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So Why Don’t You Use the Chems, Mike?

by Mike Bald

I get this question occasionally in my work managing invasive plants. When people are interested in hiring me, they do like to know the reasoning behind the company philosophy embracing only manual/mechanical methods. Since I always ask landowners about their vision for the property, I weave that exploration into the response about the methodologies.

It goes something like this:

Me: “So what long-range plans do you have here? Do you plan to keep the land wooded; will you keep the openings clear of re-growth? Any plans to have grazing animals on hand? Are there places where kids and visitors need safe access, like around the pond? Will you be brush-hogging areas, and does that equipment come in from elsewhere?”

Landowner: “Well, this is what we’re thinking Mike…(insert plan/vision here). So in the end, we just want a healthy place where our grandkids can run around safely, and we don’t want our forest understory to get overrun by barberry and buckthorn and all those vines. If we can make that happen without spending a fortune, we’ll be feeling pretty good.”

Me: “OK, so I think I see the plan. So we DO want things to grow here. Along the wood lines, in the forest interior, and around the pond. It’s just that we want to ‘phase out’ certain non-native plants while we do what we can to support the native trees, shrubs, and flowers, pollinators, etc.”

Landowner: “Sure, that sounds about right.”

Me: “Got it… so once again… we DO want things to grow? We just want to get a little transition underway, replace the invasives with native species.”

Landowner: “Oh yes, absolutely.”

Me: “Nice. So you’ve asked me why I choose non-chemical methods, and we’ve just now confirmed that we truly DO want a plant population in place. A healthy, native population. So since we DO want things to grow here, if it’s simply a transition that we’re after, why would our first step in that process be Add Toxin? Am I missing something? Help me out here….”

There may be a Ponder Moment, but this is where we usually nod our heads together and consider it good. It really is that simple.

A roadside giant hogweed infestation in central Vermont; the landowner "sprayed the bleep out of it." The culvert might raise serious questions as to water proximity and herbicide usage requirements

A roadside giant hogweed infestation in central Vermont; the landowner “sprayed the bleep out of it.” The culvert might raise serious questions about water proximity and herbicide usage requirements

There is more thinking and background behind my insistence on non-chemical methods. Whether in managing vegetation or some other pursuit, I’ve never been impressed when people tell me something just outright cannot be done. Those claims stir questions from the scientific standpoint and deep interest from my competitive nature. We put people on the moon, we put gadgets on Mars…so what’s the problem? We can’t subdue a vine without going ballistic? Really? That sounds so lame.

But here’s the real issue. Though I’m personally not a botanist, those I’ve met seem pretty intelligent and bright, impressively so. Yet over and over, in meetings and at field sites, I’ve watched these strong minds look at a runaway monoculture of whatever species and quickly conclude that a chemical treatment plan is clearly needed. Conversation instantly turns to the permitting process and the relevant hoops needing jump-through. Rarely is there deep consideration, and even less often is there any thought given to a long-term approach (stewardship, right?). No, the decision process is short and applicable to the immediate term (results and deliverables now, thank you).

Competing Viewpoints

Now I like to think the human mind is our most powerful tool, so seeing human creativity and problem-solving skills sidelined in favor of harmful chemicals is the issue that drove me to give our approaches more thought. Oftentimes, perception is a big player in decision-making. I’ve learned that what I see as a complex site of moderate difficulty requiring an initial effort of four treatment days is completely different seen through the eyes of others. The very same site may be “completely overrun, inaccessible, unsafe and virtually unmanageable.”

Inaccessible is the term I get the most chuckles from. I mean, yes, sometimes I do have to walk a bit…while carrying a tool…my lunch…maybe a rain jacket or bug netting. Sure, when conditions are clearly too steep, bring in the goats! But most often, that sense of hopelessness on project sites is simply a reflection of inexperience. The work CAN be done, and better yet, done safely without chemical intervention. But does anyone know how to use a scythe anymore? Somehow we’ve lost perspective on what natural landscapes look like, with complexity and biodiversity manifested in a degree of chaos, and few of us can really quantify what dedicated manual labor can overcome and accomplish. With that loss of perspective and the rush for instant results, we go the chemical route.

The Intersection of Volunteers and Chemicals

So I ask, where is the opportunity for learning the nuances of a site when we exclude volunteers and interested citizens from participating in landscape rehabilitation? I’ve seen chemical treatment actions combined with volunteer outings, and my conclusion is that the two do not mix. Period. Volunteers are brilliant when they connect with a goal and a site and pull off serious manual control work. Garlic mustard is an invasive species perfectly suited to volunteer contributions. It’s even edible, adding an element of fun and culinary creativity to the day. Volunteers have no place, however, on a project site undergoing chemical treatment.

To begin with, who will wash their clothing at the end of the day? The safety manuals (USDA and Cornell Cooperative Extension) call for three washings of clothing used in chemical application efforts. Furthermore, the washing is to take place in a separate, dedicated machine which then SHOULD be run empty once just to clean it out. I’ve never seen anyone do this, nor do I do know anyone in the community with a twin set of wash machines. More likely, community members have no such set-up and rely on a local laundromat. So it is entirely possible that baby clothes go into a wash machine immediately after a load of clothing that was exposed to pesticides. This defies the government’s detailed precautions, but who takes care of the enforcement? There is no enforcement. There is only a small child now exposed to unknown quantities of powerful synthetic chemicals. So it goes.

Managing with Stewardship

I close with a thought on stewardship. A community leader once followed me around a pond dabbing herbicide on honeysuckle stumps that I had just cut. I had been hired to cut, nothing more, and I had suggested that a few more follow-up outings to strip off re-growth would bring about the end of these non-native shrubs. She wanted nothing to do with return visits. Nothing. I quote: “I just want to get it done. I never want to have to come back out here.”

Sadly, this conservation leader had an impressive volunteer pool at her disposal. A simple email could muster a dozen volunteers anytime, guaranteed. Yet, she expressed no interest in building a sense of ownership at this community resource. No bonding and connecting would take place this day. She, like conservation leaders everywhere, talks up the importance of relationships and connection with nature as a matter of routine. It is my opinion, however, that actions like hers on that day torpedo our intentions and fall short of true stewardship. I like to see deep connection between people and the places they work; this above all else is my grounds for patient and non-toxic approaches to vegetation management and landscape transition.

I DO want things to grow, and that can include people as well as the plants.

About the Author

Mike Bald has worked with invasive species since 2003 and founded his company, Got Weeds? in early 2011. Offering non-chemical weed management options to landowners in much of Vermont and New Hampshire, Mike’s focus is on long-term site stewardship, soil health, native plant diversity, and education of landowners. Cooperation across multiple ownerships is also crucial to the control effort. Got Weeds? has come to specialize in “the danger plants” and the technique of solarizing. Species commonly addressed include the non-native shrubs, black swallow-wort, wild parsnip, and Japanese knotweed. Mike appreciates the importance of healthy habitats, site specificity and ecosystem resilience; his goal with the treatment programs at Got Weeds? is to demonstrate with careful documentation that manual/mechanical methods can succeed over extended timeframes.


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