Happy Talk about Weeds by Deschutes National Forest

Swamp Wells Horse Camp. Deschutes National Forest. Oregon. August 19, 2012., A.F. Litt photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

I recently attended a presentation on invasive weeds by a representative of the Deschutes National Forest.

The problem with the presentation was that it promoted and legitimized an industrial paradigm to weed threats. The Forest Service (FS) promotes an Industrial Forestry Paradigm that treats the symptoms, not the causes of ecological degradation.

The biggest factors contributing to the spread of weeds on public lands comes from logging/thinning and livestock grazing. Yet during the entire Forest Service presentation, the one thing missing from the talk was any mention of why and how weeds are spread. Most species that we consider weeds are plants that thrive on disturbance. In other words, activities that create bare soil and/or reduce the viability of the native species to compete against weed species, thus promote weed invasions.

While many factors can promote weed spread, including even hiker’s boots, the biggest factor on public lands is the result of large-scale disturbance that comes from logging and livestock grazing.

Talking about invasive plants without addressing the ultimate factors that facilitate weed establishment is like listening to a medical team discuss lung cancer and how to treat it with radiation, chemo, and drugs, and never once even alluding to the fact that most lung cancer is frequently the result of smoking cigarettes.

The Forest Service weed coordinator focused her talk on specific species that are considered problematic and the means of controlling them using herbicides and promoting things like “weed pulls” but never discussed how private commercial activities on public lands like logging and grazing are typically the major vectors for weed spread.

For instance, logging/thinning by creating extensive areas of bare soil and disturbed ground and the purposeful destruction of native shrubs is creates the perfect habitat for weed invasion. (Just drive the Cascades Lakes Highway and view the “thinning” operations for exhibit A, B, and C).

Plus, logging roads become linear corridors for weed spread and “inoculate” new sites with weeds. Even though the FS requires logging equipment to be washed before entering a logging location to preclude weed seed spread, such tactics are not 100% effective. Plus, this does not prevent soil disturbance and the destruction of native plants caused by logging operations.

And once logging roads are created, they become travel corridors often open to the public whose vehicles are not washed, not to mention mountain bikers and ORVs commandeer these pathways helping to spread the seeds of weeds as well.

Livestock grazing has a similar impact on rangelands. By crushing and destroying biocrusts that cover soils, livestock creates the perfect seedbed for weed for the establishment. Livestock through excretion of manure can carry weed seeds into many remote areas and can “fertilize” sites aiding even more weed spread.

Furthermore, because cattle consume the preferred native grasses, weakening their ability to compete against weeds, the continued presence of livestock gradually leads to more weed invasion.

When I confronted the Forest Service representative and asked why she did not even mention logging/thinning and livestock grazing, she responded: “well you are never going to eliminate logging or grazing.”

And I guess she will always have a job too because as long the agency fails to confront the factors contributing to weed spread, we will be involved in an endless and losing battle against invasives.

Besides spending money trying to control weeds on our public lands (and providing long-term job security to weed coordinators who fail to provide the full picture to the public), we are losing the biodiversity, the watershed protection, and wildlife habitat that intact ecosystems provide. These costs are never internalized because the FS promotes commercial economic activities at the expense of ecological sustainability.



  1. George Nickas Avatar
    George Nickas

    Well said, Geo. The lung cancer analogy is a good one. And the unwillingness to deal with the cause guarantees the weed program managers will have lifetime employment, at least as long as the public remains oblivious or ambivalent about these wasteful and often destructive programs.

    We really need to come to terms with weeds and accept our limitations in dealing with them. Once the “war on weeds” got started it was guaranteed to be a losing, expensive, and destructive proposition.

  2. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    D.Nelson: Public land in the West is mostly FEDERAL land managed by FEDERAL employees supposedly on behalf of the best public interest. State and County governments do NOT manage FEDERAL PUBLIC LANDS, thank goodness, as they would be quickly sold to help cash-strapped states pay their bills.

  3. Natalie Riehl Avatar
    Natalie Riehl

    Dave – You seem to be the new troll of “The Wildlife News,” responding to each new post with your robotic wording to promote the takeover of Federal Lands by state and county governments. I doubt any regular readers of this blog are going to agree with you. In fact, they have given many excellent reasons why it is a bad idea.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      The Feds are not perfect, as shown by this article. However, they are so much better than state or county gov. There are many Federal laws on the books that help protect important ecosystems. Even if you think the Feds are inefficient or whatever, they operate under laws that are supposed to protect our air, water, and wildlife. These are things that I think most Americans would agree are important. Yes, there are problems, but just go to a state like Colorado and ask the residents about fracking. I have and the Fracking is Fracking out of control. {I use Fracking as a new cuss word}. It’s just one example of State and County gov not protecting the people. {Except Boulder County where fracking is NOT FRACKING ALLOWED!}

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner