The invasion of the ice plant: What can be saved?

People in the midst of coastal vegetation pulling out invasive ice plants under a blue sky,

Photo taken by Big Sur Land Trust volunteer coordinator Jose Carlos at ice plant pulling event at Martin Dunes, California, on Feb. 19, 2022. (Photo courtesy Jose Carlos)

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Adaptation, Biodiversity, Climate, Conservation, Storyfest 2022

On Feb. 19, 2021, I volunteered with Big Sur Land Trust (BSLT), pulling an ice plant in Marina, California, just north of Monterey. The section of Martin Dunes that BSLT owns serves as an example, for the rest of the state, of what is possible when all of the ice plant is removed from an area. Ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis) is an invasive plant that has completely taken over in the coastal ecosystems of California and Western Mexico, spreading as far north as the Oregon border and as far south as Baja California. Native to South Africa, the ice plant is well adapted to moderate climates and outcompetes all other coastal native plants that provide essential habitats for native insects and animals. For instance, the coastal buckwheat has been almost completely wiped out in California, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of butterflies that come to the coastal regions of the state. Martin Dunes was chosen as a section to prioritize because of its high concentration of federal- and state-listed threatened and endangered species, all of which are harmed by the invasion of the plant. While the ice plant continues to ravage the landscape all around it, in this small pocket, it has been almost completely removed and volunteers return multiple times per year to pull out what has grown back.

So, how did the ice plant become so rampant in California? While the ice plant is likely to have first been introduced to the state by accident, coming along with other cargo on colonists’ ships in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was intentionally planted in California starting in the early 1900s. All the way up until the 1970s, Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) planted ice plant along railroad tracks and roadsides to stabilize dirt and sand. They chose the ice plant because it was cheap and spread quickly: a single branch grows more than three feet outwards each year. Being a succulent that holds water in its petals, it was also attractive for its resistance to drought. Unfortunately, that meant that it also began to starve all other native plants of water, quickly choking them all out and dominating the landscape. As with the intentional introduction of most invasive plants, little forethought was put into the long-term consequences of introducing this nonnative plant from the other side of the planet. Although discoveries about the ways that nonnative plants reduce habitats for native insects and animals would come later, it became evident after the ice plant began to spread that it was not actually meeting the goal of stabilizing the dunes either. Due to its heavy leaves and shallow roots, the ice plant destabilizes the dunes, increasing erosion and the frequency of landslides. It also builds up so much biomass in its water-logged petals that hillsides can just collapse under the weight of it.

In the face of the widespread presence of the ice plant along hundreds of miles of coastline, is there any hope that the California coastal ecosystem could ever be returned to its natural state? Restoration is a challenging and confusing process: what does returning a place to its “natural state” even mean? In the case of the ice plant, while it is clear that from an ecological standpoint, this invasive plant affects the California coastal ecosystem in a completely negative way, it also has become a quintessential and recognizable part of the state’s coastline. How does its beauty come into play in terms of crafting a plan for its removal? While these questions are important to think about, it is unrealistic to hope that the ice plant will ever be removed on a scale larger than in small pockets like Martin Dunes that are revisited multiple times a year to pull what has grown back. On the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s page about the ice plant, they echo this sentiment, stating that, “unfortunately, it is so widespread that it is only realistic to try to control small infestations at once.” Various approaches for removing the ice plant have been tried, including spraying pesticides and rolling over the ice plants with tractors, but, due to the negative consequences of these destructive actions to organisms other than the ice plant, hand pulling of the plant is now the most common approach. While it is slow and only works on a small scale, it is the least destructive to the coastal ecosystem. 

A close-up of what the ice plant looks like, shown here at Point Reyes in California. (Dawn Endico/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0)

As I wrestled with the plants, sometimes having to use hand tools to yank out the “mother root,” I chatted with a friend about the connections between the physical act that we were performing in that moment and the themes I have been reading about in All We Can Save, a collection of essays and poems written by women at the forefront of the climate movement. Both the invasive ice plant and the climate crisis pose challenges that seem insurmountable when you look at them on a large scale. Colonialism and exploitative capitalism have restructured our world in ways that are deeply complicated and often impossible to undo. The ice plant stands as a physical example of the ravaging impacts of colonial impositions on local ecosystems. How could we possibly remove all of the ice plant in California? How can we possibly completely restructure our economy and societal values to move away from exploitative capitalism and towards a more collaborative world of people living in right relationship with the Earth? 

