INVASIVE SPECIES: Bipartisan lawmakers criticize national council
Abby Kessler, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee from both sides of the aisle yesterday criticized a federal council meant to tackle invasive species threats.

The National Invasive Species Council, whose members include the heads of 13 federal agencies, was formed under a 1999 executive order with the mission to "to ensure that Federal programs and activities to prevent and control invasive species are coordinated, effective and efficient."

But Interior Subcommittee Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said that since the council's inception, there has been little oversight to gauge its success. The council is also far behind on updating its strategy.

When the council formed, regulations required it to issue updates to its national management plan every two years. However, the document has only been revised twice, with the first revision submitted in 2001 and the second in 2008.

"A review of the 2001 plan by the Government Accountability Office found problems with coordination delays and setting clear long-term goals," Lummis said. "In the past several years, there has been relatively little oversight of the council's work and success in managing the invasive species problem. Questions continue to be raised about whether the council and other federal agencies are effective in stopping the spread of invasive species."

Subcommittee ranking member Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) echoed those comments, adding that she plans to hold additional meetings on the matter and to scour forthcoming updates to the national management plan.

"We know that the invasive species problem has worsened," Lawrence said. "And I feel strongly that the lack of a proper plan is contributing to the impact."

The council's executive director, Jamie Reaser, said the management plan has not been revised recently due to "unanticipated staff turnover" in agencies, which stalled work on the document. She said she has only been with the council for nine weeks and intends to lead an effort to revise the document, a process she expects will be completed this spring.

Yet lawmakers from several states said at the hearing that the issue runs deeper than those revisions, questioning the effectiveness of the council's efforts since the group began and arguing that no tangible improvements have been made to address the ever-pressing issue.

Reaser said the council does not deal directly with on-the-ground efforts, instead focusing much of its attention on providing management tools that states can use to educate and to improve the situation, making success difficult to measure. Further, she said, the council is operating on a tight budget, which has kept the group from reaching its "full potential."

Scott Cameron, president of the Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition, testified that the council could improve its efforts by publishing a short annual work plan to inform Congress how the organization is working to mitigate issues. It also should provide a forum for communication among state governors, the Agriculture Department, U.S. EPA and forest managers, he said.

He said improving communication lines between federal and state officials could be an important tactic to improve efforts on the ground and deploy research that is otherwise caught up in "bureaucratic rhetoric."

Cameron testified that invasive species have singlehandedly caused 20 percent of all species extinctions since the 1600s and are implicated about half of all extinctions more recently.

With an estimated 50,000 invasive species recorded in the United States alone, and an annual federal budget of $125 million to control and repair resulting damages, all sides agreed that it's a widespread issue that poses economic, health and habitat threats.

Reaser said she was introduced to the problem when she was a little girl while fishing with her grandmother.

"I can remember being frustrated because I couldn't catch anything other than carp," Reaser said. "I desperately wanted to see a pretty sunfish up close, but because of the feeding habits of the carp, which muddied the water, I couldn't even see the sunfish."

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