NE504: New England Center for Invasive Plants
Statement of Issues and Justification1. Importance of the Proposed Research
1.1. Invasive plants cause huge economical losses. Each year, 3 million acres of American land is taken over by invasive weed plants. Invasive plants displace native plants, reduce biological diversity, and alter ecosystem function. Controlling invasive species and associated economic and environmental damages amount to $137 billion/yr. In addition to an estimated $28 billion direct loss caused by invasive weed plants to the U.S. agriculture, $5 billion/yr are spent on applications of herbicides. US federal agencies also spend more than $50 million/yr for invasive plant control on forests and federal lands. The invasive plant problem has reached a level of seriousness that ITS management could be the single largest natural resource line item in the Federal budget in the near future. In 1993, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) concluded that invasive plants and animals have an effect not only on natural areas, but also on agriculture, industry and human health. In its report, Harmful Non-Indigenous Species in the United States, the agency noted that from 1906 to 1991, just 79 problem plants and animals caused documented losses of $97 billion, and that a worst-case scenario for a mere 15 potentially high-impact species could cause another $134 billion in future economic losses.
1.2. The environmental horticulture industry faces challenges due to invasive plants. Environmental horticulture is the second most important segment in U.S. agriculture, with retail expenditures exceeding $65 billion/yr. The gross income from this industry for New England alone is more than $5 billion/yr. However, more than 50% of all invasive plants and 85% of woody invasive species were introduced for horticultural uses. Also, a long list of invasive plants are still sold in nurseries and utilized by federal and state agencies for erosion control, wildlife food and highway plantings for lack of non-invasive alternatives. Many invasive plants are extremely popular and therefore important cash crops for the environmental horticulture. For example, winged euonymus (burning bush) and Japanese barberry currently account for $15-20 million in annual sales in CT alone. Banning these plants creates severe economic hardship to the agriculture in New England and USA.
1.3. The invasive plant problem is getting worse every year in New England and USA. In 2005/2006, many new plant invasions have been reported. For instance, a large number of new invasion sites of mile-a-minute vine, winged euonymus (burning bush), Japanese stilt grass, Japanese barberry, Himalayan jewelweed, kudzu, hydrilla and pale swallow-wort have been reported in CT, MA, ME, VT, RI and NH. At the national level, there are many newly reported incursions including new kudzu incursions reported in the Pacific Northwest. The rate of the spread of invasive plants is increasing dramatically in New England and North America. Furthermore, current control methods for invasive plants are ineffective, expensive (e.g. hand-pulling), environmentally problematic (e.g., applying herbicides), or generate potentially new invasive problems (e.g., biological control). Therefore, new technologies to control the spread of invasive plants need to be developed.
2. Proposed Work and Expected Outcomes
Because of the urgent need for new and effective technologies in addressing the serious concerns of invasive plant species, that include many ornamental crops, UConn, UVM and UM estimated this would need $2 million to develop a multi-state, interdisciplinary research program under the auspices of a New England Center for Invasive Plants to address the problems caused by invasive species that are important to New England and the nation. The program will have five components:
2.1. Development of non-invasive sterile landscape plants.
A major task of the Center is to develop non-invasive cultivars for highly popular, but invasive ornamental plants so that these plants can be produced and sold without risk to the environment. A super-sterile technology (seedless and male-sterile) has been developed at UConn and will be used to modify invasive ornamental plants. Because of the super-sterile plants cannot produce seeds or viable pollen, these plants will not escape or spread into agricultural or natural areas. Traditional plant breeding methods will also be used to create sterile, fruitless triploid plants.
Outcome: Within the next several years, the Center will produce commercially-useful sterile forms for a number of popular ornamental invasive plants (e.g. burning bush and Japanese barberry).
