The Troubles of “Invasive” Plants: Collateral Damage, Monsanto, and the Tragedy of Pinyon-Juniper eradication

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum). Photo by KtS

This is part one of a three part series. In this part we discuss: a) the negative effects of invasive plant removal methods, b) the involvement of Monsanto in popularizing invasion biology, and c) the tragedy of Pinyon-Juniper forest eradication in the western U.S. under the rubric of “native invasive species management.”

Defining “invasive species” is a slippery proposition.

The U.S. federal government defines it as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

The National Wildlife Federation elevate s environmental considerations, describing it as “any kind of living organism… that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.”

The Connecticut Audubon society is less discriminating about the effects of introduction. For them, an invasive is any “non-native species that has been introduced, either intentionally or accidentally into a new habitat or has escaped cultivation.”

A plant species doesn’t have to venture far outside its native range to be considered invasive. Such is the case of the endangered Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ), which “ is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department—even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives.” Meanwhile, a 500 mile drive north of its relict range , a large specimen planted by European settlers in the 1850’s is an officially designated “Oregon Heritage Tree,” which we assume grants it some safety.

The State of New York includes a native plant, Silphium perfoliatum , on their “Prohibited and Regulated Invasive Plants” list because its growth is “aggressive.” Here the non-native requirement has been dropped entirely because the plant has committed the crime of thriving.

Similar accusations — of “encroachment” by native flora — are currently playing out with tragic circumstances in the western USA, where native Pinyon-Juniper forests are being eradicated. Juniper is now being called a “native invasive” by some. (We discuss this atrocity below.)

Excluded from the label are domesticated non-native plants on farms, which is not insignificant, considering that over one fifth of the land in the lower 48 states of the USA is cropland. That’s nearly 400 million acres of what was originally habitat for many, many native plant species. The excuse of “Well, we need to eat!” doesn’t fly here; only 20% of this cropland is devoted to growing food directly for US Americans; the remainder is for ethanol production, export industries and livestock feed.

Other exemptions apply. As the US Department of the Interior’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee points out: “Kentucky bluegrass would be considered an invasive species in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, but considered non-invasive a mere 60 miles away at a golf course in Denver.”

It should come as no surprise that one particular human-engineered landscape, though dominated by non-native plants species, nearly always get a pass, and that’s… the residential lawn.

Commercial interests have also been involved in defining what species are invasive and in drafting the official policies that guide the “management” of such species. As we discuss below, Monsanto has played no small part in the US federal stance. They and other chemical companies profit from the sale of herbicides used in “restoration.”

Though there is no consensus on the meaning of the word, “invasive,” the destructive effects of policies that aim to eradicate such plants are beyond doubt.

Negative effects of invasive plant removal efforts

“Invasive” plant species are removed using a variety of methods that can be classified into three broad categories: mechanical, biological and chemical. All means in these categories have their own varying rates of success and drawbacks. As practiced, few are effective at removing their targets without killing non-targets, and only then at very small scales. As the size of a particular project grows, so does the likelihood of unintended consequences and collateral damage.


Mechanical means include mowing, tilling, weed-whacking, smothering (with organic materials like mulch or synthetic ones like nylon fabric), soil solarization (covering the ground with plastic to kill plants and seeds), flooding (or alternately draining water if the target species is aquatic), prescribed burning, and simply pulling, hoeing or chopping by hand. Each of these processes varies in its precision (as measured by how many non-target species are also affected). Some, such as flooding, burning or smothering, affect all plants in the area of application. The particularity of others depends on the tools or materials used and on the operator’s skills, attention and concern. Unfortunately, it’s too often the case that operators lack those characteristics or are not properly equipped. The result is damage to non-”invasive” plants, the ones whose well-being is ostensibly of such strong interest.

In some cases, entire landscapes are scraped of all vegetative life. In the example of a project to remove European Beach Grass on a beach in Oregon, before and after photos document a process whose “success” resembles a moonscape. One is reminded of the adage, “We Had to Destroy the Village to Save It.

