It's been a long time since the days of "Banned in Boston", but back in the late 1990s one little, glossy pamphlet caused such a stink that a state agency was compelled to pull it from circulation. The offending manuscript was neither profane nor intended to outrage social sensibilities, but rather an attempt to inform the general public about plants which several reputable botanists and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considered to be invasive.
A Guide to Invasive Plants in Massachusetts by Pam Weatherbee, Paul Somers and Tim Simmons highlighted 17 plant species for special emphasis, and by and large these were the usual suspects. It also included a page listing many more species that the authors considered problem plants, and some of these were more obscure, and their impact on Massachusetts unclear. As an outreach tool, it had attractive design features and was intended to reach a broad audience. Its greatest impact, however, was in the negative response by the nursery industry it unwittingly provoked.
Ever since President Clinton's February 3, 1999 executive order establishing a national invasive species council, the nursery and landscaping industry has been on notice that invasive plants are a serious issue. It is no secret that many, but by no means all , of the invasive plant species now established in the United States were originally horticultural introductions. A smaller number of these plants remain important in the nursery trade. It serves no purpose to apportion blame for past introductions and, in any case, there is plenty of responsibility to go around. The USDA, you may recall, pushed Autumn olive as a "living hedge." Nonetheless, the Massachusetts invasive plant guide put the horticultural industry on the defensive, and it was quick to respond.
The leadership of Massachusetts nursery and landscaping organizations looked at this state pamphlet and had profound concerns, not only about its economic impacts, but on the very premise by which species were selected for inclusion as invasive. The criteria used to identify invasive plants in Massachusetts were not explicit, nor was it clear that objective science, rather than anecdotes, had been used to determine the species of concern.
As a result, the horticultural industry used its considerable political leverage to halt distribution of the pamphlet. The story might have ended there, with acrimony and polarization preventing any substantive, broad based action to address the problem of invasive species in the Commonwealth. Remarkably, out of a shotgun marriage, a unique partnership was forged instead between the nursery industry, land managers, conservationists, and state and federal agencies. In defiance of all expectations, this effort produced an extraordinary consensus on which plants should be considered invasive in Massachusetts and what actions ought to be done to meaningfully address the problem.
The Massachusetts Invasive Species Advisory Group (MIPAG) that emerged from this initial conflict is unlike any other invasive species council in America. It has managed to engender a high degree of trust and mutual respect among former antagonists. It has developed effective partnerships between conservation interests and the horticultural industry. Although MIPAG is not formally recognized by state statute, the reports and findings of the group are endorsed by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. Unlike other invasive species lists and bans undertaken in New Hampshire and Connecticut, where there is still intense resistance from the horticultural industry, the outcome of MIPAG's work resulted in agreement by the nursery leaders and the Bureau of Farm Products to phase out the sale and distribution of every species determined by MIPAG to be invasive or potentially invasive in the Commonwealth.
How did this collaboration succeed in Massachusetts and turn antagonists into effective partners? Is the Massachusetts case unique, for indeed such a broad-based, consensus building response to invasives has not, to my knowledge, occurred elsewhere in the United States? Or are there key conditions for the success of the Massachusetts model that could be replicated in other states?
I have served on MIPAG from its early days, and believe that an essential part of its success was that the nursery leadership was motivated to go beyond simply stopping the distribution of a list it found objectionable. It had to work with the state to come up with a viable alternative, because the writing was on the wall that regulation was on its way and it made sense to be part of the solution.
Horticultural leaders from the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA); the New England Nursery Association; and the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) sat down at the table with the Massachusetts Heritage and Endangered Species Program and its conservation partners to develop and apply objective criteria for assessing the invasiveness of plant species in Massachusetts. Criteria were drafted and refined with the help of Dr. Les Mehrhoff of the University of Connecticut and a founder of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England. Dr. Mehrhoff had tremendous credibility with all the MIPAG members and his botanical knowledge and affability helped to engender a strong sense of commitment to the criteria development and assessment process.
A second factor was the agreement, perhaps with deep misgivings, by all participants that if every species was to go through the same assessment criteria, then all forms, varieties, cultivars, hybrids, sub-species and synonyms of a plant determined to be invasive would also be considered invasive until shown to be otherwise by a process of scientific assessment. There are, therefore, no exceptions made for cultivars or hybrids reputed to be sterile. From a purely practical standpoint, it is very hard for enforcement agencies to determine whether the nursery stock they are monitoring is labeled or identified correctly, so even if a cultivar of barberry, for example, is shown not to be invasive, there will still need to be a way to positively identify it in the trade.
Participants in MIPAG include state and federal agency personnel dedicating their time to the project, but also many in the non-profit and for-profit sectors who serve without compensation. Furthermore, the plant assessment work of the group has been funded with generous, five figure grants from the Horticultural Research Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This built a heightened sense of shared ownership in the process as well as its products.
When the time comes to review a species for invasiveness, MIPAG members must agree by a 2/3 majority vote that a candidate species meets the criteria. In more than 82 votes, there has been no evidence of a "tyranny of the minority". The three species of greatest economic importance to the horticultural industry - Japanese barberry, winged euonymous and Norway maple - all received unanimous votes as invasive in Massachusetts. Even Robinia pseudoacacia, which had the glaciers receded a few thousand years earlier might well have been native in New England instead of reaching its northern. natural limit in the central Appalachians, was voted after intense discussion as likely invasive in parts of the Commonwealth. The criteria are not perfect, but the system has credibility and every participant supports the process and advocates for his or her own constituencies to act on MIPAG's recommendations.
When I am invited to speak before large gatherings of the horticultural industry, I tell them it is good to be among friends. We all share a love of growing things and a belief that our work, as nursery and landscape professionals or as a conservationist, are green activities that help make the world a better place. And we have a shared problem that is ours jointly to solve. The burden of invasive species prevention and control is not the horticultural industry's alone to bear. Management of the invasives we have now, as well as holding off the new invaders, requires significant resources and our collective will to meet the challenge. Massachusetts has shown that it is possible for us to be allies in this effort.