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Stewardship: Who will take responsibility
Stewardship: Who will take responsibility
Published by Porterbrook
Default Stewardship: Who will take responsibility

Frank W. Porter
Porterbrook Native Plants

During the 2007 Mountain State Arts and Crafts Festival held at Cedar Lakes, West Virginia, I had the opportunity to meet Darryl McGraw, the Attorney General of West Virginia. He and his staff were inviting folks to have their picture taken with him. When his entourage entered my tent, I was asked if I wanted my picture taken. Not realizing what was transpiring (I thought it was publicity for the festival), I gave them permission to take the picture. There was an older gentleman standing behind me. I asked him if he wanted to be in my photograph and put my arm around his shoulder. After the photograph was taken, his staff, somewhat embarrassed, introduced him to me. I thanked him for being in my picture. In turn, he asked me: “What kind of plants are rare and endangered?” I responded: “At the rate the state is allowing the destruction of natural areas, all of them are potentially endangered, and the day will come when many of them will only be known in books or herbariums.” By this time, a large crowd had gathered around the tent intent on hearing the conversation. McGraw asked me what I would propose as a solution to this problem. I quickly offered five ways to address the issue of invasive species and endangered native plants and agreed to prepare a report within two weeks for the Attorney General on the condition that he would promise to follow through with the recommendations of the report. We shook hands and parted. Below is the report that was submitted to the Attorney General. Following the text of the report is a summary of what actually was done by the Attorney General’s office.

Preserving and Conserving West Virginia’s Native Plants

Economic development is essential to the welfare and growth of the state of West Virginia. This development, however, does not have to come at the expense of the sustainable natural resources that make West Virginia what it is: the Mountain State. In the past, special interest groups and private companies have ravaged the landscape through widespread timber operations, coal mining, construction of chemical and power plants, highway construction, new homes, and shopping malls. All of these economic ventures have come at the expense of the native flora and fauna of West Virginia. Each year, the number of threatened or endangered species has grown at an alarming rate.

Sadly, the loss of these plant and animal communities does not often reach the public’s attention until long after the destruction has occurred. In fairness, what would West Virginia be without its magnificent mountains, rivers and streams? The answer will become evident all too soon. What can be done to change how the natural resources of the state can be protected and conserved for future generations to enjoy? The answer lies in educating the public and state officials about how diverse and fragile these resources are and developing active programs at all levels to protect them.

I outlined five ways to begin this process. First, I urged the state to remove the sign on the bridges that claims West Virginia is “Open for Business.” What this really means is that the resources are “For Sale.” Many of the natural resources are finite. Once they have been exhausted, they cannot be replaced. Other resources may be replenished, but not necessarily in our lifetimes. The state needs to tout these diverse and natural resources as tourist attractions. West Virginia has far more to offer than just ski resorts and white water rafting. More and more of these natural resource areas must be set aside and protected. Once this is accomplished, the Department of Natural Resources, as well as private interest groups, could offer botanical excursions to tourists and citizens of West Virginia. The “Rails to Trails” program is an excellent example of this process. A more appropriate sign on the bridges could read: Welcome to West Virginia: Pride of the Nation; or the slogan so many citizens miss: Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.

Second, I suggested that the areas along the Interstate highways that have signs indicating “West Virginia Wildflowers” actually grow native plants of West Virginia. Instead, those responsible for these areas have been planting primarily Cosmos and Dames Rocket neither of which is a native plant of West Virginia. And even more disturbing is the fact that Dames Rocket is an invasive species that is now escaping into the state forests and other areas. These roadside areas are a wonderful opportunity to display the wealth of native plants in West Virginia. The same effort and expense to prepare and plant these areas could be directed towards planting native perennial wildflowers and grasses. Once established, they would provide a food source for birds and other wildlife. Afterwards, they would only have to be mowed once in the fall to cut down dry foliage. Each succeeding spring, these perennials would return more robust and floriferous than the previous year. And equally important, these areas would make visible to thousands of travelers the wealth and diversity of West Virginia’s native plants.

Third, all along our Interstates are rest stops for weary travelers. Within these areas, I recommended that small gardens be planted with a diverse selection of native plants. Each plant would have professional signage providing the botanical and common name of the plant along with a brief description of its flower and foliage. One such garden was planted at the Greenbriar exit off I-64 a few years ago and is maintained by the local garden club. I believe that if these gardens were created and planted with native plants they could be maintained by a combination of groups, including local garden clubs, members of the Master Gardeners program which is sponsored by the Extension Office at WVU, the West Virginia Native Plant Society, and any interested people from the nearby communities. Brochures could be created that would provide additional information about the plants and areas and sites in the state that have unique native plants. Dolly Sods and Cranberry Glades are just two of the numerous locales within the state. There are many more and others yet to be identified and protected.

