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Special Investigation: The Pesticides and Politics of America’s Eco-War

(Image: Lance Page / Truthout; Adapted: Carl Mueller / Flickr)

Keith Starvrum stands on the banks of Willapa Bay, where the low tide has revealed long lines of mudflats speckled with empty oyster shells. The sun is making a rare appearance in southwestern Washington State, but the perfect spring weather fails to cheer up the lumbering Starvrum, whose loud outbursts and biting sarcasm keep his employees' eyes rolling. He served overseas as a special ops soldier in his youth and he has some interesting things to say about the recent uprisings in Arab countries and the CIA's dirty habit of quietly “rearranging” governments amid apparent political turmoil. But he has a lot more to say about oysters.

Starvrum points to a lone oysterman gathering the day's catch from neighboring mudflats and shakes his head. Starvrum used to harvest oysters from the thick mud exposed by the low tide, but he has not brought in a catch in three years. He refuses to participate in the lucrative business, a traditional mainstay of the local economy, because the pesticides sprayed on adjacent mudflats drifted onto his oyster beds.

“That's why we don't sell our oysters, 'cause we know what they're in,” Starvrum says. “But when we do, they will be 100 times better.” Other oystermen have used pesticides to kill pests for generations, but Starvrum did it differently. He harvested oysters by hand, without using chemicals, and hauled them right from the bay to the kitchen of a small hotel on the same property. The rest were shipped to natural foods restaurants. Starvrum says his oyster farm was “as organic as you can be in Willapa Bay.”

The pesticides that finally drove Starvrum to cancel his oyster harvests were not sprayed by his fellow oystermen, however. State agencies sprayed the chemicals to combat a saltwater marsh grass “infestation.” Like industrial gardeners weeding a giant brackish plot, government workers came in boats and helicopters, slowly spraying thousands of gallons of herbicides into the bay's shallow waters.

Some call this grass spartina alterniflora and others call it cord grass. Fritzi Cohen just calls it “spartina.” Cohen runs the Moby Dick Hotel and Oyster Farm with Starvrum, and she loves spartina. Cohen says she used the grass to make homemade paper and compost for her garden. A wide smile grows on her face as she recalls the days before public officials slated spartina for complete annihilation. “I mean, this was a beautiful grass,” Cohen says. “When people took photographers here, that's what they wanted to take pictures of, because it's so beautiful.”

Most people living on the peninsula that separates Willapa Bay from the Pacific Ocean do not share Cohen's love for spartina. Some of them even helped fight a war against the grass, an effort known as a species “eradication.”

Cohen is a lifelong activist who has challenged the “military industrial complex,” as she puts it, since the Vietnam War, and now she says she is fighting the military-industrial complex in her backyard. Cohen and a small group of allies have spent two decades fighting to save spartina grass from those who consider spartina an invasive weed that must be destroyed. Cohen also fights to save Willapa Bay from the herbicidal chemicals used to kill spartina. But the spartina eradicators say they are fighting for the bay, too. They argue that spartina grass is a bigger threat to the bay than the chemicals could ever be.

Cohen and Starvrum's campaign has been unsuccessful, and during the past decade, an herbicide-drenched eradication effort has reduced the number of solid acres of spartina in Willapa Bay from an estimated 8,500 to fewer than 20. Cohen fought the eradication for years, butting heads with other locals who believed spartina would permanently change Willapa Bay, a clear threat to the local oyster industry and to a migratory bird sanctuary.

The fight got ugly. Lawsuits were filed. Politicians pledged to have spartina destroyed. The Monsanto Co. swooped in to save Willapa Bay from spartina with its patented chemicals. Congress provided millions of dollars. At one point it looked like neo-Nazis could get involved.

Spartina is a constant topic of conversation at the Moby Dick Hotel. When two former guests from California show up, Cohen gives them a rapid-fire update on the herbicide sprays in the bay. She later complains that people consider her a spartina fanatic. She sees herself instead as a seasoned activist, but admits that fighting for spartina and against pesticides has taken up much of her time and money. “There's a part of me that says, 'why am I doing this?'” Cohen says. “Why am I basically spending my children's inheritance? When my husband died he left me some insurance; basically I don't travel around the world like my friends do.”

Cohen's story has the ring of an oddball, not-in-my-backyard kind of struggle, but her efforts open a new chapter in the politics of pesticides that reveals the gritty details of an emerging debate within the environmental movement over invasive species like spartina. The controversy also raises deep questions about what it means to be an environmentalist in an age when big business teams up with the government to provide high-tech solutions to the inconveniences of the natural world.

The Eradication

Before coming to Willapa Bay to become an oysterman a decade ago, Starvrum ran his own roofing business and did other odd and dirty jobs. He doesn't seem like the type of guy who would care about natural produce, but he keeps an organic garden and is obviously proud of harvesting oysters in a more sustainable way than the big-money operations. He's loud and grumpy and he blames his rude disposition on the drugs he takes to battle lymphoma. Cohen wonders if the chemicals sprayed on spartina are to blame for Starvrum's illness. She feels guilty for sending him out there when she knew that “poisons” were lurking in the mudflats.

Starvrum is a Minnesota native; Cohen and her late husband Edward came to Willapa Bay from Washington, DC, in the late 1980s. Spartina grass is also from the East Coast and can commonly be seen there, bending in the wind on sandy meadows between estuaries winding toward the sea. Spartina is prized on the eastern coastline for acting as a natural erosion buffer, filtering pollution from water and gathering nutrients. But state agencies on the West Coast consider spartina to be a dangerous alien invader that threatens native habitats by dominating tidal mudflats in areas like Willapa Bay. Big oyster harvesting firms don't like spartina either. The grass can slowly transform parts of the mudflats into estuarine rivers and some oystermen fear the grass could get in the way of their dredging efforts to pull the valuable mussel from the muck.

Starvrum walks to the bank of the bay and points to small posts in the tidal mud marking the property line. On either side, patches of tiny spartina sprouts are emerging from the mud. If it were allowed to grow, the grass could reach four to six feet in height by the end of the summer. But spartina is considered a Class A Noxious Weed in Willapa Bay and eradication is a mandatory measure enforced by the local noxious weed board, with herbicide being the weapon of choice. Bayside residents with spartina on their property must allow the herbicide sprays or spend their own time and money removing the grass.

“They sprayed for three years and it's still coming up,” Starvrum says, pointing out that bigger patches of the green stubble are coming up on his neighbor's property. Their neighbors chose to allow eradication teams to spray glyphosate and imazapyr herbicides on their mudflats, but Starvrum and Cohen fought back, attending heated local weed board meetings and eventually taking the board to court. After a brief legal battle in 2009, a judge granted Starvrum and Cohen the right to remove the spartina on their mudflats by mowing the grass with a weed whacker.

Mud from Starvrum's flats later tested positive for the herbicides that drifted in the waters and Starvrum quit harvesting in protest and out of fear for his own health and the health of his customers. “If anyone else tested, no one in the bay would be selling,” Starvrum scowls. “That's why it all goes to China.”

Cohen and Starvrum say the spartina eradication has implications beyond oyster farming. Wiping out an entire species of grass because it decided to grow in your neighborhood just doesn't seem right, and forcing herbicide sprays on property owners seems to infringe on some basic freedoms. To Starvrum and Cohen, the idea of mandatory eradication smells like some kind of ecological fascism. So, last spring, Starvrum announced at a weed board meeting that Cohen would sell her property if the county sprayed more herbicides near her oyster beds, and they had heard that the Aryan Nation was looking for a new place to call home. A man in black sitting next to Starvrum later stood up and suggested they keep spraying so his “group” could move in.

The local media reported on the stunt and rumors erupted across the tiny communities on the Long Beach peninsula. The man in black was said to be Aryan Nation leader Paul Mullet. The real Mullet would soon angrily deny being anywhere near Willapa Bay and pledged to inform the police that he had been illegally impersonated in public.

Starvrum laughs until his face turns red when recalling the stunt. Cohen says the Nazis were angry because someone had suggested they would do business with a Jewish woman. She admits that bringing up white supremacists in the local media may have scared off some tourists, but she doesn't regret it. “I never denied anything,” she says with a tiny smirk. “But I just get so angry sometimes.”

The stunt was a tasteless publicity grab, but it was also a metaphor for the spartina eradication and the dominant attitude toward invasive species in general. For many environmentalists, eradicating invasive species is good ecological policy for preserving ecosystems, but Cohen and a growing number of researchers consider eradications to be a symptom of species xenophobia.

Invasive species are plants and animals living in areas outside what ecologists consider their native habitats. Invasive species are usually introduced to new habitats by humans and, without the competition from species in their native environments, are said to be a threat to native species and a nuisance to industries like agriculture and forestry. In the case of spartina, oyster fisherman introduced the grass to Willapa Bay more than a century ago. The grass was used as packing for non-native East Coast oysters the fisherman hoped to introduce to Willapa Bay, and spartina has continued to spread until a coalition of conservation groups and state agencies began wiping it out.

A war on invasive species is being waged across the country. Non-native mangrove trees in Hawaii are being poisoned with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Tamarisk trees in the Southwest are being poisoned, mowed down and treated with tree-killing beetles. Purple loosestrife is pulled up and poisoned in wetlands across the Midwest. Most conservationists agree that invasions should be prevented, but once established, these invaders must be decimated in order for the purely native species to flourish.

Science is always changing, and every species and ecosystem is different. Some biologists and conservationists are now questioning the idea that every species deemed “invasive” is actually bad for ecosystems. Others flat out say that the invasion biology “greenwashing” myth was created by the land management industry to sell pesticides and generate an endless stream of government contracts.

Cohen admits that she had never heard of invasive species before moving to Willapa Bay. But in her effort to stop the herbicide sprays and save spartina, Cohen became a crusader for plants and animals so often despised by other environmentalists. “These are living things, even if they are offensive to some people,” Cohen says. “But if you have to get rid of them, at least don't use chemicals.”

The Chemicals

Willapa Bay made it on the front page of Monsanto's company magazine in 1991 and was featured in an article titled “No Time to Lose: Will Rodeo Save Willapa Bay?” The agribusiness giant was scoping out the bay as a potential market for Rodeo, the aquatic version of the company's popular Roundup herbicide.

The active ingredient in Roundup and Rodeo is glyphosate, the chemical that many of Monsanto's crop seeds are genetically engineered to tolerate, allowing farmers to spray whole fields with the weed killer while sparing their crops. The article suggested that the spartina grass, which had been established in the bay for nearly a century, was now spreading out of control and threatened Willapa Bay with an “ecological disaster.” Rodeo was the only aquatic pesticide approved for use in estuaries at the time and Monsanto suggested Rodeo was the only product that could wipe out spartina and save Willapa Bay from being choked out by stands of insidious marsh grass.

Critics like Cohen believe Monsanto demonizes invasive species like spartina in order to develop a new market for its chemicals. “They figured if they could spray [Rodeo] in a pristine bay, then they could spray it anywhere,” Cohen says. Spartina grows in many areas across the world where it is considered non-native. If Rodeo proved effective for eradicating spartina from Willapa Bay, Monsanto could establish new markets in coastal areas ranging from New Zealand to Europe.

Monsanto lost its patent on glyphosate and its interest in Willapa Bay before the spartina eradication campaign gained real momentum in 2003, when federal funding secured by Washington senators would pump more than $1 million into the project each year for the next five years. With federal tax dollars in hand, conservation workers could fill their tanks with off-brand glyphosate for a lower price.

Glyphosate alone would not “save” Willapa Bay from spartina, and in 2004, the herbicide imazapyr joined the eradication arsenal. Following a petition from biotech company BASF, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of imazapyr in aquatic environments and the herbicide was immediately put to the test on a massive scale in Willapa Bay. Chad Phillips, who coordinates Washington's statewide spartina eradication program, calls imazapyr the “silver bullet” for killing spartina. Along with glyphosate, imazapyr-based herbicides reduced spartina by thousands of acres in Willapa Bay each year from 2004 to 2008. Phillips and his colleagues say it's the largest aquatic eradication on record and a model for similar projects on the West Coast.

Cohen and Starvrum believe glyphosate and imazapyr make for toxic oysters and a polluted bay, but state officials say both chemicals have undergone rigorous testing and are relatively safe.

