miles, the geography produces a wealth of habitats, which in their turn support the wildlife that make hunting and fishing such popular sports. Bottomland hardwood, maritime forest, pine flatwood, pine savanna, tidal marsh, beach/dune, and island habitats are now all threatened by this acceleration of invasive species. When plant life diversity is reduced, native wildlife diversity takes a corresponding blow, so the impact is spread even further. The loss of this biological diversity would have a ripple effect far beyond the forest and agricultural industries.
The Chinese tallowtree, also called a "popcorn tree," has no marketable uses. Its primary characteristic is its ability to choke out trees which do have value on the marketplace. Japanese cogongrass grows so densely that it, too, chokes out any competing native species. The grass spreads remarkably quickly, by natural means and also by getting caught up in the tires of trucks and equipment in one area, and taking a free ride to a new spot. The downed trees of the hurricanes offer both species an opportunity to spread like wildfire.
Easing the human misery of hurricanes Katrina and Rita is of primary importance. But overlooking the long-term menace of invasive species is a mistake we cannot afford to make. Bringing together all the stakeholders this winter would be a first step in finding a solution. We need to offer relief to those landowners who have suffered from the devastation. At the same time, we must discuss all the possible ways to preserve the value of our forest and landscapes; that value may be found in its biological diversity and ability to shelter wildlife, or in its use as agricultural or forestry resources.
Alabama has over 220,000 non-industrial forest landowners, most owning timberland with less than 100 acres. These people have invested in Alabama's natural resources and are counting on their ability to leave a legacy to their children and grandchildren. We need to find ways to help our fellow Alabamians succeed.
Let's get together with our neighboring states now and find out what the solution may be. There is little time to defuse that bomb. Our decisions today are shaping the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit. We can choose to leave as our legacy endless acres of monotonous alien species, the product of our apathy. Or we can choose to pass on the landscape we ourselves inherited, a landscape of beauty and biological diversity.
Written by Pat Byington, ecologist who works for the Auburn University Center for Forest Sustainability and Karyn Zweifel, author and freelance writer from Birmingham