What's wrong with garlic mustard? Ask Marilyn Leger, and she'll tell you that no plant is bad, but that garlic mustard is one of many plants that can produce bad effects when people establish them in the wrong place. And natural areas in Illinois are definitely the wrong place for garlic mustard.
It was brought to North America by European immigrants in the 1860s as a culinary herb, but by the late 20th century it proved to be one of the worst plants ever introduced in the northeast and Midwest.
Left alone, garlic mustard crowds out the plants native to a woodland, which can lead to any number of bad effects, from depriving insects and the animals that eat them of an important food source, to depriving birds of the cover they need for nesting, and more.
Leger is co-chair of the Invasive Plant Task Force, a committee of the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program that works toward change in the policies and behaviors that promote the spread of invasive plants.
The group also combats invasive plants through direct action. Currently, it is conducting the third annual Great Garlic Mustard Hunt, a weekslong series of opportunities for volunteers to help control garlic mustard in natural areas by pulling the plants. (It's important to do that in the spring while the ground is soft and before the plants go to seed.)
Last year's hunt involved more than 150 participants, who together removed more than 14,000 pounds of garlic mustard from sites including Allerton Park near Monticello, Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.
Learn how you can get involved in the Great Garlic Mustard Hunt on the Web at http://tinyurl.com/GGMH2013 .
Unfortunately, pulling garlic mustard is a rear-guard action. It is nearly impossible eradicate weedy plants once they become invasive, despite the good will and hard work of dedicated volunteers. The most effective way to fight the establishment of invasive, exotic plants is through effective regulation at the state and national levels.
A group of scientists and legal experts led by researchers at the University of Illinois' Energy Biosciences Institute recently did a thorough analysis of the various regulatory regimes currently in place at the state level. What they found was, according to UI agricultural law Professor A. Bryan Endres, "regulatory uncertainty, with 50 states each doing their own thing."
He and the team, which was led by Lauren Quinn, a postdoctoral research associate with EBI, recommend a way forward that would enable "big developers, who are responsible players in the industry" to "develop a new industrial model" under a regulatory framework that's "science-based and legitimate."
Under the framework they propose, biofuels developers would be encouraged to commercialize plants deemed low risk through a process of due diligence that includes input from experts in agriculture, invasive species and natural areas management.
Their plan would also allow developers to avoid liability for damage caused by plants they commercialize that become invasive, as long as those plants are deemed "low risk" at the outset.
Of course, such a system might leave taxpayers footing big bills for costs that rightly belong to industry somewhere down the line. That's because a plant's potential for invasiveness might not be realized for 20 years or more after its adoption.
How could any regulatory framework effectively deal with that kind of lag?
For thoughts on that, I turned to Fran Harty, who is currently a director of special projects with the Nature Conservancy Illinois. In a former role with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Harty was among those who in the 1980s helped call attention to the widespread problems caused by purposeful introductions of exotic species in the state, and developed strategies for dealing with them.
For intentional introductions such as landscaping plants or biofuels, which are planted widely, Harty suggests that the cost of early detection, eradication, and control of invasive exotic species be "taken off the shoulders of the taxpayer and placed where it belongs, with the purveyor."
His sense of a business model that would work best in the case of intentional introductions is for the purveyor to pay to the state an up front, irrevocable "environmental insurance bond" as a cost of doing business.
Money generated by these bonds would go into a "biosecurity" fund, which would be invested and used to pay the costs associated with monitoring and handling the consequences of widespread introductions that go awry.
Harty reasons that purveyors who want to introduce exotic species would be highly selective in their decisions about what plants to try if they were required to pay a significant amount up front, say $500,000 per species.
Further, he says a biosecurity fund would enable the state to eradicate problem plantings immediately in the event a widely planted biofuel trial were to fail, rather than waiting for the outcome of litigation.
If a $500,000 bond seems high, Harty points out, consider that it represents 0.000065 percent of the $7.7 billion taxpayers are now paying to control invasive species.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.