Fourth, the intentional and accidental introduction of alien species of plants is one of the dire threats to the natural resources of West Virginia. One need only drive along the West Virginia turnpike and look at the rapid spread of Kudzu vines, Paulownia trees, and the ornamental grass Miscanthus sinesis to see how devastating these species can be. Invasive species are even more prevalent within the confines of our federal and state forests and parks. Microstegia vimineum (Stiltgrass) is literally choking out hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses. It is an annual grass that produces thousands of seeds per plant that attach themselves to any object that passes through them. ATVs are one of the main culprits. As they ride along trails covered with Stiltgrass, their tires spread the seeds wherever the ATVs venture. And all too often, the riders stray off the trails and traverse the sides of mountains or along gullies and cuts dissecting the slopes. Within a matter of weeks, there are green strips present where the tires have dispersed the seeds. Within three years it can replace all of the native vegetation on the floor of the forest. Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is not only invasive but also poisonous. There have been instances where individuals who were sawing these trees became seriously ill from the sap. Another pernicious invasive plant that is a public health hazard is Heracleum mantegazzianum (Giant Hogweed). Originally from Asia and introduced as an ornamental plant, Giant Hogweed’s clear, watery sap has toxins that cause photodermatitis. Skin contact, followed by exposure to sunlight, produces painful, burning blisters that can develop into purplish or blackened scars.

There are far too many other species that have invaded the forests, meadows, and waterways of West Virginia. A statewide and concerted endeavor must be started to prevent and control the continued spread and introduction of these non-native species into the state. Efforts are already underway by both federal and state agencies to eradicate specific invasive species. But it will prove to be a fruitless battle if these same non-native species are allowed to grow in adjacent private lands and continue to be a source of seeds that will ultimately spread back onto state land. The general public, as well as state agencies, must be made aware of the ecological catastrophe that is taking place throughout the state because of non-native invasive plants.

Fifth, I urged the Department of Natural Resources to convene an annual conference to be held at different locations throughout the state devoted to the native plants of West Virginia and to the public health hazards and ecological destruction caused by invasive species. Speakers should represent a broad spectrum of the general public: professional scientists, state agencies (DNR, DOA, EPA), and private citizens who have invested many years in this field of study. These conferences should highlight the wealth of the state’s resources, the myriad of problems facing these natural resources, and potential solutions to these problems. From these conferences would emerge viable strategies to preserve and conserve the native plants of West Virginia.


The Attorney General sent copies of my report to the following state agencies: Frank Jezioro, Director of the Division of Natural Resources; Gus R. Douglas, Commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture; John Pat Fanning, Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee; William Stemple, Chairman of the House of Delegates Agriculture Committee; Joe Talbott, Chairman of the House of Delegates Natural Resources Committee; Earl Ray Tomblin, President of the Senate; Larry J. Edgell, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee; Richard Thompson, Speaker of the House of Delegates; and Paul A. Mattox, Jr., Cabinet Secretary West Virginia Department of Transportation. Only two agencies provided a substantive response, and both are indicative of the attitude and stance of these agencies with regard to invasive species and endangered native plants.

With regard to wildflower plantings along the Interstates in West Virginia, Paul A. Mattox stated:

“Operation Wildflower, a joint program of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the Garden Clubs, and the DOH began in 1990. One part of this program permitted individuals or organizations to sponsor sites including a sign that identified the sponsor or memorialized a loved one.

An attempt was made to plant native wildflowers but several problems were encountered. Among them was a difference of opinion on which species were native, seeds were impossible to find or were prohibitively expensive, and the native species did not do well in roadside growing conditions. In addition, the sponsors expected showy, colorful plots the first year which required annual species and ruled out perennial species which do not bloom the first year. All of the factors have combined to encourage the program to plant the annual species being used.”

Commissioner of Agriculture, Gus R. Douglass, added the following comments:

“A number of my staff has also commented on the wildflower plantings along our highways and the use of the term ‘West Virginia wildflowers’. In regards to these wildflower plantings there is really little the West Virginia Department of Agriculture…can do to change what is happening.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation’s Division of Highways operates the Operation Wildflower Program and they are the agency responsible for what is happening. According the DOH website, one of the objectives of this program is to ‘encourage the preservation of natural stands of native wildflowers that traditionally had been mowed.’ Another objective of this program is the planting of wildflowers on private property. It appears DOH may have strayed from one of their objectives by preserving and maintaining non-native wildflowers rather than native species.”

Commissioner Douglas, responding to the question of invasive species, stated:

“With regards to the planting and cultivation of non-native plants that are considered to be invasive, here again there is little my agency can do. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture enforces the provisions of the West Virginia Noxious Weed Act, which prohibits the introduction and/or cultivation of certain plants known to be a detriment to agriculture or dangerous to human health. We recently amended the West Virginia Noxious Weed Act Rule to include additional plants, but we have no proof that any of the plants used in the Operation Wildlife Program are detrimental to West Virginia’s agricultural interest or human health.”