2.2. Assessment of the ecological impact of invasive plants and ecological evaluation of new super-sterile cultivars.
Research will be carried out to evaluate the performance of the sterile plants in the natural environment and determine ecological and environmental impacts of the super-sterile technology. Furthermore, a complementary program will assess the invasive potential of existing cultivars of ornamental species in the trade. The Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE) trains volunteers to gather scientifically based information on the history and current status of a wide range of non-native invasive and potentially invasive plants in the six-state New England Region. These data and those from the sterile plant and cultivar research are being used to develop predictive models of species invasiveness and their potential distribution and possible spread across the landscape. All these data, along with information on the species biology and ecology, are made available via interactive websites and outreach programs. The overarching goal of IPANE is to use its data and network of professionals and volunteers to develop an Early Detection Network for New England.
Outcome: A rigorous method for evaluating the invasive potential of plants will be demonstrated and will enable informed decisions by our legislators and a wide array of stakeholders.
2.3. Assessment of the economic impact of invasive species in New England.
A research program will be developed to provide accurate assessments of the economic impacts of invasive plants. Current published estimates of the costs of invasive plants to landowners, conservationists, and other stakeholders vary widely. One phase of the planned research will focus on using standard economic models to assess existing data and estimate the costs of invasive plants in the U.S. and New England in particular. An alternative approach using ecological economic models will be developed to assess costs in terms of ecosystems services valuation, system sustainability, etc. A third phase would focus on the impact of state and federal regulations on the environmental horticultural industry.
Outcome: Accurate data for all economic aspects of invasive plants in New England will be used to head off economic losses and identify areas for future research emphasis by the Center.
2.4. Development of alternative native crops.
The environmental horticultural industry will face pressures to cease production of certain plants deemed to be highly invasive. The Center will evaluate and recommend native crops that will be viable alternatives to existing invasive ornamentals. The credibility of alternative crop recommendations will be enhanced by the findings of survey studies examining consumer preference for specific native crops. Outcome: A significant number of the existing sales of invasive ornamentals would switch over to native alternatives within 5-7 years.
2.5. Public education and outreach.
An integral component of the program will focus on increasing public awareness of invasive plants and strategies for their early detection and eradication. Also, educational outreach will be conducted to inform the horticulture industry, other stakeholders, and the public about sterile cultivars of invasive ornamental plants and to promote the use of newly developed non-invasive cultivars as alternatives to invasive ornamental plants.
Outcome: Consumers will demand non-invasive characteristics in the plants they purchase. The industry will accept and sell the new non-invasive ornamentals developed by the Center. Local eradication efforts will combine to result in a decline in new invasives.
3. The Importance of Multistate Effort.
The New England region suffers from the same or similar types of invasive plants. For instance, winged euonymus and Japanese barberry are highly popular in the entire New England region while these plants are extremely invasive in the region. A multistate effort, with Connecticut in the southern part and Maine in the northern part of New England,to develop methods would be a most effective strategy to control the spread in the New England region.
4. The technical feasibility of the proposed research.
UConn has developed critical and highly effective seedless-fruit and super-sterile (both seedless and male-sterile) technologies (patented or patents pending) to neutralize the invasive character of seed-producing plants. The super-sterile technology will provide the best possible tool to prevent the undesirable spread of most invasive ornamentally and agriculturally used plants. UConn is nationally and internationally known for its expertise in the areas of evaluating invasive species and assessing their ecological impact. Also, UConn has built a solid foundation for establishing a strong educational outreach program for managing invasive plants and has worked closely with the Green Industry, various state and federal agencies, and national, regional and local NGOs.
UMaine is known for its research in the area of invasive ornamental plants and development of native alternatives. Weed seed dormancy and seedling metabolism, as well as the roles of leaf litter and allelopathic effects on the establishment of invasive plant seedlings are strengths. Vegetative reproduction, genetic variation, and adaptability of invasive plants are also targeted to better address the invasive issues.
5. The Potential Impacts of Successful completion of This Project
If this project is successfully completed, novel and effective technologies should be developed to address problems caused by invasive plants that are economically and environmentally damaging to New England and to the nation as a whole.
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