When it comes to pesticides, only one thing is ever certain: the companies that produce them and regulators that approve them will say they are safe when used correctly, and critics will point to crucial data gaps and independent research to prove these authorities wrong.

Glyphosate is the poster child for the global pesticide controversy due to its place in the ongoing debate over mega-farming and genetically engineered crops. Industry scientists say it's one of the safest herbicides in the world, while independent scientists have discovered potential links among the widespread use of glyphosate-based herbicides and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, birth defects and even attention deficit disorder. Research also shows that additives like surfactants in glyphosate in herbicides like Roundup are more toxic than glyphosate itself and can increase the toxicity of glyphosate.

Imazapyr lacks the notoriety of glyphosate, and little independent testing has been done on the weed killer, but it deserves a hard look considering thousands of gallons of imazapyr-based solution was sprayed across Willapa Bay during the past decade. Imazapyr is a salt that kills plants by inhibiting amino acid synthesis needed for DNA and cell growth. The EPA assessments show the chemical has low toxicity levels when it comes to animals and humans. A long look at EPA documents, however, reveals that regulators used data from tests on freshwater species to assume that imazapyr would be just as safe in saltwater areas like Willapa Bay. In other words, no testing was done on the long-term effects imazapyr could have on saltwater fish and the tiny organisms that form the based of the marine food chain. Nowhere in the assessments by the EPA is data on the toxicity of imazapyr when mixed with the other chemicals like additives or glyphosate in herbicide formulas used in the field. The EPA, however, told Truthout that the assessment is sound and no data gaps exist.

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Washington State's own risk assessment for the spartina project admits that little is known about imazapyr's long-term effects on organisms that make up the foundation of the food chain, such as invertebrates and phytoplankton, and there is no data on how long imazapyr stays active within dead spartina. The report concludes that the toxicity of imazapyr is so low that these data gaps are not of concern.

Cynthia Lopez says there are too many holes in this story. Lopez is a former Washington Health Department official, who chaired an interagency committee on pesticides and public health until the program was slashed in 2009 due to state budget cuts. She reviewed the EPA's assessment of imazapyr and concluded that more testing should have been done before allowing massive sprays in Willapa Bay. “[Imazapyr] is dangerous in that the effects are unknown,” Lopez says in an interview. “There really hasn't been any long term investigation into the safety of this product.” Lopez points out that, when imazapyr was first registered, it was restricted from use near water and very little new data was used to justify its use in aquatic areas. “We have this ongoing experiment going on … and is this the way to do it?” Lopez asks.

Kim Patten could be one of the only researchers who has studied imazapyr's effects on marine habitats and, more specifically, Willapa Bay. Patten, a researcher with Washington State University, has worked for two decades to eradicate spartina from the bay. His studies on glyphosate and imazapyr created the scientific basis for the chemical eradication. Patten also helped establish a coalition of public and private groups to support the eradication, including the Washington Department of Agriculture (WSDA), US Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.

Standing on the grassy banks just a few miles down the road from Cohen's property, Patten points out over 400 acres of shallow water and bare mudflats that make up the southern tip of Willapa Bay. Most of the area is part of a national wildlife refuge and, before the eradication, it was covered with spartina. Now, only a few small flags stuck in the mud mark tiny clusters of spartina sprouts that will be killed this summer before they grow big enough to spread their seeds in the wind.

Migratory birds land on the mudflats and dig up little invertebrates to eat. It's like a rest stop and buffet for sand pipers and ducks, heading north or south depending on the season. Patten explains that spartina had changed all that, converting the mudflats to meadows that were of no interest to the birds. Patten says spartina had simply coexisted with native species until the 1990s, when, for unknown reasons, the spartina population reached a “critical mass” and more than quadrupled from 2,200 acres to nearly 10,000. Patten says the infestation was poised to decimate the wildlife refuge and local oyster industry. Looking out over the bare mudflats and tidal streams, it's easy to imagine that watching a vast spartina meadow come and go was simply dramatic.

