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Scientists warn against exotic grass

A Florida company wants to grow 8,000 acres of Arundo grass to burn as fuel. Other states are trying to eradicate the plant.

Published August 10, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Even though some scientists are warning against it, a Florida company plans to farm thousands of acres of an invasive plant that California taxpayers are spending millions of dollars to kill off.

It's called Arundo grass, or giant reed. Biomass Investment Group wants to plant 8,000 acres of the corn-like plant and burn the stalks to produce power for the Jacksonville Electric Authority.

The company doesn't need the state's permission, but the state could block the project if it decides that the risk is too great. So far, the state says Arundo grass poses a "low to moderate risk" in Florida, but it is still collecting input from scientists.

Biomass wants to plant the crop in Highlands and DeSoto counties, north of Lake Okeechobee. Originally, it was going to plant near the Florida Everglades, where crews already are working feverishly killing botanical invaders such as Australian melaleuca and Brazilian pepper.

Biomass has renamed Arundo "e-grass," and is marketing it as an environmentally responsible power source that won't pollute the air.

Blessed with rain and year-round Florida sunshine, exotic plants can easily muscle out native flora. Wildlife that depends on native Florida plants is suddenly out of luck. Melaleuca is especially pesky, since foresters planted it years ago to soak water out of wetlands. It still performs its task superbly, though no one wants to drain the Everglades anymore.

The law of unintended consequences already is at work in California.

California imported Arundo from Asia in the 1820s to control erosion on stream beds but had unintended results: The plant caused erosion and flash floods.

Arundo isn't on Florida's list of prohibited plants, but it is on California's. It is used in Florida landscaping, and has escaped into some natural areas. But no one has planted it on such a large scale.

"Oh, my God," exclaimed Joseph DiTomaso, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, when told of the plan to plant 8,000 acres of Arundo here. "They've made that mistake with melaleuca, and now they are going to make another one with Arundo?"

Planting Arundo in Florida, agreed Jodie Holt, also from UC, Davis, "would be a disaster in the making."

In a letter to a colleague at the University of Florida, DiTomaso said California is facing a $50-million tab to remove Arundo, if it could be completely wiped out at all. To kill it, workers have to spray poison along stream beds, and sometimes try to chop it out by hand - which can cost as much as $17,000 an acre.

If Arundo catches fire, DiTomaso said, it's almost impossible to extinguish.

"We have had similar situations in California with people wanting to introduce kudzu and water chestnut into the state," DiTomaso wrote. "Fortunately, these requests have been rejected. The risks are just too great. I hope this provides you with some perspective from someone who wishes they had the same choices when giant reed was first introduced for erosion control and as an ornamental into California."

Arundo has become invasive in some parts of Florida, including Anastasia State Park, Washington Oaks State Gardens, on the banks of the St. Johns River, on Merritt Island and along Lake Munson in Tallahassee.

Still, the Florida Department of Agriculture says in a draft report that Arundo poses a "low to moderate" risk in Florida.

"We're farmers, and we're going to do it right," said Biomass president Allen Sharpe, 48, who lives in the Panhandle town of Gulf Breeze. "We look forward to producing a lot of green, clean energy for the state of Florida."

Biomass has a contract with Jacksonville Electric, but hasn't bought land, started to plant, or broken ground on its power plant yet, Sharpe said.

Sharpe said the grass won't escape if it is farmed responsibly. Just because a plant is out of control in parts of California, he says, doesn't mean it will grow like kudzu in Florida.

"I think we're looking at concern that's transplanted from other areas of the country," agreed Bruce Dugan, spokesman for the Jacksonville Electric Authority.

At the University of Florida, Philip Busey is cautious. Biomass wants to plant essentially 12.5 square miles of Arundo, far more than anywhere in the state.

"Anything of this scale, there's a danger that there would be a lot of miles of border edge where things could get loose," he said.

Alexa Wilcox, president of the Pinellas County chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, says she's all for clean energy but also spent sweaty afternoons trying to kill off plants that grow out of control.

"The state spends millions of dollars fighting exotic pest plants," she said. "Why expose us to any more?"

The Florida Department of Agriculture hasn't made a final decision on Arundo, even though its draft report signals that the plant poses a low to moderate ecological risk. The state plans to get more scientific input.

DiTomaso, of the University of California, said Arundo is a wonderful source for reeds for musical instruments, and is also used as a fiber.

"It's a very fast-growing plant," he said. "I can see why (Biomass) would want to plant it.

"I'm usually pretty conservative with plants. I don't like to over-exaggerate. But I'd consider the ecological risk of this plant to be high. They might want to look at another energy crop."

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 02:02:50]

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