Further, non-target species are not limited to plants. Animals can also be displaced, injured or killed by all of the above methods. Burrowing mammals and reptiles can be chopped up, buried, asphyxiated, drowned or have their homes excavated (like the time I accidentally cut a Skink in half with a shovel blade while weeding a garden). Insects are harmed in their various life-stages, during some of which—caterpillars in cocoons, for example—they are unable to attempt escape. Fish and other aquatic creatures might lose an entire generation if their eggs are nestled in plants exposed by lowered water or buried in muddy lake floors that get covered by a “benthic barrier.” (Benthic barriers are sheets made of plastic, nylon, or burlap that are used to smother weeds underwater and which reduce or eliminate sunlight, deplete oxygen, and lead to gas production from decaying matter.)

The time taken to recover from the disturbance made by mechanical means differs depending on method, climate, season, etc. A quick bounce-back could be expected in the case of a careful individual digging up of blackberry canes in the US Pacific Northwest in springtime, for example. By contrast, a much longer time is needed when a Pinyon-Juniper woodland is “chained,” a process in which a very large chain is dragged between two tractors, uprooting everything in its path. Not only do trees need multiple decades to grow back, but the time required for certain soil-borne mosses in these ecosystems to completely regenerate might be well over two centuries.[1]

Additionally, mechanical means can actually encourage the reproduction of particular plants that thrive on certain disturbances. For example, Bindweed (the common name of several vining species in the Morning Glory family, most commonly in the genera Convolvulus or Calystegia) is very effectively spread by getting dug up or tilled under. A severed root fragment of as little as half an inch in length can produce an entirely new plant. This characteristic of Bindweed is well known in agricultural circles and we made the discovery for ourselves during our farming years.

Compared to chemical methods, mechanical ones can more easily be limited to target species because of their hands-on nature. However, they are usually more expensive than chemical methods due to equipment needs and labor hours, and so are often eschewed for that reason. Too often, saving a buck is more important than doing the best job.


Biological methods entail introducing additional non-native species that will consume the target plant. Most commonly, the new species are insects native to the target plant’s original habitat who were predators of the plant there. Ideally, the new species consumes only the target plant (i.e., has “host-specificity”), but it hasn’t always turned out this way. Warns the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS): “Classical biocontrol is irreversible and therefore it is essential that all potential consequences are adequately considered beforehand” [our emphasis]. Of course, it is impossible to foresee “all potential consequences.” That means trouble of some kind.

FWS lists a few ways in which introducing new species as a biocontrol can backfire. These are not hypothetical. Each one has been documented.

Non-target Attacks and Host-Shifting : Despite prior research, new predators can expand their diet to include non-target plants after they have been introduced. Such plants might be native or agricultural, so the damage can be ecological or economic.

Accidental Introductions : Despite care with collection and transport, other species can accompany the intended one. Cites the FWS: “For example, the pathogen Nosema was accidentally introduced as a contaminant of a weevil (Trichosirocalus horridus) introduced to control musk thistle.” Nosema affects Honey Bees and is a possible cause of colony-collapse disorder.

Food Web Interactions: An introduced species can throw off the balance in an ecosystem. FWS relates the case of a gall fly introduced to control a non-native plant that ended up becoming “superabundant” itself. This led to a two to three increase in the population of Deer Mice, which raised concerns that they might over eat native plants.

Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences lists over forty species of insects currently being used for biological control of “weeds.” One example is the so-called, “Klamathweed Beetle” (Chrysolina quadrigemina), which was released into the wild in California in the late-1940’s to control St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), a plant that Europeans imported in part for its medicinal uses. St. Johnny, as some herbalists call it, has become widespread throughout disturbed areas such as agricultural zones and along logging roads. Despite the voracious appetite of the beetle—which we witnessed ourselves in herb gardens where we were tending H. perforatum for harvesting—the plant remains common.

Not at all incidentally, the primary concern with St. Johnswort is that it causes phototoxicity in sheep. So the issue is economic, not ecological, and is being undertaken in the interest of a species that is itself non-native. Furthermore, though it is often claimed that the plant pushes out native plants in the disturbed areas where it thrives, we could not find any sources that actually demonstrate that allegation. For example, one article that is repeatedly cited to back up that claim merely restates it but offers no data or additional citation. In fact, the article is not even about the growth habits of St. Johnswort at all, but about the use of aphids as a biological control against it in Australia. One might be forgiven for wondering if the numerous people citing this article actually read it.

Domesticated animals are also used to eradicate invasive plants, but their role in these efforts is quite small compared to other methods. More significantly, cattle and sheep have played a major role in the distribution of non-native plant species, and in some areas—such as the arid non-agricultural west of the USA—have been one of the main vectors. Brush goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) have been increasingly popular in recent years—including in urban areas—but they will famously eat virtually anything (including plants that are toxic to them) so care needs to be taken.


Chemical methods for eradicating invasive plants are the most common because they are cheap and effective. Of course, they are also effective at killing non-target plants, and that result is quite common. In fact—and shockingly—less than 1% of a sprayed herbicide application ends up being delivered to the intended target. The remainder—if one can use that word to mean “the vast majority”—is dispersed into the surrounding environment. As a science, it’s quite a far cry from “exact.” A 1% success rate in just about any other endeavor would be considered a dismal failure.

What do the “extra” chemicals do? Let’s look at glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the world, which is manufactured by Monsanto and is the active ingredient in their notorious product, Round-Up. As a “broad spectrum” agent, it kills many kinds of plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, including algae. Sublethal doses are also harmful and lead to higher rates of fungal diseases and lower rates of micronutrient uptake. Additionally, glyphosate destroys beneficial bacteria and microorganisms in the soil, complicating recovery for native plants who no longer have the soil components required for health. As if that wasn’t enough, the bacteria that break down herbicides increase in number, further throwing off soil balance. Soil structure is also detrimentally effected by the way glyphosate binds with soil particles, which can lead to lower crops yields (and defeats the point of using it).

In the Animal Kingdom, glyphosate is also highly problematic. It can “cause genetic damage in fish, and also disrupt their immune systems… can cause genetic damage in insects… [and] can harm amphibians in a variety of ways, including causing genetic damage and disrupting their development.” In humans, “symptoms of exposure to glyphosate include eye irritation, burning eyes, blurred vision, skin rashes, burning or itchy skin, nausea, sore throat, asthma and difficulty breathing, headache, lethargy, nose bleeds, and dizziness” and it has been associated with “increased risks of the cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages, and attention deficit disorder.”

For years, the dangers of glyphosate to humans had been considered a matter of debate, but in a landmark court case in August 2018, a jury ordered glyphosate-manufacturer Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a California grounds keeper who was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With this precedent set, further lawsuits are expected. This is good news.

The use of any herbicide at all that kills non-target, native species reduces the area’s biodiversity, and not just of the plants. Any animals and insects that depend on those plants are also impacted. Furthermore, these holes punched in the ecosystem adversely affect the natural processes of succession that previously existed. Herbicides take the story “off script,” so to speak, and there’s no guarantee the remaining players will be able to improvise themselves out of their conundrum.

Direct exposure to herbicides is not necessary to suffer from them. Through a process known as “biomagnification,” levels of toxins increase in the natural food chain. So, a tainted plant is nibbled by a mouse who is eaten by a snake who is caught by a bird of prey. Not only is the bird poisoned, but the resulting level of accumulation is at a higher concentration than would happen through direct exposure.

The more that herbicides are used, the more that certain target plants can adapt and survive. “Pesticide resistance” has become a real issue, and the solution so far has been to apply more poisons, which of course leads to more “collateral” damage. It’s a vicious cycle that we cannot afford to continue.

But there are definitely “conservationists” and even “environmentalists” out there who are enthusiastic about dumping poisons on living things when the targets are invasive plants. Something about the “invasive” concept works to sweep aside thoughtfulness.

