by Brittany Janney for SUST 350
Earlier this fall semester at Eden Place Nature Center, our SUST 350 Service class was given two options for part of our workday: pull tiny weeds along the alley fence or take your best shot at uprooting a horde of unwanted, giant perennial grasses, ranging from four to five-and-a-half feet tall invading a bed of native prairie plants. Of course, I chose the latter. It was not just the challenge of figuring out how to eliminate as many of the grass beasts, known as phragmites (common reed), with limited time and resources that drew my attention. It was more because of the knowledge I have of the vast destruction invasive species, like phragmites, can do to a habitat and the importance of doing the best you can to eradicate them.
(photo: Illinois Natural History Survey)
This was not my first rodeo battling invasive plants, though. The first time I ever really learned about invasive species was in high school. I was in an environmental education program freshman year, and one activity we did was go to the nearby forest preserve to clear out some European buckthorn. Like phragmites, European buckthorn is sweeping through Illinois greenspaces, choking out native species along the way. I remember it was crazy to think that what looked like a naturally full forest was actually UNNATURAL. The buckthorn did not belong there, and it was hard to understand why unless someone let you in on the not-so-secret, ecological hot topic issue of invasive species.
Invasive species are any species of an organism (plants, insects, animals, fungi, etc.) in an ecosystem they are not native to and which pose a threat to that ecosystem. Humans often play a large role in the spread of invasive species by introducing an organism, intentionally or not, to a new habitat. Once these species take hold within their new habitat, it can be extremely difficult to eradicate them because they lack what would naturally keep their population in check, like natural predators or climate vulnerabilities. By outcompeting native species and dominating ecosystem biodiversity, invasive species are one of the biggest threats to environmental sustainability.
The hard work of pulling phragmites at Eden Place (photo: M. Bryson, Oct. 2018)
Phragmites, for example, not only choke out native flora, they also alter the hydrology of wetlands and their nutrient cycles. Some other invasive species that are currently wreaking havoc in Illinois and the Chicagoland area (along with phragmites and buckthorn) are garlic mustard, Japanese stiltgrass, tree of heaven, as well as invasive animal species like Asian carp and the emerald ash borer.
While invasive species do not have a natural predator to keep them in check, there is a power that has risen to combat invasive species in the area. The unsung heroes fighting back are none other than volunteers and environmental stewards. Community resilience, as I have learned through our class readings, can come in many forms to tackle many different community issues. Protecting the environment is one of those key communal issues in which individuals will come together to collaborate on solutions.
In Daniel Lerch’s edited volume, The Community Resilience Reader, the first foundation essential to community resilience is people (p. 17). This is very much true when it comes to protecting local ecosystems from invasive species. Not only are there programs and opportunities in the Chicagoland area to educate and train community members about invasive species control, there are community leaders, like Mr. Michael Howard of Eden Place, who help inform others on the importance of preserving native species and ecosystems.
A part of my experience so far at Eden Place has been absorbing Mr. Howard’s knowledge of local native habitats and how any type of imbalance to them can cause disruption. A couple weeks before taking on the challenge to uproot the phragmites, Mr. Howard talked about how phragmites have become a huge problem in the Chicagoland area wetlands. He also pointed out the ones that had taken over the natural areas in the nature center. I did not know much about phragmites until then, but when the option was given two weeks later to help weed them, I knew what I had to do.
The SUST 350 Eden Place team celebrates a phragmites removal session; author, B. Janney, at far left (photo: M. Bryson, Oct. 2018)
Lerch, C. (2017). The community resilience reader: essential resources for an era of upheaval. Washington DC: Island Press.
Brittany Janney is a senior SUST major in the Fall 2018 class SUST 350 Service & Sustainability at Roosevelt University. This fall, students in the course are posting essays about a variety of topics relating to the course themes of urban sustainability and community resilience.