I started a new job as an invasives species specialist with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District in the spring of 2021. First impressions? Fast learning, bunches of online meetings and workshops, and opportunities for certifications and in-person training. Best of all, a ton of cool fieldwork.
Right away I realized I had landed in a highly cooperative venture. We work closely with many different folks, including state and federal agencies, non-profits, and tribal entities: the US Forest Service, Kenai Watershed Forum, US Fish and Wildlife Service, City of Homer, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Homer Electric Association, Homer Demonstration Forest, Seldovia Village Tribe, the State of Alaska, and more.
If you found that a mouthful, don’t worry. So did I. But amidst the alphabet soup of names, I found a community of passionate professionals working together to keep the wilds of Alaska pristine and unhindered by invasive species.
When it comes to the cool fieldwork, you might not be surprised to hear that working with invasive plants involves herbicides. Going into this job, I had some skepticism about using herbicides. But they’re one of the many tools laid out in our integrated pest management strategy, and I knew that. As I learned more about safe handling, proper mixing, and judicious application of herbicide, though, my aversion evolved. I developed an understanding of the utility of these products – there are times when other strategies (e.g., pulling, digging, smothering) just don’t work.
In fact, in some cases, yanking on plants can be more harmful than helpful. With orange hawkweed, for example, if you pull the flowers or break off the plants, it encourages the plant to spread. Experts have found chemical control – herbicide – the most effective method for eradicating this pretty but highly invasive plant.
I also learned that the herbicides we use to treat invasive plants carry the EPA’s lowest category signal word: “Caution”. Compare that to the much stronger “Danger” that accompanies the chlorine bleach some of us might add to our laundry, or the chlorine often used to purify drinking water. The gasoline I routinely pump into my vehicle (and occasionally spill while filling the lawnmower or snowblower) is more hazardous than the herbicides I use at work.
It became clear to me that the many benefits of ridding native ecosystems of harmful invasive plants outweigh the minimal risk involved with herbicide use. And, while herbicides aren’t a long-term solution to invasive plant management and should only be used when other methods aren’t sufficient, experience has shown me the benefit of judicious herbicide use in certain circumstances.
I was recently looking back and thinking, wait a minute, have I been brainwashed? Have I become a company shill as I defend the use of what I once shunned? But no. Knowledge is power, and changing my mind was the result of learning new information.
With this job, I’ve had the opportunity to work in places I know well and now know in new ways. Places where development has opened up bare ground to host loads of harmful invasive plants and places where human-made pathways, like trails and roads, have become conduits for invasive plant spread. Many of these places lie adjacent to less-traveled landscapes, some of them untouched by humans. It would be devastating for invasive plants to take root in these wilder places.
As I prepare for another season, I remain optimistic. With diligence and the appropriate tools (yes, that means herbicide sometimes), we can – and will – squelch these invasive plant infestations before they spread into the peninsula’s more fragile habitats and pristine landscapes.
Scroll down to the FAQs on the “Prevent” page of our website to learn more about herbicide safety and the use of herbicides in invasive plant management.