In a final statement from the Attorney General Office, Mr. McGraw concluded:

“By law there is nothing our office can do directly; however, we will continue to bring this issue to the attention of the agencies that hold jurisdiction over invasive species.”

Six months of working with the Attorney General’s Office offered a poignant insight into the issue of invasive species in West Virginia. First, and foremost, it has become obvious that there is a lack of knowledge of and information available to the various state agencies about the identity of native plants and who exactly has the responsibility of dealing with invasive species. There simply is no statewide policy of identifying and controlling native species. Each agency apparently has their own mandate and understanding of what they are required to do. Instead of a uniform policy, each agency works independently of each other.

What can be done to help alleviate this situation? Educating the general public and state agencies about the environmental threats posed by invasive species is of paramount importance. The landscape industry, nurseries and garden centers must be involved in any discussion of eradicating invasive species. Many invasive species have been introduced through the nursery trade. In fact, some of these species are still offered for sale. The sell of invasive species must be prohibited. Getting people to recognize and use native plants in the landscape has proven extremely difficult. Most of the general public is unaware of the identity and diversity of native plants. All too often, their first-hand experience with these plants comes from seeing them grow along the roadside of Interstate highways and country roads. Some will unwittingly dig these plants from the wild and attempt to grow them in their gardens. When the plants fail to survive the shock of being uprooted from their habitats, it leaves the mistaken impression with the gardener that native plants are too difficult or finicky to grow. It is so much easier and convenient, they perceive, to purchase non-native plants from local garden centers.

Any organization or individual involved with native plants needs to take a proactive position by offering programs (workshops and lectures), developing and distributing educational material, and inviting more of the public and private sector into their membership. Any discussions about invasive plants in natural areas and in home landscapes must be addressed at all levels: the participation of land managers, members of the landscape industry, government officials, and the general public.

Tackling the issue of invasive species is a daunting undertaking. But every day that we delay only makes the task more formidable. If we think that we are overwhelmed today, imagine what it will be like in another decade. Stewardship—who will take responsibility? Native plants cannot speak for themselves.
By Fearless Weeder on 08-01-2009, 10:24 AM

You are a good steward to the land Frank W. Porter.
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By Hedgerowe on 08-01-2009, 10:26 AM

The report that you submitted to the State of West Virginia was compelling and well reasoned. The response that you received was tragic. I applaud your continued efforts to get the attention of those who can truly make a difference. I am sure that everyone here supports you 100% and is more than willing to fight the good fight along side you.
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By Porterbrook on 08-01-2009, 10:33 AM

Thank you Hedgerowe. Your support and sage advice are most welcome.
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By Cirsium on 08-01-2009, 01:32 PM

Any organization or individual involved with native plants needs to take a proactive position by offering programs (workshops and lectures), developing and distributing educational material, and inviting more of the public and private sector into their membership.
I couldn't agree more. Each of us needs to be a part of that "We" that is trying to solve the problem. Too often each of us undervalues what can be accomplished as and individual. Each of us can remove the invasive plants from the properties we control. Each of us can let the nursery owner where we buy our plants know that selling invasive plants is one of the criteria that determines where we shop.

And there are a myriad of of other "little" things that we can do to make our voices heard. When you fill out that evaluation sheet at your annual garden conference, let them know that you want presentations on native plants and controlling invasive species. When you talk to public officials make it a point to address the subject of invasive plants. Let them know that it is important to you.

Each of us needs to make "me" a part of that "We" that is trying to make the environment better for us and future generations.
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By Staff on 08-01-2009, 05:30 PM

What a powerful statement you have made. We need to share this message with more lurkers.
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By TheLorax on 08-03-2009, 12:53 PM

I bow to you Porterbrook for so eloquently stating how so many of us feel.
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By Carole on 08-03-2009, 10:46 PM

Porterbrook, you are amazing. You must feel like you are fighting a losing battle when you are told that due to a lack of a state-wide policy there is nothing that these agencies can do. Thank you for continuing to educate people at all levels, from the state bigwigs to your neighbors next door. Each of us must take responsibility for the health of the ecosystem on our properties, from the native plants to the wildlife that they support.
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By Sara S on 08-07-2009, 04:11 PM

On my recent travels through Kentucky, I noticed the DOH spraying rampant swathes of Miscanthus sinesus with herbicide. What are your thoughts on this, dear Porterbrook?
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By Stoloniferous on 08-07-2009, 04:24 PM

Thank you, Porterbrook.
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frank, native plants, responsibility, responsibilitystewardship, stewardship

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