Women removing Opuntia stricta, an invasive species which rapidly renders natural and agricultural landscapes impassable to people and large animals (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofRtR9pH2Ow).

Written by IGC Fellows Vasiliy Lakoba, Rachel Brooks, Hye-jeong Seo, Ariel Heminger, Becky Fletcher, Lauren Maynard

Invasive species are one of the principal facets of Global Environmental Change. As with other crises such as climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, the biological implications of invasive species are closely entwined with their socio-cultural contexts. As defined by Executive Order 13112, an invasive species is one “whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” (Clinton, 1999). The understanding that invasive species are at least as much a social issue as they are an ecological one is baked into this definition. Those of us in the natural sciences typically engage invasive species policy through a technical lens. Fortunately, IGC and the broader VT community provide us with a host of connections to experts in the social and human dimensions of environmental policy.

Our group – six IGC fellows with an array of interests in invasive species policy – reached out across campus to organize a transdisciplinary discussion hosted by students in the Community Change Collaborative (CCC), an organization in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Faculty and administrators from four departments — Max Stephenson (SPIA), Todd Schenk (SPIA), Scott Salom (Entomology), David Haak (SPES), Jacob Barney (SPES), and Cathy Grimes (Graduate School) — were also vital in enriching our discussion with their expertise. The aim of our meeting was to explore how the conversation around invasive species can incorporate perspectives from community engagement and development in ways that may inform policy and scientific research.

Our discussion was stimulated by three readings addressing the theme from different angles. IGC fellows provided a text which argued that overly simplified and combative language drains the nuance from the complexity of biological invasions (Lidstrom et al. 2015). While other environmental studies writers claim that the “slow violence” of gradually compounding ecological threats requires distillation of clear imperatives to spur action, Lidstrom et al. (2015) counter that “fast narratives” can cause more harm than good, particularly with invasive species. These narratives create a black-and-white image, which does not consider ecological, economic, or cultural realities where many invaders have redeeming qualities. They also perpetuate linear thinking when it comes to solutions and hamper researchers’, land managers’, and citizens’ potential for novel and creative solutions.

CCC member Katherine Santizo, a PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, provided a document published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) which underscores that communities bearing the brunt of environmental crisis impacts are often those which have the least access to technical expertise and relevant resources (UCS 2016). According to UCS, these communities are looking for scientists who can lend technical expertise, help write grants to mitigate the problems, and help shape and lobby for policy which will ease their burdens. Scientists who want to engage locally must learn to listen to the public and facilitate processes which gain community members’ trust and lead to solutions which are tailored to their needs, not pre-determined.

IGC faculty member Jacob Barney provided a 2013 invasive plant policy paper by Quinn et al. which proposes regulatory reforms aimed at helping natural areas conservation as well as the bioenergy industry. The authors presented a unifying framework which (1) assesses invasion risk based on data, (2) determines whether a plant can be introduced safely as is or requires modification, and (3) bases liability on whether the party introducing the plant followed parts 1 and 2 of this procedure. Quinn et al. (2013) also wrote in favor of allowing invasive plant/species councils (IPCs) to propose invasive plants for listing so that they are represented alongside agricultural weeds.

Much of the IGC-CCC discussion was framed in socio-economic and cultural terms – something that our CCC and SPIA colleagues helped us grapple with through case studies and theoretical frameworks. The four IGC faculty in the discussion also brought their years of experience in invasive species regulation, extension, public outreach, and the science-policy interface. IGC and CCC students shared thoughts on species which cannot be regulated without considering social implications, such as invasive plants used as fuel by lower income communities in Nepal or smelt in Lake Superior which have become a cultural staple over the decades. We also discussed the merits and pitfalls of the precautionary principle as used to regulate introductions in Australia but not exclusively in the United States. Preventing invasion by placing the burden of proof on those who introduce species is something which can be technically and economically difficult, but vital to protecting our ecosystems and livelihoods. Several of our participants expanded on this point to address the role of environmental justice as there is an unequal distribution of risks and benefits of introducing invasive species as well as solutions to them. Solutions to invasion must engage the internal motivations of communities, rather than assign band-aid fixes which many cannot sustain economically. In this vein, when we choose to confront invasive species we must learn not to “other” those who have been saddled with a problem they can’t afford by those who can (e.g. “ghetto palm” vs. “tree-of-heaven” for Ailanthus altissima).

We also came away from the meeting with pressing questions. Where does invasions exist in terms of human geography? Is it a problem like pollution whose sources and sinks are inequitably distributed across demographics or industries? Does this differ across taxa? Given that eradication is an idea more so than a practice, what is a “tolerable” amount of invasive species? How will this be determined and by whom? How do scientists and policymakers communicate the quality of a solution? This last question is one that will require us to step outside our fields and “connect across differences” – a call which Patty Raun impresses upon IGC fellows through coursework and events at the Center for Communicating Science. To this end, participants shared resources for practicing our interdisciplinary science via Virginia Cooperative Extension, upcoming citizen science conferences, and scientist-community placement through the AAAS.

Perspectives from CCC members and the participating faculty helped us see invasive species in a broader social context. Most of us tend to study invasion through our technical domains. Given the scientific information we regularly work with, it can be baffling why regulation of this crisis is so underfunded and under-enforced. Viewing it as a confluence of social, economic, and political interests, however, we can begin to understand the complex web of stakeholders we will need to navigate as researchers and advocates to be effective but also sensitive to the needs of communities of all stripes.