by Rona Fried
As someone who has intimate experience with invasive plants and their ability to smother all the natives they come in contact with, it's hard to believe the US EPA could approve such a plant to be grown extensively for biofuels.
But the EPA is nearing final approval of Giant Reed (arundo donax), an invasive grass originally from India that's quickly spreading across Texas and the southern US. Farmers would be encouraged to plant it widely for biofuels production.
The plant, which is almost impossible to control, chokes out natives and clogs rivers, streams and wetlands. Those characteristics make it tempting to use for biofuels - rapid growth, competitiveness and tolerance of a wide range of climate conditions.
"We think the idea of cleaner fuels is great," Janice Bezanson, executive director of Texas Conservation Alliance told Houston Chronicle, "but we do not want to create a monster."
Researchers estimate that nearly half the species listed as threatened or endangered are at risk, at least in part, because of invasive species. At least $120 billion a year is spent to eradicate invasives, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Texas classifies Giant Reed as an invasive - planting it is forbidden in the state. It grows as high as 30 feet and forms dense stands which consume huge amounts of water. It's blocking the flow of the Nueces River in Texas and last year volunteers spent almost three months hand-pulling sprouts along a 30-mile stretch. State and local officials paid for a helicopter to spray herbicide over nearly 200 acres, reports Houston Chronicle.
California is also battling the plant at costs between $5,000 to $25,000 an acre.
Giant reed was introduced into the US in the 1800s for erosion control. Like many invasives, it can spread from just one underground fragment.
"Arundo was designed to survive. "Every bit will create a new plant, and it chokes everything else out," Wilfred Korth, a park ranger and member of the Texas Aquatic Plant Management Society, told the Houston Chronicle.
The government should plant native grasses and plants instead that also provide habitat for wildlife.
"You can make money and a help native wildlife by growing native plants for bioenergy," says Steve Flick, board chair of the Show Me Energy Cooperative. "Missouri farmers are doing this right now as part of the Show Me Energy Cooperative, and it's a model that can work throughout the country."
Last week, a group of 200 biologists and botanists urged the Obama administration not to use invasive species for biofuel production. On the one hand, federal dollars would be used to expand cultivation through incentivizes to farmers, and on the other hand, the government will have to spend more to eventually eradicate it.
Rather than planting invasive species, why not clear out the ones we already have and use that for bioenergy? They are already swamping just about every ecosystem we have and it would be a blessing for those of us who are trying to eradicate them in our local parks.
Rona Fried is CEO of SustainableBusiness.com and kills invasive plants most every day when she walks her dog in the local parks.