Cohen and Starvrum affectionately call Patten “Chemical Kim,” but he doesn't seem like a chemical industry lackey and gives straight answers about the herbicides and the pros and cons of eradiation. Patten says he and other researchers spent $5 million exploring alternatives to herbicides: drilling the mudflats with expensive machines, covering the spartina with large mats to block the sunlight and even pulling it up by hand. All of these techniques proved too expensive and ecologically intrusive and it was decided that herbicides were the best bet. “It was basically a matter of dollars and cents,” Patten says.

“Nothing is benign in the world,” Patten admits. “You're using significant amount of chemical over large areas, so you're going to have an effect, not necessarily directly from the chemical itself, but by killing massive amounts of spartina your having a big effect on the whole ecology of the area because you're changing it, you're changing to back what it was before.”

Patten admits that spraying herbicides across a wildlife refuge is not ideal, but in the end, conservationists must make a judgment call. “The cure is worse than the poison, in some cases, some of the things they use to control invasive species have been worse than the species themselves,” Patten says. “But I think overall, you have to look at the health of the whole ecosystem.” If spartina was ignored, Patten says, it would have permanently changed the wildlife refuge and the social demographics of the whole peninsula, where the economy is based on tourism and oysters. “How do you weigh one person's opinion versus these bigger things?” Patten asks in a veiled reference to Cohen. “We spent ten years doing that, it was well vetted, I can't tell you how many public meetings, how many times we went over this issue.”

Patten says it's been a “spiritual experience” watching the birds come back to the mudflats, but he has some surprising things to say about the motivations driving others in the anti-spartina coalition. Patten says that, since the 1990s, federal and state legislatures just threw money at the spartina problem and the funding paid for sluggish bureaucracy between state agencies and conservation groups. As the eradication winds down, Patton is finding it difficult to squeeze support out of an inefficient system. “It's a bureaucracy, people don't create it to make money, but they don't want to give it up.”

Think Monsanto

At a recent environmental law conference in Eugene, Oregon, conservation biologist and author David Theodoropoulos begins his talk on invasive species with the name of the world's most notorious biotech company looming on the overhead screen. “Every time you hear the term 'invasive species,' think Monsanto,” Theodoropoulos says. His audience laughs.

Theodoropoulos says the idea that a wild plant or animal can be invasive is a myth. Species have moved, adapted and changed in different ecosystems for millions of years. “Change and movement are natural,” Theodoropoulos says during his presentation, which was sponsored by Fritzi Cohen's latest activist group, the Fearless Fund. “Forests ebb and flow across the landscape and they continually change in content, from oaks, to conifers to beach to birch and so on.”

Theodoropoulos' position is not a popular one. Most ecologists are alarmed when a non-native species is accidentally introduced to a new area and begins to spread rapidly. What attracts many environmentalists to the war on invasive species is the goal of preserving native or endangered ones, never mind that invasive weeds and pests are said to cost big industries billions of dollars every year. According to conservationists like Theodoropoulos, however, misleading science and persistent propaganda has exacerbated this concern for native species.

Theodoropoulos can rattle of names of so-called invasive species that he believes have been wrongly demonized by the herbicide and regulatory industry. The zebra mussel, for example, caused a scare a decade ago when it was introduced to Lake Erie in ballast water from ships. The mussel was deemed invasive and said to be taking over, but over the years, it spread and filtered out pollution in the notoriously dirty Rust Belt lake and game fish populations actually increased in its presence. Giant piles of zebra mussel shells used to wash up on Lake Erie shores, but over the years, the piles disappeared and lake was noticeably cleaner.

Recent research by Dov Sax, an assistant professor at Brown University, has shown that little is actually known about how invasive species change ecosystems because their impact is often coupled with other disruptions caused by human activity, and some so-called “invaders” can be beneficial to ecosystems. The time scale is also critical: invasions have occurred for millions of years as the face of the planet has changed, and the idea that a species can be “native” or “alien” is the result of a short-term and human view of ecosystems.

The rhetoric of the invasive species debate has become strangely social. It's alarming to see a new species arrive in an area, and with headlines screaming about the threat of invaders, a certain psychology seems to have been aroused among environmentalists.

