Rick Sinnott: Plan to deal with aquatic invasive species lacks real scientific inquiry

Rick Sinnott

A kettle lake surrounded by homes in west Anchorage, Sand Lake has become a battleground in the war on invasive species. Opposing forces concur that elodea, an aquatic plant commonly used in aquariums, is present in the lake. However, both sides are far from agreement on whether elodea is a non-native, invasive weed in Alaska.

A recently released plan drafted by the Anchorage Soil and Water Conservation District concludes that elodea is native to Alaska, or at least that evidence to the contrary isn't persuasive. The document, entitled "Sand Lake Aquatic Vegetation Management & Lake Restoration Plan," recommends controlling, not eradicating, the plant and offers several management options.

Weapons of mass destruction

The plan purports to be an objective, scientific assessment of all alternatives. However, the agency admits that early in the planning process "several property owners immediately served us with verbal notice that if herbicide was put forward as the only alternative the ASWCD would be sued." Not surprisingly, the plan then goes to great lengths to justify why herbicides won't be necessary.

While using herbicides to control weeds on public lands and waters is controversial, many homeowners apply them on suburban lawns. Due to their widespread use, herbicides could be considered weapons of mass destruction, especially if applied improperly.

Nevertheless, it's obvious that the agency's consideration of herbicides, in particular fluridone, was forestalled by the threat of a lawsuit. That's a poor way to assess viable alternatives.

Without freedom to consider all options, how do you know an official will make the most informed decision? As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said in a press conference on the likelihood of finding even more destructive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, "There are things we do not know we don't know."

Public agencies should be allowed to evaluate the pros and cons of all reasonable alternatives. The time to sue or threaten a lawsuit is when an appointed official chooses the alternative you don't like.

Native or non-native

In this instance, a lot hinges on whether elodea is a native or non-native plant. Because of the threatened lawsuit, the agency downplayed scientific evidence that elodea is a non-native invasive species. Instead, the plan bent over backward to convince us the plant is native.

One of its oft-repeated arguments for native origin is blatantly unscientific. The agency has "secured affidavits of several long-time property owners of Sand Lake who state they observed elodea in Sand Lake prior to 1960 with absolute clarity." Elodea is notoriously difficult to identify. Were any of the homeowners aquatic plant specialists? That's unlikely given that in 1952, according to a topographic map, only eight homes were on the lake. None of the property owners were named in the plan, so there's no way of knowing what they know. Which raises another concern. Were any of these long-time homeowners among those who threatened to sue?

In 137 pages of speculation, half-truths, and digressions posing as scientific inquiry, the plan fails to cite a single document that contradicts its narrative. The agency is certainly aware that the Alaska Natural Heritage Program has classified elodea as a non-native invasive species. It also knows that Tricia Wurtz, the invasive plant program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Fairbanks, and her colleague Nick Lisuzzo reviewed over 140 scientific articles and other documents and found nine reasons to support the non-native origin of elodea in Alaska. No mention of those in the plan.

But the most astounding "oversight" was the plan's failure to acknowledge that two weeks prior to its release the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, its sponsoring agency, quarantined both species of elodea found in Alaska to keep the infestation from spreading any further.

Unknown unknowns

Not only is the Sand Lake plan selectively myopic regarding facts; the agency refuses to recognize invasive species experts as stakeholders. Because property owners were a "core concern," the plan defined stakeholders as people who have platted properties adjacent to the lake and other Anchorage residents "to the degree they actively use the lake."

What about the rest of us?

The presence of an invasive aquatic plant in a lake is comparable to an infestation of rats. Just because Nome is overrun by rats and is dealing with the problem doesn't mean the rest of the state wants them. Elodea is an aggressive aquatic weed, easily dispersed by boats and floatplanes. It chokes out fish habitat and makes it difficult for people to use lakes and slow-moving streams.

It's time for the Department of Natural Resources to pull the plug and employ professionals who know what they are doing, who won't be intimidated by threats of lawsuits, and who will objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives before recommending the best one for eradicating elodea in Sand Lake.

Let the experts tell us what needs to be done. If an herbicide is deemed the best solution, then it's up to the political appointees to make the decision to use it or not.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com

Rick Sinnott