Alien species seem practically designed to excite public concern. Almost by definition they are most abundant, and most visible, in the most highly human-modified habitats, such as towns and cities. Personal encounters with aliens are routine, so everyone has an opinion, and it’s often ‘obvious’ that aliens are actively supplanting natives, even if that isn’t what’s happening at all. It’s equally ‘obvious’ that something must be done, even if it’s not clear what that should be, and even if ill-judged intervention might only make things worse. [2]

It is our stance that herbicides are always an “ill-judged intervention” in restoration. If that seems extreme, that’s only because invasive ideology has pushed the mainstream of discussion to such an extreme place, where the perverse logic of war has been made commonplace.

The Feds (and Monsanto) sound the invasives alarm

The story of how the invasive species concept came to such wide public prominence starts in the late 1990s.

Although invasion biology as a school of thought was inspired by the 1958 publication of Charles S. Elton’s “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants,” that book did not attract much attention for decades, even among biologists. It would not be scientific interests that would fuel the charge, but commercial motivations.

A watershed moment came on Feb. 3, 1999, with the issuing by President Clinton of Executive Order 13112 , which created the National Invasive Species Council (NISC). The order defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Note that “economic” precedes “environmental.” That’s not an accident.

Back up two years to 1997, when the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) set up the “Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel” to make policy recommendations about a range of environmental issues including invasive species. PCAST’s membership was comprised about half/half of people from academia and the corporate world. From the latter were representatives from Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin (because apparently the military-industrial complex has to be involved in everything), D.E. Shaw & Co. (an investment firm), Glaxo-Wellcome (pharmaceuticals, now GlaxoSmithKline), IBM and… Monsanto.

The panel was chaired by Peter Raven. Raven was a nationally known botanist, the Director of the famous Missouri Botanical Gardens and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, but it was undoubtedly his ties to Monsanto that gained him his esteemed position on the panel. As reported by journalist Andrew Cockburn, Monsanto and Raven enjoyed a close relationship that included large donations from Monsanto to the Missouri Botanical Garden. In kind, Raven used his academic credibility, good reputation, and extensive network to help sell the public on the idea of genetically modified crops, which were then a recent development (having first been planted commercially in the US in 1996).

Then and now, Monsanto produces GMO crops that are “Round-Up resistant,” meaning they are not harmed by application of the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto also manufactures. (No GMO crop to date has been developed for higher yields per se.) As the planting of GMO crops has become more widespread, so has the use of glyphosate and its negative affects on the environment, including steep declines in the populations of the Monarch butterfly, whose host plant has been especially hard hit by the notorious environmental toxin.

In March 1998, the panel issued its report, “Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital.” The political message is clear in the first lines: “Over the last few decades, a new paradigm has emerged: Improving and protecting our environment is compatible with growing the Nation’s economy.” As any serious environmentalist knows, that’s a statement of fantasy, not fact. The resources of the planet are finite, while the appetites of an expanding economy are endless. The two are incompatible. Raven, of all people, should know that, having collaborated with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, back in the day.

There’s a lot of talk in “Teaming with Life” about “sustainable management,” “natural capital,” “biological resources,” “economic incentives to conserve” and the “’next generation’ national biological information infrastructure.” “Ecosystem services” are mentioned no less than 35 times. It’s doublespeak that has nothing to do with true conservation and everything to do with corporate bottom-lines, especially of the industries represented on the panel. Monsanto’s favorite, genetic research, is found under nearly every subject heading in the report. The second recommendation made in the Executive Summary is to “search out America’s biological species, their genetic properties, and their interrelationship” [our emphasis]. For Monsanto, the value of biodiversity is that “with genetic engineering, helpful traits in these wild relatives may be transferred to the crop species.”

Mentions of invasive species are sprinkled throughout the report, including the incredible claim that “at present, approximately one-fourth of annual US agricultural GNP is lost to invasive species and the cost of controlling them” We were unable to confirm or locate this figure anywhere else.

The report recommended “a mechanism to coordinate resources and initiatives to evaluate, control and mitigate the impact of invasive species should be developed across Federal agencies.”

