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Fla. Battles Yet Another Invasive Species at Annual Air Potato Roundup

Jan 31, 2011 – 2:41 PM
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Dave Thier

Dave Thier Contributor

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- "Potatoes" and "devastating infestation" might not sound like they go hand in hand. But in Florida, they can be so dangerous that a thousand people take to the forest to root through thorn-infested vines and bramble just to grab what tubers they can and run them out of town.

That's what happened this weekend when college students, Cub Scouts and ordinary citizens struck out into the forests of Gainesville for the 12th annual Great Air Potato Roundup. Their mission: scour infested areas to work toward ridding them of a nasty invasive species of yam that can lay waste to native forests in a matter of years.

Erik Smith holds up two Air Potatoes at the 12th Annual Great Air Potato Roundup in Gainesville, FL
Courtesy Carrie Guss
Erick Smith holds up two air potatoes at the 12th annual Great Air Potato Roundup in Gainesville, Fla.
At Fred Cone Park, the challenge became clear. A little ways back from the power lines at the southern edge of the field the forest fell bare. In its place were the skeletons of a few sweet bay magnolia and cypress trees overrun by a mat of dark, thick vines intermixed with thorny bramble. The mother lode. Volunteers ran out to collect as many of the small tubers that they could see, but it was a daunting proposition. For every potato they picked, it seemed like there were 10 more buried in the brush.

This is the story of the Florida ecosystem -- in a climate where anything grows, those trying to protect native species face a seemingly endless flood of invasive exotics.

In Florida, the term "invasive species" isn't an obscure ecological concept but a household word. The state is biologically active, to say the least, and in it plants from far and wide find a comfortable home away from native predators and diseases. The air potato is just one of the many plants and animals that have been transplanted to Florida and found a fresh ecosystem in which to sprawl uninhibited.

Some of the most impressive invasive species grow in the water. Were it not for chemical spraying by the state, ecological services contractor Erick Smith says, most of Florida's fresh water would be unnavigable.

The Great Air Potato Roundup may help put a dent in the yam's reproduction and promote awareness of invasive species, he says, but the real work isn't done by volunteers. Companies like Smith's spray powerful herbicides to keep invasives at bay, forcing environmentalists to strike a delicate balance between protecting native species and introducing dangerous chemicals into the natural environment. For Smith, he'd much prefer that they were handled by insects or other natural predators.

Two University of Florida Students make their way through a massive tangle of air potato vines.
Courtesy Carrie Guss
Two University of Florida students make their way through a massive tangle of air potato vines.
"I look at what we do as holding the line until we come in with biological controls," he told AOL News.

But while the short-term situation may look like a creeping catastrophe to some, others argue that the notion of "invasive species" is just a construct -- that plants have always moved across different ecosystems, and the state would probably be better off just letting nature take its course rather than raging against the tides with millions of dollars and dangerous chemicals.

Others would rather find human uses for exotic plants, like eating them. In some parts of the world, people eat the roots of the air potatoes, though Geoff Parks, an ecologist for the city of Gainesville, said the plants here have in them chemicals that would make that a bad idea.

Parks acknowledges that, yes, in the long term some kind of new ecological balance would probably be struck in the forests of northern Florida. But just like similar economic and cultural phenomena, he warns, mankind's ability to transport plants far and wide could lead to a vast "McDonaldsization" of the natural world -- where swamps in Florida might look the same as swamps in Taiwan.

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"Most of the plants and animals in the Southeast exist nowhere else in the world," Parks told AOL News. "We're transitioning from these really diverse forests that were full of native species, many of which are rare and limited to this part of the country, into more homogenized hammocks dominated by a handful of exotics."

In Gainesville, both volunteers and professionals have put species like the air potato into retreat, and some of the sites targeted in previous air potato roundups have recovered. But state budget cuts could threaten that progress, and at times the ever-multiplying invasives appear overwhelming. For Parks, however, it's about slow progress.

"There are a lot of people who recognize it as a problem, and whether it's public agencies who are out managing land or private people who are aware, people are really out and making a difference," he said. "And that's really encouraging to see."
Filed under: Nation, Weird News, Science
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