MAXWELL:  Environmental cures are worse than the disease

8/8/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When flora and fauna are involved, Floridians, especially elected officials and other sundry bureaucrats, are some of the dumbest people in the union _ perhaps the world.

We, the human menagerie who choose paradise as our home, love to import exotic stuff. However, almost every time we bring home a botanical or zoological stranger and sink it into our tropical soil, cage it, imprison it in an aquarium or float it in our waterways, we regret our actions.

Each year, though, we welcome dozens of noxious outsiders that cost us millions of dollars in equally exotic efforts to control.

Most of these invaders are nature’s own.

Others are man-made: Take the new phantasm called Fusarium oxysorum, a “mycoherbicide” that is being developed by the Montana company Ag/Bio Con.

And just what is a mycoherbicide? It is a fungus that kills plants. In this case, it is a real “weed” killer, manufactured to destroy marijuana plants in the Sunshine State.

That is right. Gov. Jeb Bush’s hand-picked, zealous drug czar, Jim McDonough _ himself a New York transplant _ is so determined to rid Florida of pot that he wants to release into our fragile environment a soil-borne fungus that we know diddly-squat about.

McDonough is embracing the word of Ag/Bio Con. that Fusarium oxysorum “does not affect animals, humans or any other crops,” and he is hoping that experiments at the University of Florida will prove that the fungus is safe.

Fortunately, David Struhs, secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and his scientists are not being swept up by Ag/Bio Con.’s claims. If they err, they apparently are choosing to do so on the side of putting the environment first.

Struhs expressed his alarm in a letter to McDonough: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species. The inability to guarantee that the organism will not mutate and attack other plant species is of most concern.

“Mutation of the organism would not only threaten Florida’s natural environment, but would also put at risk our economically vital agricultural industry. . . . Without considerably more information to address these concerns . . . I strongly recommend that Florida not proceed further with this proposal.”

Too late.

Emboldened by the support of anti-drug crusaders, such as U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, who calls the fungus the “silver bullet,” Tim Moore, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Betty Sembler, the influential wife of one of the GOP’s best fundraisers, McDonough is plowing ahead with his fungus scheme.

Native Floridians and transplants who love the state’s natural wonder should actively oppose McDonough’s blind tinkering with nature. After all, his mission is not so much about eradicating marijuana as it is about right-wing Republican politics.

Lest we forget, we have a long history of creating environmental Frankensteins that could have been avoided had we proceeded with “good” science and common sense. In trying to establish dominion over the environment and rid nature of phenomena that inconvenience humans, we repeatedly concoct cures far worse than the disease.

One of the most boneheaded feats of environmental engineering was the planting of Australian melaleuca to drain the Everglades. Decades later, the thirsty trees have more than done their job _ draining the River of Grass beyond recovery and drying up thousands of acres of other South Florida wetlands. We have no way of accurately measuring, in dollars or human effort, what we squander on trying to strangle the melaleuca menace.

Do not discount the invasive prowess of kudzu, the supercharged Chinese vine that grows like Jack’s bean stalk along Florida roadways. Our prescient leaders, cocksure that it posed no threat to the environment, imported kudzu in the 1920s to control erosion. Well, guess what? This exotic pest grows a foot per day under the right conditions.

For shade and windbreaks, our bureaucratic wunderkinds brought in Australian pines. These non-native giants seeded rapidly and often bunched in the hundreds on single lots, tearing up sewers and buckling sidewalks and foundations.

Developers and ordinary citizens have been just as misguided in fiddling with the environment. A nice little lady brought the prolific water hyacinth from the World’s Fair in New Orleans and plopped it into a pond in Putnam County. Today, the weed rules many waterways. As we try to drown it with pesticides, we wind up killing valuable aquatic life.

Here on the Suncoast where I live and work, residents often travel abroad and return with non-native plants. A famous example is Flora Wylie, who brought the seed of an Ochorisia Eliptica tree from Italy in her shoe. The seed passed to a local nurseryman, who propagated it into what has become a favorite tree throughout the state at Christmastime. No matter how much people love the Ochorisia Eliptica, this Italian interloper, which crowds out native varieties, does not belong in Florida.

Another misadventure, which began innocently enough, gave Florida yet another exotic. In 1989, Alan Bunch, in the town of Seffner, traveled to Hawaii and went bananas over the Plumeria rubra, popularly called frangipani. Back home, he could not forget the fragrant blossoms of the tree. Well, Bunch went to work, growing the plant and selling it to all comers.

When will this lunacy stop?

The state has a so-called Upland Invasive Plant Program, but I do not see much evidence that it is effective. Palm Beach County is the only region that seems to be serious about ridding its environs of exotics. Officials there have updated their 1992 code to require residents in all unincorporated areas to eradicate all non-natives on their property by 2006.

Here are the plants and trees that must be removed in Palm Beach: Air potato vine, Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, schefflera, kudzu, earleaf acacia, carrotwood, melaleuca and the small-leaved climbing fern.

Because Florida is a keystone state, one that disproportionately attracts new, permanent residents each year, officials at all levels should follow the example of Palm Beach County and adopt environmental policies that protect our two most important economic assets: tourism and agriculture. Guess what each industry depends on for its viability?

The environment.

Hopes should not run high, however, that officials elsewhere will come to their senses any time soon. Why should they be expected to when one of the state’s most powerful men _ the drug czar _ wants to introduce a pot-killing fungus into an environment that already struggles against too many non-native life forms?