That very outcome came to fruition a little less than a year later with Clinton’s executive order forming the NISC. In hindsight, we can recognize this action as yet another example of the neo-liberal ism that guided Clinton’s governance: the state’s role as regulator was exchanged for that of enabler, and instead of the commons being protect ed , it was divvied up amongst the highest bidders. But all with the right-sounding language, so most people were sold on it.

Cockburn notes that “among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for ‘habitat-restoration markets’—that is, for eradicating invasives.”

We respectfully suggest that you can have a process of legitimate scientific review and recommendation or you can have a process involving Monsanto every step of the way, but that you can no t have both.

Every political process involves compromise. In this case the compromise was between, on one hand, powerful industries with fat purses , and on the other, academic institutions that seek research funding. So, one unstated but understood element for all participants was financial interest of some kind. Their work cannot be understood clearly without taking that element into account. There is no moral judgment in this observation; it is simply descriptive.

Why does it matter? Because entities like NISC play a significant role in setting both the tone of the discussion and the parameters of action for the issues they cover. That’s the purpose of such public/private partnerships. The “stakeholders” agree what’s important and that’s how policy is dictated and how funds are disbursed. The messaging trickles down through related institutions and reaches the level of the individual with the resonance of distant but respected authority.

Fast-forward to 2016.

The NISC has now existed for seventeen years. Hundreds of government agencies at every level, from city, county and state to federal , are targeting invasive plants in their jurisdictions, taking their cues from above. Glyphosate has become a favorite eradication method across the nation. In 2014, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Budgets increased in both 2015 and 2016.

NISC’s “Management Plan, 2016-2018,” approved on July 11, 2016 contains a few interesting nuggets:

+ A recommendation to use free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership to work with other nations towards “enhancing efforts to assess and address the risks and adverse impacts of invasive species.” Here’s a way to expand markets globally.

+ A warning! “ The United States currently lacks the comprehensive authority, or clarity of authority, necessary to effectively prevent, eradicate, and control invasive species that impact the human-built environment (“infrastructure”)… and that cause or transmit wildlife disease.” Thus are identified two more areas for expanding commercial markets.

+ By far the most malevolent item, we felt: “ By altering the genomes of entire populations of wild organisms , genetic editing may improve capacities to prevent, eradicate, and/or control populations of invasive species currently thought to be an indefinite problem” [our emphasis].

The issue of invasives has been receiving increasing attention from the power structure since 1999. Why is that? Let’s assume the issues as stated are real and have worsened since then; even if that’s the case, it’s still doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The climate crisis has increased tremendously since 1999 but there has been no concomitant ramping up of resources to address it, and it’s a bigger one: literally existential for the human race. Other crises have also worsened—over drinking water, affordable housing, and access to healthy food, for example—and none have merited an executive-ordered brain trust. No, the rising level of attention for invasives in officialdom is not about science or ecology or need; it’s simply reflective of the growing opportunities for profit by certain powerful players, most prominently herbicide manufacturers.

If there is a real invasion crisis, they’re not looking to solve it, just like no arms manufacturer wants to see world peace. So if you believe that there is a legitimate invasion crisis—and that’s a subject that deserves serious treatment—then you need to look beyond the conventional wisdom as filtered down to us from above. If we want facts, we need to start from the ground up. And lucky for us, that’s where we all happen to be, isn’t it?

The two of us daily mourn the hurts in the world that need healing. Also, it’s not that we don’t believe in invasions. We know that a very real one happened in 1492 and that forces of domination have occupied the continent since then. We agree that something doesn’t belong here. That’s where we’d like to focus our attention.

The Pinyon-Juniper forest tragedy

A pointless, brutal tragedy is currently taking place in the Great Basin of the US American west: the destruction of native Pinyon-Juniper forests. Old growth trees are being clear-cut, shredded and mulched. Collateral damage is being suffered by the vibrant community of flora and fauna these forests host.

