Off a quiet, curvy road in a sleepy section of Hopewell, the killers get started.
They mix their deadly chemicals and pour the concoction into plastic backpacks, strapping them on Ghostbuster-style. Marching into the woods, they begin blasting away at their prey.
“One time we had a contest and counted all the ticks we picked off ourselves — we got to 23,” said Victoria Bec, not sounding like a killer at all.
Bec is part of the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team, or some of it anyway. She and two other seasonal land stewards who spent a recent morning spraying herbicide on Japanese wisteria are part of a small army that took on the toxic task of battling New Jersey’s invasive plants about 15 years ago, when the state abandoned its plan to do so.
The Garden State is one of just a handful of states with no official list of invasive plants, no ban on them, and no strategy in place to stop their devastating spread, said ecologist Mike Van Clef, director of the strike team.
“It’s sort of a sad state of affairs, when you think about it—how are we so far behind virtually everyone else?” Van Clef said.
Several state lawmakers have introduced legislation intended to help rein in invasive plants in New Jersey. One bill would prohibit the sale, distribution, or growing of certain invasive plants without a state permit, while another would create an invasive species task force.
But having watched such legislative proposals fizzle out before, Van Clef isn’t waiting on Trenton to act. His team, which is part of the nonprofit Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, ping-pongs around the state fighting invasive plants on both private and public land.
It’s a monumental job. About 50 invasive plants are widespread, while another hundred or so have the potential to become widespread and gardeners introduce thousands more nonnative plants every year, Van Clef said.
“Invasives are the second most threatening thing to biodiversity after outright habitat destruction. If you pave something over, that’s damaging. The next threat down from that is invasive species, because they can completely alter ecosystems,” Van Clef said.
New Jersey used to have a plan to annihilate invasives—and Van Clef was part of it.
The New Jersey Invasive Species Council—a state body formed in 2004 by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey—hired him to write a statewide strategic management plan for invasive species. He submitted a draft plan in 2007, the council approved a final plan in August 2009, and state Department of Environmental Protection officials trumpeted the recommendations in 2010.
The report estimated the economic impact of invasive species on New Jersey agriculture at the time at $290 million a year and found that about 1,000 plant species—30% of the state’s flora—were nonnative.
But Chris Christie disbanded the council when he was governor, and the state ultimately failed to act on the plan.
The strike team was one of the report’s recommendations.
When it became apparent that battling invasive species wasn’t going to happen on the state level, Van Clef said, he partnered with another group to start the Central Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team.
He eventually expanded the team statewide, relying on federal funding from the U.S. Forest Service and other grants. The team has technical advisory and steering committees to guide its work and also enlists volunteers statewide to carry out its mission.
The seasonal land stewards targeting Japanese wisteria in Hopewell this week were college students, most with environmental careers in mind.
They tromped through chest-high weeds, hunting down the long leaves and woody trunks of the wisteria vine to spray with blue-hued herbicide — dyed so they could see what they sprayed, steward Jenna Delgado explained. Japanese wisteria is considered invasive because it spreads quickly and has heavy vines that can choke other plants and topple small trees. It also has a tough root system that makes it hard to kill.
“We’ve been working on this patch for about 10 years,” senior land steward Beth Craighead said. “You have to keep coming back.”
Curbing commercial sales
As pesky as the plants can be, other invasive species can be far tougher to eradicate, Van Clef said.
Take the emerald ash borer beetle.
“The emerald ash borer is an invasive species that got carried over from Asia on untreated pallets, and now every single ash tree in North America is going to die. Most of them are dying or dead in New Jersey already,” Van Clef said. “You really can’t stop a bug from moving around. But plants move slower, so you have a chance of slowing them down much more feasibly.”
If you kill an invasive plant, that can help control invasive bugs, Delgado added. Spotted lanternflies, an invasive insect from China, can decimate trees and crops. But its preferred plant is the tree-of-heaven, which also is invasive. Kill that plant, and you kill the lanternfly’s favored host, Delgado said.
But prevention would be better than eradication, Van Clef said. And prevention starts with gardeners and plant nurseries, which sell many invasive plants like Chinese silver grass, Japanese barberry, and butterfly bush, he added.
“If you’re in that business, you want to sell something that is going to be relatively foolproof — it always germinates, the deer don’t eat it, it grows wherever I plant it, and when I sell it to someone, they won’t come back three weeks later and say: ‘It’s dead,’” Van Clef said. “But you’re describing an invasive plant.”
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found in a study last year that thousands of garden centers and online retailers offered hundreds of invasive plants for sale, including 20 species that are illegal to grow or sell nationwide.
“When you deal with a problem, the first step is to stop making it worse,” Van Clef said. “Stop buying invasive plants, and stop allowing the propagation and sale of plants that we know are going to escape into our natural areas.”
State botanists came up with a list in 2004 of plants they considered invasive. The list, though, was only intended to “provide guidance” for planting on public lands.
Van Clef’s strike team also maintains a “do not plant” list of about 200 plant species.
Sens. Linda Greenstein and Bob Smith, both Democrats from Middlesex County, introduced a bill in March that lists 28 invasive plant species, including common favorites like English ivy and Bradford pear trees, that would be banned for sale, distribution or propagation without a permit from the state Department of Agriculture. It also directs state environmental officials to add plants to that list if they threaten native or sensitive habitats and are likely to spread uncontrollably.
Greenstein sponsored a similar bill in 2018, but it failed to advance. She told the New Jersey Monitor she isn’t sure why it stalled.
“It certainly seems like an important bill, and one that I would like to see move ahead,” Greenstein said.
Van Clef suspects some lawmakers are loath to support bills seen as potentially damaging to businesses. He applauded the spirit of the bill but said he’d prefer New Jersey take a more comprehensive approach by reviving its invasive species council, one that would devise a comprehensive strategy and create a definitive list of invasive plants to guide policymakers.
“We need to focus on early detection and rapid response for things that are just starting to get out of control, so that we can slow down this freight train of destruction we’ve unleashed on our planet,” Van Clef said.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.