By Ben Falk
Waitsfield’s herbicide application project is forcing an important global topic to the fore and highlights the changing dynamics of unavoidably shifting ecosystems in a time of rapid change. It also highlights the irony of “conservation” projects that purchase chemicals from the likes of Dow and Monsanto and the role of the public in the discussion – a voice notoriously left out of environmental decisions. And it highlights a broader use of glyphosate here.
Glyphosate is a carcinogen to humans and toxic to many forms of life.
Glyphosate is categorized as “known to cause cancer" by the state of California (https://tinyurl.com/y99c5wp3) and also as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015 (https://tinyurl.com/psn8dps).
That’s only part of the toxicology picture, however, since the various proprietary mixtures that use glyphosate are not tested in field conditions and cannot be, in part, since the “inert” ingredients in compounds with trademarked mixtures and names such as Rodeo and Polaris do not have to be disclosed to the public. They are maintained as trade secrets. Monsanto claims glyphosate is safe because it utilizes the shikimic pathway and that this pathway is not found in humans. Humans have symbiotic micro-organisms, especially in our gut, and these crucial micro-organisms help us assimilate nutrients, transform nutrients to make them accessible to us, eliminate toxins, make neurotransmitters, improve our immunity, etc. It is these micro-organisms that are shut down by glyphosate and why this chemical is so destructive to humans.
Knotweed is not toxic and has many values.
It is important to look at a larger context when understanding dispersive plants like knotweed. This plant is a plant medicine, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, immune supportive and is used effectively in the treatment of Lyme disease (I know people in The Valley here who attribute much to this plant in their Lyme fight), especially for those people with neurological symptoms as it crosses the blood-brain barrier and protects the meninges and brain. Knotweed is a rich forage food for bees, especially last year when knotweed flowers continued to bloom heavily and far later than goldenrod, despite the drought.
Attempting to remove it is a fool’s errand and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Efforts to remove knotweed from a flood plain over the long term, as documented in numerous instances, is nearly impossible. Best practices in mitigation today involve moving from areas of no “invasives” to areas where they are present, which is necessary from upriver to down. One professional example of this is the "Bradley method” (goo.gl/eEE2UJ) which is always carried out with the following understanding which is counter to what the proposal is for Waitsfield: "If one clears invasives in the worst areas first, this may not only be ineffective, it may be harmful. Removing nonnatives in such areas exposes bare ground, tipping the balance in favor of the weeds.”
This site is in the center of the watershed surrounded by knotweed on all sides. The town has opted for applying herbicides because it is more convenient than the labor of mowing. The town has stated that Hadley Gaylord can’t mow the site anymore because it’s so rocky. However, I spoke with Hadley recently and he laughed at this remark, saying he’d love to manage that field again as working landscape and would be happy to hay it – remarking that it was silty, not rocky.
This site does not exist in isolation. Thousands of rhizomes are dispersed downstream to quickly repopulate sites with every significant rise of the river. Will we soon be told that the banks of the entire Mad River must be sprayed with cancer-causing biocides multiple times a year? Or will we abandon this pilot after dousing a waterway with poisons and watch the knotweed return?
Knotweed, like all highly successful and dispersive plants, thrives in open niches – as long as the river is an erosive high-disturbance location – which is guaranteed with roadways and impervious surfaces in the watershed and with channelizing, convening residential and agricultural activities in The Valley like highways, ski trails, logging roads, residential roads, driveways, etc. Knotweed is a symptom of larger conditions in the ecosystem – this is essential to understand if we are to take a truly ecological approach.
The invasive biology arguments made by proponents of this initiative have demonstrated ideological fixation and snapshot thinking about ecosystems rather than a deeper understanding that no plant communities are permanent and that all plants are simply responses to conditions. The arguments for spreading poison along the banks of our river assume a static biological composition of our riparian habitats is possible and desirable, and it is a refusal to confront the certain fact that the suggested program is guaranteed to fail without constant application of biocides (or whatever removal method is chosen). Would we kill elderberry, sumac, butternut, goldenrod, serviceberry, plantain, dandelion, vetch, burdock, cleavers, birch, alder, willow, maples, jewelweed, selfheal, milkweed, ferns and grasses, to remove knotweed for a period of time? All of these species and many others continue to exist in community with knotweed on this and other sites in The Valley.
The decision by the select board and conservation commission was a misguided one, made without public disclosure and driven by a pattern of willingness to spend taxpayer money without direct taxpayer input on known controversial topics. The community of the Mad River Valley deserves better. This woeful initiative will likely be stopped by public will, but it highlights a pattern of flagrancy in local government that we as a community must begin to address. This represents a perfect opportunity to do so – petitions are widely circulating for which we have scores of signatures.
If the watershed community, as a whole, determines – which it has not yet – that knotweed is such a severe problem, we can ask the public for solutions that it will tolerate in its own best interests, not rely on closed-door decision-making in process which affects the entire multi-town watershed and tourism users of the river.
Falk, Moretown, is a land planner and ecological restorationist.