As noted by biologist Katie Fite, this campaign against Pinyon-Juniper forests is the third wave in a series of massive assaults in US history. The first happened in the second half of the 19th Century when “trees were clearcut over vast areas—even their roots dug out—to produce charcoal to process gold and silver ore.” The purpose of the second wave, after WWII, was to clear land for ranchers. Trees were cut, chained, sprayed and burned on a large-scale basis until the 90’s. Three million acres were converted to pasture between 1950 and 1964, and more than a third of a million acres between 1960 and 1972, in Utah and Nevada alone. [3]

The current wave is being spearheaded by the BLM and the Forest Service and once again for the benefit of ranchers, though that’s not how it’s being presented. Instead, the ostensible reasons are to improve Sage- G rouse habitat, control wildfires, and halt the spread of so-called “native invasive” specie s, a new label being pinned on the Pinyon and Juniper trees.

We hasten to note that the “native invasive” concept does not enjoy consensus in the invasion biology community, at least not yet. But for the Pinyon-Juniper forests being decimated right now under that rubric, that’s no consolation.

Not that the word, “invasive,” has to be spoken for its damning specter to be invoked. In project descriptions, the BLM talks about the need to “restore natural site conditions” and remove “encroaching pinyon-juniper trees.” This isn’t the letter, but it’s the spirit. These are fighting words and they spur on the eradication of an enemy without any further justification. The language paves the way. Not for the first time in history , the popularity of an inciting ideology is giving cover to a criminal act.

How can the Pinyon tree be “encroaching” when it has lived in the area for so long? The Single-Needled Pinyon (Pinus monophylla), which is the dominant Pinyon species in Nevada and to the west, originated around 20 million years ago as a mutation of the Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis).[4] That makes P. monophylla 100 times older than Homo sapiens, which only goes back 200,000 years. Considering the age difference, do we have any right at all to question the wisdom of this elder? We’re serious. Maybe we ought to get off of their lawn.

P. edulis, which is even older, is currently found in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, but the ranges of both species have experienced expansions and contractions as climatic conditions have changed. For example, since the end of the last glaciation period, 11,700 years ago, they have been moving steadily northwards. ”Historic range” has been fluid over time but aren’t the locals just allowed to amble where they wish?

The BLM “treatments” in the Great Basin, both proposed and ongoing, include “lop and drop,” mastication, herbicides and chaining. Chaining involves attaching a huge anchor chain from a battleship between two tractors and dragging it along the desert floor, ripping trees and bushes from the ground, wrecking delicate soil crusts, and killing or injuring countless other creatures in their dens, nests and hideouts. The extent of the damage is unknown, as it is not being adequately tracked.

These “treatments” are presented as a viable option for creating Sage- G rouse habitat, rather than, say, removing cattle from degraded habitat so it can recover or not opening up current, more intact habitat for fracking. Other bogus reasons for “treatment” include decreasing erosion (whatever that means), and increasing stream flow for water users (who are already taking more than can be sustained).

Will Falk, an eloquently spoken friend of Pinyon-Juniper forests, summed it up well:

“The Pinyon-Juniper encroachment theory is a product of settler colonialism’s historical amnesia. One of the products of the white supremacy brought to the Great Basin by European settlers is a selective memory that ignores guilt-inducing facts of ecological destruction wrought on the Great Basin by European mining activities.”

Amnesia is right. The proponents of “encroachment” projects repeatedly refer to historical ranges of Pinyon-Juniper woodlands from the early 20th Century, a reference date conveniently placed after the massive clear-cutting of the late 19th Century, which significantly impacted these ancient forests and reduced their ranges locally.

A visit to the old Ward charcoal kilns on state park land outside Ely, Nevada, provide a great opportunity to confirm evidence of the former clear-cutting, as Nicole saw for herself on a 2017 visit. This is only one of many operations where thriving forests were converted into fuel for smelting ore. Tourist signs boast of how during their three years of operation (1876-1879), all the trees were cleared for thirty miles in every direction. As the trees of forest have returned to their recently vacated home, with the help of birds and other creatures, they have been falsely described as “encroaching.” The foothills in that valley have been subjected to removal treatment well within thirty miles of the ovens.

