"Right now, Parks is the only department actively engaged in invasive control," lamented Melinda Yong, environmental co-ordinator for Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services for the City of Burnaby, as we discussed how that city was adopting invasive species awareness and actions. "Yet the edges of parks actually comprise engineering right-of-ways —sidewalks, gutters, etc. The Engineering Department is interested in helping but they don't have a mandate. So now we're treating invasive plants in parks whose perimeters are being mowed without concern by Engineering. In general, staff in other departments don't know what knotweed is. But over time, because of sites where things have gone into areas outside the aegis of Parks, they're slowly coming on board. I expect this to accelerate over the next couple years."
Having sat on the Vancouver Invasive Species Council board, Yong was already familiar with the challenges of getting everyone both to the table, and onto the same page. "Even within parks it has been slow to get different groups asking the right questions when they're designing sites, to get contractors to report things they see, and everyone thinking together about issues like soil screening."
When Yong began her job, her first move was to commission a baseline audit by Diamond Head (Range Rover in Pique, May 4 at www.piquenewsmagazine.com), which listed a top 13 invasive species threats. She'd then contracted the company to initiate control measures targeting recommended species. Internally, however, Burnaby had its own priorities, enlisting volunteers to help clean out key parks with large green spaces and natural areas. "We're lucky to have both community and corporate groups coming forward to help with removals," said Yong. "Volunteers may be gung-ho for the first few hours then lose interest, but... if I have 60 people working two hours each that's 120 man hours. Plus they've made a personal connection."
Like any environmental concern, it was important to educate individuals about the short-term ecological and aesthetic costs of, for example, bad gardening choices, or the monetary burden of infrastructure damage. Sometimes, however, galvanizing interest was as easy as a sensationalistic news story — like the infamous "snakehead incident."
A man had spotted a strange fish in the shallows of a lagoon in Burnaby Central Park on Mother's Day, 2012. He filmed it, posting the footage to YouTube where it went viral — but not before several viewers inveighed that it was an Asian northern snakehead, a vicious predator that would eat everything in the pond. Officials were alerted and Burnaby's snakehead became headline news; Yong found herself both in a media spotlight, and tasked with the heroics of keeping the pond's other innocents from a snakehead's rapacious jaws.
"I wish I'd saved those news articles," she recalled. "We even had stuff in the U.K. and Australia. But dealing with media wasn't so bad because it was multijurisdictional — our communications department worked with the Ministry of the Environment. In the end the exposure was good for all our invasive species initiatives, highlighting the importance of citizen science."
After fruitless netting attempts, they'd drained the pond to get at what proved to be a lone fish; later analysis showed it to be a subtropical snakehead species unlikely to have survived the winter. A freakish exotic fish and media circus at least offered risible counterpoint to the daily tedium of planning, managing, and planning-for-managing invasive plants. Even as only part of your portfolio, this was a daily process. Yong walked me through a typical scenario.
"Let's say we have a park in development. We'll first see what kind of invasives are, or could be, onsite and create a plan. Then after initial development, the area goes into monitoring. The other approach is to go by species, and for that we'd jump back to the audit. Some species are at a low enough occurrence for Early Detection Rapid Response removal — pickerel weed and butterfly bush, for instance. More widespread and problematic species are addressed site by site; for example we'd ask whether, if we removed blackberry and replaced it with native grass, someone was willing to maintain that extra greenspace. If they said yes, great; otherwise we'd cut it back for sightline issues. With knotweed, the challenge was our herbicide ban — we'd barely used chemicals on anything for 20 years."
Yong recounted Diamond Head's knotweed work. "As a first-year trial, we started with three knotweed sites that spanned different types of habitat from riparian to dry, and attempted physical removal while going forward with requests to our environment committee for herbicide treatment. For instance, in the second year we got approval to treat sites where physical removal failed, in the third year we got approval to also treat sites where the plant could be spread by maintenance practices. And that's about where we are now. Baby steps. There's a lot to do but it's looking better... No, really," she emphasized, suspicious of my silence. "Am I the only hopeful person you've spoken to?"
She was, but when it came to invasive species, that was a start.
May is Invasive Species Action Month (ISAM) in B.C.. For info visit: bcinvasivesmonth.com/
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.