Fight against invasive species requires many soldiers, and maybe you

I love winter for a lot of reasons – the beauty of snow, going sledding, and because I’m one of those late bloomers that waited until my 50th birthday to learn how to downhill ski. Another reason is that winter allows me to take a break from my annual warfare with the invasive plants in my lawn and flower beds. Every year I feel regret for the times I didn’t do my research and chose pretty but unexpectedly aggressive plants. Native-planting purists exist, and I agree those are best, but I’m OK with non-native species as long as they aren’t invasive.

I’ve come to realize that if I am going to have a yard and gardens, it is just one of those things that I have to embrace and accept. This means being vigilant and accountable for doing my part to mitigate the threat so they don’t spread to nearby woods or meadows to destroy and take over.

On a larger scale, all of us should be concerned that terrestrial invasive species are a serious threat to our natural habitats and beautiful landscapes in Michigan. The good news is that really cool efforts are underway to protect our lands from invasive plants – including networks of scientists, land managers and landscapers working together to inform people like me on what and where to buy the right plants.

Huge hands-on efforts like the Dune Alliance along Lake Michigan involve conservation organizations working along the entire more than 500-mile eastern shore of Lake Michigan to monitor, detect, rapidly respond, contain or eradicate invasive plants. Their efforts are making sure our majestic dunes – the largest freshwater dune system in the world – are protected from invasive plants that take over and create an unhealthy monoculture.

Yet, the challenge is that conservation organizations will one day need to be able to pass this responsibility on to everyday landowners. Right now, the work is possible thanks to philanthropic support (Meijer, Rotary, Dart, Oleson, and NFWF) that is leveraging public funding. But the ongoing protection of our lands and waters from invasive species is not going to go away, so how do we make it part of daily life and practice?

In 2012 alone, these groups in the Dune Alliance surveyed and treated over 26,000 acres for 15 invasive species, coordinated early detection and rapid response efforts with new invasive plants, all while eradicating species that have taken a foothold to manage them down to a “maintenance level.” With species like phragmites, we won’t fully eradicate a species that has invaded at this scale, however, we can prioritize where we win battles to restore the most important wetlands and coastal systems for recreation and wildlife.

I think we all need to anticipate stepping up – accepting the fact that we are all vital to the solution. Like my own backyard, we have to be accountable for our part. In fact, two new apps (here and here) are available for iPhones and Android systems that allow you to identify invasive species, and help contribute location information on where you see them. You can be part of the action by helping spot invasives early and trigger rapid responses before these plants take over.

Another idea would be to work with the many neighborhood associations along eastern Lake Michigan – How much of the shoreline is owned by these associations? Once these species are at a maintenance level, could conservation organizations work with neighborhood associations to transition management of their coastlines going forward? For a modest amount, the cost could be added to the annual association dues that cover snowplowing and landscaping fees. Conservation organizations would continue to be an important resource for information, expertise for treatment of invasive species, and notification when new species are found. What’s the solution to help our parks and public lands manage their coastline?

I guess what I really am saying is that conservation and caring for our lands and waters in Michigan needs to be the responsibility of all of us – it can’t be viewed as a luxury, or something that happens only if philanthropists support it. Maintaining a healthy environment needs to be a way of life and central to our lifestyles if we want to stay on top of these growing and challenging threats, and to pass on resilient habitats and landscapes to future generations.

The conservation groups involved with the eastern Lake Michigan coastline are all proud of the work we do, and happy to do it. However, we know that real long-term solutions will reside in recognizing and accepting responsibility and costs of everyday vigilance. The cost of doing nothing, and suffering the impact of invasive species on our lands and waters, will far exceed the cost to society and individuals of proactive prevention, everyday vigilance and maintenance.

So when the snow melts off in the spring, what are you going to do about it in your yard?

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