The Ward charcoal kilns that Nicole visited, Spring 2017

The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]
The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]
The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]
The hills near the Ward Charcoal Kilns. [Photo N.P. Hill]
The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]
The Ward Charcoal Kilns [Photo N.P. Hill]

About fifty miles west of Ely is the town of Eureka, where “by 1878 the woodland was nowhere closer than fifty miles.”[5] This history repeats itself, about every 50 miles, all across the state along Highway 50, west to Virginia City. Throughout the entire area, Pinyon-Juniper forests have been recovering their native range, but certain invasive humans can’t leave them alone.

Such humans who argue for this “restoration” cite research that lacks real data, but no matter; they rely heavily on anxiety inducing language, and that’ll do the trick. This is a recurring theme that echoes through invasive biology. A fearful claim of invasion is the beginning bias of research, so results are reported as such, that bias is fed to the public and the restoration industry is fueled by public tax dollars and grants to answer the destructive cry. Take this sentence: “Most ecologists and resource managers agree that juniper has become a deleterious native invasive plant that threatens other vegetation ecosystems, such as grasslands, through a steady encroachment and ultimate domination” [our emphasis]. “Deleterious,” “threatens,” “encroachment,” “domination”: Those words describe someone, for sure, but it’s not Juniper.

We must point out that an indispensable party is left out of nearly all discussions of the Pinyon-Juniper forests and that’s the Native Americans. Pinyons were central to the lifeways of many tribes including the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, Cahuilla, Havasupai, Hopi and Kawaiisu, among others, who enjoyed the nuts as a staple food in a variety of delicious and healthy preparations; availed of the pitch and resin medicinally for a multitude of ailments; and utilized the needles, bark and wood for crafts and tools. Juniper berries also provided a source of sustenance for different tribes, though they were more sparingly employed.[6] The campaign to remove these trees in the 19thCentury didn’t just provide fuel for industry. Like the annihilation of the buffalo in the Midwest at the same time, it served to sever the Native Americans from their land by slaughtering their sources of sustenance.[7]

In this way, the current assault on Pinyon-Juniper forests is just the latest chapter of the Indian Wars, which never ended.

So yes, let’s take this word—“invasive”—and let’s stick it where it belongs. But that’s not on plants who have lived here for tens of millions of years—or on any plant at all, for that matter, who are all merely acting in their own nature, regardless of where they end up, no fault of their own. No, there’s one place and one place only where that word belongs and that’s on the savage culture of death that arrived here from the “Old World” in 1492 and is still viscously occupying this land.

We who benefit from this reality need to own up to it and stop dishing out the blame where it doesn’t belong. As a start.

In Part 2, we will detail some of the questionable statistics that bolster invasion biology.

In Part 3, we will discuss the ramifications of climate change for invasion biology, the bad science behind Tamarisk & Russian Olive removal, and the cultural issues raised by invasion biology’s popularity.


[1] Jones, Allison & Catlin, Jim & Vazquez, Emanuel “Mechanical Treatment of Piñon-Juniper and Sagebrush Systems in the Intermountain West: A Review of the Literature” (Wild Utah Project).
[2] Thompson, Ken. Where Do Camels Belong? The Story and Science of Invasive Species. (London: Profile Books, 2014), epub edition, location: 82.5.
[3] Lanner, Ronald M. The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1981), p. 144.
[4] Lanner, from “Chapter 3—Origin of a Species: How the Singleleaf Piñon Was Born.”
[5] Lanner, p. 136.
[6] Sonnenblume, Kollibri terre. “Singleleaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla)” and “California Juniper (Juniperus californica)” entries in Wildflowers of Joshua Tree Country (Portland, Oregon: Macska Moksha Press), 2015.
[7] Lanner, from “Chapter 15—Fuel for a Silver Empire.”

Nicole Patrice Hill holds a bachelors degree in Environmental Science with a minor in Botany. She is a former farmer who has been exploring the wildtending life in the US American west. Ms. Hill can be reached at wildwiskedjak (AT) riseup (DOT) net

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer, photographer, tree hugger, animal lover and dissident, whose work can be found at Macska Moksha Press. Kollibri can be reached at kollibri (AT) macskamoksha (DOT) com