By Tom Gilbert
What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in New Jersey yards and gardens often can’t be contained – especially when non-native plants are present.
When species from other regions of the world are introduced, they can spread aggressively and create ecological havoc.
“Invasive species” is the term used to describe organisms that harm the ecology or human health in places where they are not native.
New Jersey has been besieged by hundreds of invasive species, creating a serious threat to forests that protect clean water, support native wildlife and provide our best defense against climate change.
For example, plants like Japanese barberry and Oriental bittersweet are taking over some forests in this state we’re in, crowding out native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
Invasive species also include destructive insects like the spotted lanternfly and the emerald ash borer, as well as non-native fish and other aquatic species.
Fortunately, the state Legislature seems committed to finding solutions. In December, the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced a bill that, if passed, would help rein in the spread of invasives through better regulation, including a ban on the sale of invasive plants. A companion bill has been proposed in the state Assembly.
The legislation would also reinstate the New Jersey Invasive Species Council, an advisory group that was eliminated in 2010 under Gov. Chris Christie.
The council produced an excellent 2009 report on invasive species, which would be updated to reflect current conditions and economic impact numbers if the legislation is passed.
This important work toward controlling invasive species would put New Jersey on par with neighboring New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, which all have invasive species laws on their books.
According to the 2009 report, thousands of non-native species have been introduced to New Jersey, many from Asia.
Although most do not become invasive or cause harm, the small percentage that do pose serious threats to the state’s environmental, economic and social welfare.
Invasive species are considered the second greatest threat to biodiversity, after outright habitat destruction.
Members of the New Jersey Forest Stewardship Task Force who testified before the Senate committee in December said New Jersey has been overrun by about 200 invasive plants and 100 other invasive species, including fish, vertebrate animals and pathogens.
Addressing invasive species was identified as an area of broad agreement among task force participants.
Most invasive plants that have spread across New Jersey’s landscape were introduced by unsuspecting gardeners and landscapers.
Currently, there are no regulations preventing harmful non-native plants from being sold at garden centers and nurseries – or even labels warning of harmful consequences.
“When we plant invasive species in our gardens, they don’t stay in our gardens,” testified Laura Bush of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. “They spread into the surrounding fields and out-compete and crowd out native species.”
Once invasive plants escape from yards and gardens, their vines and extensive root systems can destroy native forest plants.
A forest overcrowded with invasive plants becomes inhospitable to insects, birds and other animals that depend on native plants, resulting in a collapse of the ecosystem.
According to the New Jersey Forest Stewardship Task Force, more than 40% of the state’s rare and endangered species are at risk because of invasive species.
The New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team, part of the nonprofit Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS), was founded 15 years ago to help combat the threat posed by invasives.
The strike team keeps a “Do Not Plant” list of dozens of invasive plants commonly found at garden centers.
Invasive vines include English ivy, Chinese wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu, winter creeper and Japanese and fragrant clematis.
Invasive shrubs include winged burning bush, autumn and Russian olive, Scotch broom, seaside rose and many privet species.
Trees on the list include Callery pear, Norway maple, Chinese mulberry, mimosa and Japanese crabapple.
Herbaceous plants include watercress, yellow iris, purple loosestrife, Japanese pachysandra and Chinese silvergrass.
The New Jersey invasive species bill, S-2186/A-3677, sponsored by senators Bob Smith and Linda Greenstein, includes an initial list of invasive plants that could only be sold or cultivated with a permit from the state Department of Agriculture.
The list will likely expand as the final version of the bill is negotiated and the Invasive Species Council would be able to suggest new invasives to add to the list or recommend changes in regulations.
When determining whether to add a new species to the list of invasives, the state would have to consider the threat it poses to native species, sensitive habitats, endangered or threatened species, and historical, cultural or infrastructure resources; and the likelihood the species will escape intended cultivation areas and propagate uncontrolled.
“While we might be late to the party compared to other states, we hope to be the best guest by having very thoughtful and thorough legislation,” said Mike Van Clef, director of the Invasive Species Strike Team, noting New Jersey is one of only five states without legislation banning the sale of invasives.
Confronting the threats posed by invasive species will not be a simple task. It will require resources to prevent new invasions, limit the spread of invasive species that are already present and restore damaged ecosystems. But invasive species are already costing our state dearly by taking away priceless ecosystem services provided by native forests.
It is encouraging to see the bipartisan support the invasive species bill has gotten in the Legislature. It is time for New Jersey to step up to the challenge and catch up with our neighbors. Efforts to control invasive species throughout the Northeast will be more successful if neighboring states work toward a common good.
To read the bill as it currently stands, go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/bill-search/2022/S2186
To learn more about invasive species, go to the strike team website at www.fohvos.info/invasive-species-strike-team/info-center/
Tom Gilbert is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.