Patricia Shanley of the New Jersey Forest Task Force holds up an invasive plant as she testifies before the Senate environment committee on Dec. 15, 2022, at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Environmentalists who have pressed the state for years to revive a long-defunct council to fight invasive plants and animals scored a victory Thursday when lawmakers agreed the New Jersey Invasive Species Council should be reestablished.
New Jersey is one of just five states nationally that has no statewide regulations or strategy to ban or contain invasive species, which degrade forests and have caused $1.3 trillion in damages globally in the past four decades, according to the New Jersey Forest Task Force.
New York and Pennsylvania already do such work, which makes New Jersey’s inaction more egregious, said Laura Bush of the nonprofit Native Plant Society of New Jersey.
“Critically, we’re behind our neighbors, so we’re contributing massively to the problem while our neighbors are trying to control it,” Bush said. “Invasive plant species are a serious environmental problem.”
Members of the Senate environment committee were discussing a bill sponsored by Sens. Bob Smith and Linda Greenstein, both Democrats from Middlesex County, that would ban the sale, distribution, or propagation of certain invasive plants without a state permit.
After hearing impassioned pleas from environmentalists, they unanimously advanced the bill and agreed to amend it to include language to reestablish the Invasive Species Council, which former Gov. Jim McGreevey created in 2004 but former Gov. Chris Christie disbanded a decade ago. The council would be advisory, recommending regulation changes to the state Department of Agriculture or suggesting new invasives to add to a banned species list.
There’s already an Assembly bill that would revive the council. But that hasn’t moved since its two Republican sponsors introduced it in February.
Environmentalists who testified Thursday estimated New Jersey is overrun by about 200 invasive plants and 100 other invasive species like fish, pathogens, and vertebrate animals.
Most invasive plants have been introduced to the state by gardeners and landscapers, they said.
“When we plant invasive species in our gardens, they don’t stay in our gardens,” Bush said. “They spread into the surrounding fields and out-compete and crowd out native species.”
Many have vines and extensive root systems that choke native flora out of New Jersey’s forests, causing a ripple effect that impacts insects, animals, and the entire ecosystem. More than 40% of endangered species are at risk because of invasive species, according to the New Jersey Forest Task Force.
Mike Van Clef is director of the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team, which is part of the nonprofit Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. That strike team formed about 15 years ago and deploys herbicide-wielding workers around the state to battle invasives.
Reestablishing the council would help New Jersey secure federal money to fund a more effective fight against invasives, Van Clef told lawmakers.
Patricia Shanley, a forest ecologist and task force member, held up limbs and dirt-crusted roots of invasive Oriental bittersweet and Japanese barberry and an ash tree log destroyed by invasive beetles as she told legislators about the destruction caused by invasive species.
“They’re a huge planetary threat. They diminish water quality, they’re a hazard for human health, they endanger food security, and they’re a leading cause of species extinction,” Shanley said. “Forests are the main defense we have against climate change, so anything that degrades forests is really critical for our future.”
She added: “It’s urgent that we do not kick this can down the road.”
She suggested policymakers enlist the state’s youth as a conservation corps in the fight against invasives, saying it dovetails with First Lady Tammy Murphy’s initiative to require climate change education in K-12 schools.
Even the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association supports the bill, as long as they get “a seat at the table” if the council does officially reconvene, a representative testified.
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