Dephragging the Marsh


A collection of issues, articles and letters surrounding the DEC proposal to spray Rodeo (a glyphosate containing product) in Piermont Marsh to control the invasive species Phragmites.


Links to other sections of the site at the bottom of the page.


From my exchange with the Audubon Society (see link at bottom of the page for the full conversation.)


The fact of the matter is that environments, and the mix of species in them, change. This is not a game where "winners" and "losers" can be so readily identified, and the active forces of evolution are perpetually at work everywhere, on scales and in time frames that are objectively not perceptible to human beings. Only hubris causes us to believe we can understand or control these forces over geological time... which is the only time scale that actually matters in terms of species diversity and adaptation. Multiple extinction events and dramatic rebound of species diversity on the planet demonstrate this principle beyond any reasonable doubt. If it weren't for such events, in fact, you and I would not be having this conversation, since mammals so obviously benefitted from one such event.

Human beings, it might be noted, have been changing the mix of species in places all over the planet since at least 10,000 years ago when agricultural practices first emerged, and, more likely, much earlier than that, as the initial great migrations following the retreat of the ice sheets took place. In fact, we can be quite certain that species mix changes driven by human beings began when man first left the African continent, since those men undoubtedly brought plant materials of interest to new places, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Many of those changes lie so far back in time that their origins are obscured. Today, we would consider those species native; yet they weren't always. The consequent mix of mammalian and avian species definitely changed with those events.

We cannot, in other words, be so confident as to predict the long-term effect of ecosystems changes due to the introduction or removal of plant or animal species on an environment. What looks bad now may turn out to be just fine later; and vice versa.

In the meantime, we CAN and most DEFINITELY can say that man's application of pesticides and herbicides across wide ranges of the planet has been, for the most part, extremely undesirable and deleterious, on a nearly immediate and measurable basis, and has been consistently so over the century or so in which we have been able to track such events. No responsible biologist could deny it.

In light of these facts, there is no compelling need or logical reason for environmental organizations to agree to or endorse the application of any chemical herbicide or pesticide anywhere in order to reverse a perceived change in species mix. Mechanical means seem reasonable enough where indicated; but since the long-term impact of man's chemical pollution of the environment seems to be one of the overarching problem issues with human impact on ecosystems (due to its inimical actions on the microbial communities which ultimately provide the fundamental support all animal and plant communities), no real environmentalist can endorse such action without getting blood on their hands. Xenoestrogens are just one example of how badly we're messing things up on this scale.

In bringing the matter closer to home, we should note than human beings have dosed themselves up for nearly a century now with "safe" antibiotics which may have saved lives, but ultimately disrupted the gut bacterial communities we depend on for our own survival. The mounting scientific evidence for this is absolutely overwhelming; and it turns out that the cure, in the end, may well turn out to have been much worse than the disease; bringing us a host of debilitating diseases and even mental disorders that, until now, no one would have associated with microbial populations. It may well turn out that glyphosate IS associated with autism; and if it is, how will you feel about having sprayed it then? In the matter of chemistry, ecological conservatism demands restraint first.

This is an example of how using apparently safe chemical remedies can backfire over the long run. The irony here may be that the Audubon society, which one might expect to have learned its first lessons with the impact of DDT (another "safe" chemical agent) has perhaps forgotten how such things often play out over the long run.

The New York Times article on this subject.

So you want to get rid of invasive species?


Ailanthus trees, which grow all over the NY area (immortalized in "a tree grows in Brooklyn"), are an invasive species. So is Paulownia. Efforts to exterminate them would obviously be pointless.  Queen Anne's lace, the common wildflower we all grew up with, is from Europe.  Starlings are an invasive species. 33% of the common earthworms that we have in the US are invasive species; they were brought from England and have populated the majority of the United States. 

 The list is practically endless. Any attempts to turn the landscape back into what it used to be are based on fantasy and imagination; one has to live with what one has.

