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Energy & Environment

Bill Seeks to Untangle State’s Regulation of Invasive Vines and Nonnative Plants

Invasive vines entwine the trunk of a tree in Takoma Park. Environmental groups and “weed warriors” spend some of their spare time sloughing the strangling vines from endangered trees, prolonging the life of the trees. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A bill before the General Assembly seeks to mitigate the spread of non-native plants and invasive vines across the state.

The plants and vines are choking mature trees and threatening fertile farmland in every corner of Maryland — an in-plain-sight but unheralded contributor to climate change. Even as the state and local governments prepare to plant millions of new trees over the next decade, the need to preserve mature trees, which absorb far more carbon, has taken on greater urgency.

“This is a visceral challenge that we all see,” Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) said during a hearing Tuesday.

Elfreth is the sponsor of Senate Bill 7, a measure that lays out steps that would limit the spread of invasive vines and non-native plants in the state. A companion measure, House Bill 15, has been sponsored by Dels. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) and Dana C. Jones (D-Anne Arundel).

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As the climate warms, as summers lengthen and winters shorten, as the Mid-Atlantic region becomes increasingly wetter, naturalists and conservations say there are more opportunities for invasive vines to thrive and threaten native trees. Development projects that clear out lush forests also contribute to the problem. So do large parcels of land in urban areas that have been left vacant for many years.

“Clearing tends to help the nonnative plants that are already here getting a bigger foothold,” Doug Myers, the Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said during a hearing on the legislation in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. He added that native tree and plant species are far better equipped to handle flooding conditions and other severe weather.

Invasive and nonnative plants arrive in Maryland in a variety of ways, but often enough they’ve been brought and sold here because they’re decorative. Sometimes they arrive by accident, hitching a ride on container ships that dock in the Port of Baltimore or through other means.

“These were plants that were planted somewhere and escaped into the wild,” said Jill Swearingen, a retired invasive species biologist at the National Park Service.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture currently classifies two categories of invasive plants in the state: “tier 1” plants, the most destructive, are banned from being sold; “tier 2” plants need to be labeled at the point of sale.

The bill before the legislature, Elfreth said, would update and sharpen the state’s classification of invasive plants to conform with guidelines laid out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service in a document called “Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas.” That move would effectively take several more plant species off the market in Maryland.

The measure would also require the state Department of Natural Resources to create and maintain a publicly accessible database of native plants — along with suggestions of when a native plant would make a good alternative to a “tier 2” plant. The bill would confer priority status to native plants in projects that go through the state procurement process. And it would eliminate the sales and use tax on the sale of native plants.

Elfreth said that last year, the legislature passed a measure that said invasive plants can’t be used in projects that go through the state procurement process. She said her legislation this year seeks to add “some creative additions” to that law.

Half a dozen environmental organizations and horticultural groups testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

“During our decades of stewardship, we have witnessed an explosion of invasive plants,” said Lily Fountain, chair of the Natural Places Committee of the Maryland Sierra Club.

There was no oral or written testimony against the measure.

Because the legislation has fiscal impacts for the state, due to the anticipated loss in revenue from sales of certain nonnative plant species and added costs to the agriculture department to monitor nonnative plants added to the banned list, it must go through the Assembly’s fiscal committees as well as its environmental panels.

An analysis by the Department of Legislative Services suggests the bill could add a $313,300 burden to the state’s coffers in the first year it’s enacted, with costs exceeding $200,000 a year over several subsequent years.

The next hearing on the bill has been set for 1 p.m. Wednesday in the House Ways and Means Committee.