“There seems to be something in our biological nature, related toward our xenophobia towards other humans, that colors our view of alien plants and animals,” Sax wrote in a 2004 essay on the invasive species war. “There is a tendency to treat foreigners different than natives: with distrust, dislike, even loathing. Coupled with this is a tendency to view some prior condition as 'pristine' or most natural and therefore the state that should be preserved.”

Other critics have compared invasive species to illegal immigrants. Theodoropoulos goes as far as crediting Hitler's Nazis with developing the first invasive species control program to purify the German countryside.

Comparing species “nativists” to Nazis and xenophobes has ruffled a lot of feathers in recent years, and those familiar with the debate say emotions are running high. The debate even carries an element of identity politics: some researchers now refer to invasive species as “non-native” or “exotic” to distance the species from the idea that all foreigners are evil invaders.

Environmentalists can disagree on whether species like the zebra mussel or spartina are benign, beneficial or ecosystem destroying invaders, but one thing is clear: the herbicide and land management industries helped design America's war on invasive species.

“Forty years ago, the threats to nature were pollution, pesticides, poisons, bulldozers and chainsaws,” Theodoropoulos tells his audience, which includes those on both sides of the debate. “Now we are told that the greatest threats to nature are wild plants and animals and the cure: poisons, bulldozers and chainsaws. Now ask yourself, who does this serve?”

Endless War

While Monsanto was scoping out Willapa Bay as a potential market for Rodeo in the early 1990s, conservation biologist Jono Neiger was busy fighting invasive plants on wildlife preserves near the Sacramento River in California. Neiger was working for The Nature Conservancy, a wealthy conservation group that partners with big companies like Monsanto. “We used a lot of Roundup,” Neiger says in an interview, describing all-terrain vehicles with long booms that sprayed glyphosate-based Roundup during off-road rides through the wilderness.

A flowering shrub called scotch broom was Neiger's target, and he was livid when he later found one of his instructors planting the flowering bush, but his instructor explained that scotch broom could be beneficial to some ecosystems by fixing nutrients in the soil. Neiger soon had what he describes as an “ah-ha moment.”

“I realized how my work with The Nature Conservancy got me into this mindset of fighting a war,” Neiger says. His attitude toward some invasive species changed as he went on to study and teach permaculture, and he realized that he had succumbed to the rhetorical “hysteria” that had clouded the science around invasive species.

Neiger explained that many so-called invasive plants are “pioneer species” that often take to areas where disturbances caused by people have weakened native ecosystems, acting like a natural scar tissue on the wounds caused by development. As long as people continue moving species from one area to another and disturbing wild areas, there will be money to be made combating these so-called invasions. “We have created this massive disruption and the species are simply responding … and we are scapegoating,” Neiger says.

Controlling invasive – or perhaps non-native – species became a billion-dollar industry under the Bush administration, which pumped more than $6 billion into invasive species programs. In 2007, the Bush administration proposed a total of $1.2 billion for invasive species programs, including $222 million on research and $446 million on invasive species control and eradication, according to the National Invasive Species Council (NISC). Agencies like the Department of Defense and the EPA received a total of $227 million for “innovative control technologies.” While the Department of Defense was defending America from ecological invaders, only $131 million went to preventing invasions. But why prevent invasions when there is so much money to be made combating them?

Shortly before leaving office, President Clinton created the NISC, which was quickly inherited by the Bush administration. The original NISC included GOP big wigs like Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, who probably had bigger issues than invasive species to worry about back in those days. So, the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC) was created to write reports, map out a national bureaucracy and write policy toward dealing with invasive species. In his controversial book, “Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience,” Theodoropoulos points out that Dr. Nelroy Jackson represented Monsanto on ISAC from 2000 to 2006. A closer look reveals that Jackson co-edited some of the council's founding reports.

Jackson, now retired, says he was first recruited by the Clinton administration two years before the NISC and ISAC were created. Monsanto had employed him for years to research herbicides as invasive species control methods. When he was invited to Washington, Jackson saw the opportunity to foster political support for a nationwide movement.

“I realized that we had to get some kind of movement going … on the federal, state and local level,” Jackson says in an interview.