While I stand in favor of salt marsh restoration, within the limited parameters and to the extent that it can be accomplished, doing so using herbicides or other chemical means is a fundamentally flawed idea. The chemical assault that is already taking place on our environment is disastrous; our waterways are polluted with tens of thousands of different industrial chemicals, prescription medications, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, organic wastes, and petroleum byproducts, and all of them are affecting each other

Every single one of these chemicals has the potential to affect cellular interactions, which is the real issue. Over long periods of time, these chemicals can alter the microbial structure of our soils and affect other microorganisms. Not only that, the synergistic effect of all these chemicals coming into contact with each other and interacting is creating situations that it's impossible to analyze in the laboratory — in other words, the only laboratory where anyone is doing any experiments to find out what this will do is in nature, the last place where one wants to conduct such research. 

What the average person doesn't understand that it is the microbiology of all of this that will ultimately do us in. We won't see the final results until it is far too late to fix the problem.

The fundamental well-being of plants begins with healthy microbial structure. The microbes around every plant are specific to its own root systems, and exist in powerful symbiosis with them, in exactly the same way our gut bacteria exist within us. Long-term disruption of soil microbiology will have disastrous effects. It hasn't been verified yet, but it's quite possible that a number of the areas in the Middle East which were originally fertile (eg. Ur, Nimrud, etc., circa 1000-2000 BC) were rendered desert because of, among other things, long-term degradation of soil microbiology. The insults delivered to the soils there were cumulative; the fact is that we don't fully understand the long-term effects of intensive agriculture; except that it usually depletes the soils and ruins them. At that point, even with fertilizers, yields will plummet. Just think of the fact that the barren tracts of North Africa were once the place where all the grain that fed the Romans was grown.

Think of this. Every tree's leaves have a specific chemistry, pH (acidity or alkalinity) and they fall around the base of that tree. The microbes, nematodes, and other organisms that support the microscopic root systems around that tree are specifically adapted, over millions of years of evolution — probably hundreds of millions of years — and are exquisitely attuned to the peculiar chemical conditions of that exact soil, which is to some extent (more than likely a large extent) determined by the leaf litter.


This means that the leaf litter from every tree helps support the long-term health of that particular tree. Removing the leaf litter from around the roots of trees is probably, over the course of centuries, a way to destroy your forests, your trees, and your soil, yet no one thinks about it, because nobody realizes that everything we see growing everywhere depends on soil microbiology first, in order to grow at all.

This is a dawning realization in the world of biology, which has  until recent decades always dedicated itself to macrobiological effects — that is, large things which can be seen by the naked eye. We are now discovering that gut bacteria have a tremendous impact on our own health; things work exactly the same way in the plant world, a fact that is as of yet relatively under-appreciated, but beginning to gain traction. The difficulty that biologists have in communicating this right now is that it appears to be an extremely obscure and supremely uninteresting subject to most people.


When all the trees and plants start dying, it will become very interesting indeed, but I doubt people will enjoy it much.

 The excursion into an explanation about how leaf litter and pollutants affect microbes around plants may seem like a bit of a side trip, but it's not. Herbicides and pesticides disturb soil microbiology far more than just taking the poor 'ol leaf litter away does. They cause unintended evolution of microbial species. No one knows where that will lead, but it certainly won't be to places we are familiar with. This is why the most conservative approach possible is the correct approach to take.

Pouring chemicals all over the planet is having deleterious long-term effects on the microbiology that supports plant growth. This is a disaster in the making that won't be fully recognized until long after it is too late to reverse it, but it creates by itself a powerful argument to use as few pesticides and herbicides as possible, in fact, to eliminate the need for them wherever possible.

This is why any program that proposes spraying any kind of chemical to "control" a natural area must be opposed, fundamentally.

Why is Phragmites invading the Piermont Marsh?


The author's commentary on this subject.

The Hudson River Diaries: Photo essays by the author on the marsh and its surrounding environs

My letter to the DEC on spraying in Piermont Marsh
Glyphosates and You: Why herbicides with this chemical must not be used.
Why gut bacteria are important to you, and why you ought to care a lot.
My exchange with the Audubon Society
Links on why chemical pollution of waterways is a major issue

An alternative plan



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created and supervised by Lee van Laer