The MTA/LIRR Has An Invasive Plant Problem — And So Do We

Invasive Plant
An Environmental Timebomb Is Going Off Along Our Railroad Tracks

Arguably, the ugliest views on Long Island are through the window of an LIRR train. Stands of invasive plants and trees, many from our list of Long Island’s Dirty Dozen, pervade.

There’s Japanese Knotweed most everywhere, considered by many to be the worst invasive plant on the planet.

invasive plant
White Flowers of Japanese Knotweed

In England, where the plant was first introduced as an ornamental for its late flowers starting in 1820, you can’t get a mortgage on your house if it is on your property because its roots will destroy your foundation. If its on your property, the value of that property will go down by as much as 15%. The plant grows in volcanic rock in its native Japan, with its roots going down as far as seven feet. The roots can remain dormant in that rock for years. Removing it can cost as much as $1300 per square yard to properly irradicate.

The plant spreads readily along the rail lines, and in England homeowners are now suing the railroad for property damage. This is surely what will start to happen here. It is everywhere along our roads and rail lines. The plant was introduced here much later, in 1870, purportedly, by Frederick Law Olmsted. It has thus been nicknamed “Olmsted’s Folly.

The question now becomes, when will the MTA start to see the lawsuits, because you know they are coming. Given how much people’s wealth on Long Island is tied up in their homes, this will get expensive very quickly. It is also a question of environmental justice. The real estate that abuts the rail lines is hardly prime. Part of the reason for is that is because since the beginning of railroading, they’ve had ‘easements’ or ‘rights of way.’ They have jurisdiction over that land, and you can be fined or arrested by their own police if you are found trespassing. What would compell them to be better stewards of their land?

The MTA is as asleep at the switch on the problem of invasive plants as the rest of us have been, to be fair. But we are at a moment on Long Island when we have to decide if the invasive plants are going to win, or if we can effectively take our land back.

Another major invasive plant that is now pervasive along our rail lines is Tree of Heaven.

spotted lanternfly vector
Tree of Heaven – Latin name – Ailanthus altissima

It is the preferred food of The Spotted Lantern Fly, as it grows in their native China. If you have Tree of Heaven, you will most probably will have Tree of Heaven. When the Spotted Lantern Fly feeds from The Tree of Heaven, they ingest a chemical that renders them inedible to local birds and insects, in much the same way that the Monarch Butterfly becomes poisonous via chemicals found in Common Milkweed. PRO TIP: Common Milkweed is toxic to The Spotted Lanternfly. They don’t know the plant, so they will feed and die. If you have a vineyard out east, plant it all on the perimeter, it may just save your vines, as it did for one Pennsylvania vineyard.

There are 57 vineyards on Long Island, generating well over $100 million in revenue annually. With Tree of Heaven running along our rail lines, they will be out there soon enough. They are projected to hit California’s vineyards by 2030. What can the MTA / The State of New York / The Federal Government do in the face of all this? The rail lines are also vectors for every invasive plant on Long Island you can name, whether they propagate via seeds or rhizomes. Long Island must confront our invasive plants if it is to have an environmental future.

We launched The Dirty Dozen Campaign, in conjunction with The Sands Point Preserve Conservancy, The Science Museum of Long Island and The Town of North Hempstead to call attention to the fact that we are losing badly in a battle we don’t even know we are fighting, and that this has to change. Oriental Bittersweet, Grape, Phragmites, Bamboo, Mugwort, Wisteria, and other invasive plants in The Dirty Dozen or otherwise thrive along our train tracks and highways, and once you see them, you can’t unsee them.

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