New uses for invasive plants sought by ecologist

 During John Ervin’s 30 years as a field ecologist working to combat invasive plant species for Indiana, one question weighed on his mind.

“Is it worth it?” he asked, saying the money being spent at the problem is “like throwing spit balls at a charging elephant.”

Ervin spent his career with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. He hopes to turn his expertise to the private sector with a cooperative business model to remove invasive species and turn them into sustainable products such as biofuels or remedies for illnesses.

Ervin, of Valparaiso, recently pitched his concept to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s Environmental Management Policy Committee meeting.

“We can’t defeat the invasive species,” he told The Times. “We can’t eradicate them. They’re a living thing. They’ll always come back.”

Ervin said part of the problem with Indiana’s approach is it is a grant-based system and the matching funds are not available to get the job done. Most grants stipulate management of a property for 20 years — a cost not measured by the funding.

“It’s like somebody buying you a Lamborghini,” Ervin said. “Oh, thanks. Now I have to buy insurance on the thing, maintain it. No thanks.”

Changing the system involves changing the way of thinking about invasives, Ervin said, asking “What if, instead of the victim mentality that we have to fight that back, instead we have the mentality that we have to go get that and use it?”

He suggested invasives can be cultivated, turned into bricks and burned at utility plants as a biofuel.

Oriental bittersweet, he said, has been used for its medicinal properties in China, and golden teasel is a Lyme disease remedy. Phragmites can be turned into pellets or bricks and burned for fuel, as well, he added.

“We can fuel that plant down in Wheatfield with biofuels from invasives,” he said.

The Indiana Invasive Species Council has been tasked by lawmakers with tackling the issue.

“They’ve essentially thrown up their hands on things that are already here,” Ervin said.

The council is chaired by Shirley Heinze Land Trust Executive Director Kris Krause. Speaking in his capacity with Shirley Heinze, Krause — who was not present at Ervin’s presentation to the committee — said managing invasives is not just about getting rid of them.

“The overall consensus is it’s critical to have land managers and individuals and organizations focused on managing invasive species because the alternative would be a loss of biodiversity,” Krause said.

“We would love to see some economic opportunities come out of methods to eradicate or further reduce the quantity of invasive species in the landscape, but there isn’t a lot of mechanisms, at least in this area, to do that.”

Dan Plath, president of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, said there are great examples of entrepreneurs reducing invasives, such as the harvesting of Asian carp in Illinois for sale for consumption in China and some Chicago restaurants.

Plath said he considers Ervin a friend, but disagrees with his assertion that grant funds are not effective invasive species mitigation tools.

“The grant dollars that have been invested to combat invasive species (are) a good investment of both public and private resources, which benefits nature, tourism, water and air quality and our overall quality of life,” Plath said.

Porter County Surveyor Kevin Breitzke, who serves as chairman of that NIRPC committee, supports the concept.

“I think eradication will come with private sector involvement,” Breitzke said. “There’s a tremendous amount of expertise in this region.”

Breitzke said he favors transferring the burden away from taxpayers.

Ervin said his proposal is in the planning stages with investors.


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