Jackson is an award-winning scientist, who is well known in the weed control industry. He founded the Invasive Species Awareness Week, an annual event held in Washington, and most recently sponsored by the pro-industry Weed Science Society of America and the herbicide division of Dow Chemical.

As a member of ISAC, Jackson joined a myriad of regulatory officials, academics and industry lobbyists. Taylor Industries, one the largest shellfish and oyster producers in Willapa Bay, had a representative on ISAC from 2002 to 2008 during the height of the spartina eradication. BASF, the company that petitioned to have imazapyr registered for aquatic use, was represented on the council from 2006 to 2008.

“Glyphosate and imazapyr are two of the, I can't say safest, but best tools available,” Jackson says.

Since the inception of ISAC, The Nature Conservancy has also had a representative on the advisory council and has played a leading role in establishing large invasive species eradications across the country. The Nature Conservancy is the richest land-owning conservation group on the planet and partners with some of the world's biggest polluters. The Conservancy's International Leadership Council includes Monsanto, BP, Dow Chemical, American Electric Power, Exxon-Mobile, and the list goes on. Before becoming The Conservancy's president and CEO, Mark Tercek worked for Goldman Sachs, where he developed “market-based solutions for environmental challenges,” according to The Conservancy web site.

The Conservancy is known for promoting phrases like “alien invaders” and “war on invasive species” in thrilling headlines in the media, and the organization recently congratulated Mexico for starting its own war that mirrors America's efforts.

“I think [The Conservancy] is a well-meaning organization … but on this issue, there is a lot of people going down the wrong track,” Neiger says. “When the thinking is that we need to wage war, then you start thinking that we'll do whatever it takes … and ethics go out the window.”

The Conservancy has also played in integral role in the eradication of spartina in Willapa Bay. The organization has since helped secure state and federal funding to the project, coordinated with eradication groups on the ground and sent out workers to spray glyphosate and imazapyr.

“I think it's a friggin big joke that they have these conservation groups on board to buy and sell their chemicals,” Neiger says. “I was there. We bought giant barrels of Roundup. To me, it's the same old story.”

For many environmentalists, big biotech companies like BASF and Monsanto are the bad guys, and conservationists like Theodoropoulos hope that revealing their role in developing invasive species policy will change some minds about invasive biology. But corporations are more than faceless monoliths; they are large groups of individuals, many of whom say they are doing the right thing.

“I've personally been called all kinds of names,” Dr. Jackson says with a laugh when asked about critics of Monsanto and herbicides. “All of us who are working in industry are also people. If we are human beings, why would any one of us develop something that could hurt our children or grandchildren?”

Cohen and Starvrum believe the Dr. Jacksons and the Chemical Kims of the world are definitively the bad guys, bent on doing whatever it takes to make money and dominate the natural world. Patten and Jackson say they simply made tough decisions when trying to do what's best for society and the environment.

The war on invasive species is a war on a fact of life. Humans have caused or exacerbated these species “invasions” by changing habitats and introducing species to new areas, and now we are trying to turn back the clock in an attempt to prevent nature from taking its new course. As long as people attempt to dominate the land, extract its resources and shape it to their liking, there will be money to be made and dramatic consequences for other livings things. The search for a balance between supporting our collective desire to prosper and a healthy natural world is sure to spark more heated debates for years to come.

Back on the banks of Willapa Bay, Starvrum's expression is grim, but determined, as he looks across the mudflats where he used to harvest oysters. “One day I'll get out there again,” he says. Cohen and Starvrum are still fighting against what is left of the spartina eradication. They hope to establish a bigger buffer zone between their oyster farm and any upcoming herbicide sprays, and Cohen is currently suing the state over the loss of their oyster farm.

Spartina itself could be the biggest loser in this eco-war, but the grass deserves some credit. Washington is facing a budget crisis and funding for the eradication is drying up. A short stroll down the beach near the northern tip of the Long Beach peninsula, where Willapa Bay meets the roaring Pacific, bears a testament to spartina's resilience. Shorebirds gather there, on the soft mudflats, to rest their wings and grab a bite to eat. Patten's marker flags are nowhere to be seen. The hungry birds wander between patches of familiar green stubble, little spartina sprouts poking out of the muck to greet the warm spring sun.

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