In the first chapter of All We Can Save, editors Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson lay out the framework that they intend to use to tackle these difficult questions. In explaining their intentions for the direction of the book, they state that “while it is too late to save everything –– some ecological damage is irreparable, some species are already gone, ice has already melted, lives have already been lost –– it is far too soon to give up on the rest.” There is no silver-bullet solution to either problem. Creating a better world will only happen as a result of tireless work on a local level, listening to local voices and indigenous wisdom to create place-based solutions. In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown (Editor’s note: The author prefers her name presented lowercase.) explains the idea of “fractal communities,” which are communities on the outside of the mainstream culture that model a different way of life. In living out an experiment of imagination, they test out solutions on a local level, hoping to serve as an example and something that people from the mainstream culture can turn to as a different path forward. The Martin Dunes project operates in a similar way: conservationists from all over the state visit it to get an idea of what a rehabilitated coastal ecosystem could look like. As Johnson and Wilkinson highlight in the first chapter, “Begin,” it is not too late to attempt to save what we can, just as the conservationists have done in the Martin Dunes project. And in doing so, they have created a viable habitat for the sand gilia, legless lizard, blue butterfly, snowy plover, and other endangered species. Winning that battle must be worth something, even if it is in the face of the impossibility of winning the war.

Also key to the idea behind “fractal communities,” is the fact that the same solution cannot work everywhere. While some top-down actions –– such as federal climate legislation –– are necessary, community-specific bottom-up solutions are how we are really going to restructure our society. In the essay “Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth,” Sherri Mitchell claims that “one of the more damaging effects of colonization and forced assimilation has been the homogenization of our societies.” As with other colonial impositions, the introduction of the ice plant to the California coast, was thought to be an answer that would be universally superior, while local native plants had been evolving for millennia to meet the challenges of each local region. Technocratic, one-size-fits-all solutions, such as the bulldozing of the dunes and application of pesticides, were seen to be inferior solutions to solving the problem than thoughtful, community-based efforts. 

Another key theme in All We Can Save that we saw as intimately related to the ice plant pulling effort was the idea that humans are and always have been active stewards of our environment. We are not separate from, nor are we destined to destroy “nature.” In her piece “Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs,” Kendra Pierre-Louis talks about how most of us grow up with the belief that “humans have an innate tendency to destroy their environment.” When we look further back than the past few hundred years, we find that humans have always played a role in actively altering our environments, often in non-destructive, sustainable ways. In the case of the ice plant, humans made a huge misstep but that does not mean that we cannot also act in ways that are helpful to our local environments, such as hand-pulling the ice plant and replanting native plants. The essay “Mending the Landscape,” by Kate Orff, speaks to the potential power of community-based ecosystem restoration: not just as a tool to make our local ecosystems more resilient to climate change, but also to deconstruct the idea of “nature” as something separate from us, that we are destined to destroy if we get involved. Orff explains that “this new mode of working – a more public role of organizing communities and choreographing ecological repair – is needed to correct the idea of nature as something that exists outside of human agency.” We have the power to make positive change in our local communities and local ecosystems.

All We Can Save points to so many areas in which we can look for hope. But, at least for me, the despair and sense of doom still lingers. While the story of the ice plant in California can be seen as a story of victories and community action on the small scale –– with the Martin Dunes project being an example of success –– it can simultaneously be a metaphor for loss on a large scale. We will never be able to remove all of the ice plant and restore this ecosystem to one that can provide a habitat for all of the animals and insects that used to call it home. Similarly, on a global scale, so much irreversible damage to the environment has already been done and, even with the most ambitious climate actions, people will still suffer and more ecosystems will be destroyed. The story of the ice plant as a metaphor for the climate crisis and the words of all of the authors in All We Can Save leave me with the question: how do we maintain hope in the face of what we cannot save? 

For me personally, the way I tend to cope with the feelings of despair that come with looking at this issues in the big picture, is zooming in to a smaller scale and looking for examples and ways that I can be a part of efforts where real people are connecting with each other and their environments and doing good work to help heal their relationships to one another and with the Earth. I feel empowered, not when I think about national climate legislation or huge investments in green technologies, but when I see real people (re)connecting with the Earth right under their feet. I listened to a podcast interview of adrienne maree brown in which she says that she believes that every movement needs both: people that make change a mile wide and a foot deep and people that make change a foot wide and a mile deep. You cannot build a strong movement without both. Some people want to ascend to the highest office possible and make changes that will affect the world broadly and others would rather make changes on the local level, creating a model –– or a “fractal community” –– of what they believe a better world could look like. I tend to fall more in the second category and I’m still working on figuring out exactly what that looks like for me in my life, but it is an exciting journey.

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