By STEVE BROWN
BRUSH PRAIRIE, Wash. -- One man's noxious weed is another man's bread and butter.
When residents of Washington's populous King County became alarmed by what they observed as more and more English holly "showing up everywhere," they initiated action to have the state declare the plant a noxious weed.
In a March 25 cover letter to 57 pages of testimonial letters and maps, Scott Moore, chairman of the King County Noxious Weed Control Board, stated the county's case:
"We have been asked to propose English holly for noxious weed listing by a wide range of stakeholders and citizens, from as far afield as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the Columbia Land Trust, from the San Juan County Noxious Weed Board and the Olympic Peninsula to Vashon Island and King County Parks. People have reported to us that English holly is showing up uninvited everywhere from urban yards to rural forests to state and national forest lands.
"It is not the intention of the King County Weed Board to curtail the sale or production of English holly, but rather to educate the public and natural resource managers about its invasiveness."
To get the other side of the story, the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board invited holly growers to a sit-down here June 2.
The holly growers refuted the complaints one by one, focusing on two main issues: English holly is not invasive, and declaring it a noxious weed would devastate their industry.
Claude Lakewold, who with his wife Dorothy operates Holly Hill Orchards in Olympia, Wash., said the holly tree can live hundreds of years. Holly has been grown in the Northwest for more than 125 years, he said.
He estimated there are between 500,000 and 1 million mature holly trees in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, each one capable of producing 4 million to 5 million seeds. If holly were invasive, he said, it would have covered the entire region by now.
"We growers don't see our orchards spreading," he said. "We propagate by cuttings, not by seeds. This is a localized problem in suburban areas, and it's laid at the feet of farmers who are already stretched. Should we be responsible?"
Where does that "invasive" holly come from? "It comes up more from the roots of old orchards than from spreading seeds," he said.
Lakewold said the observations by King County residents are anecdotal. "It's not a scientific study."
Ken Bajema, who with his wife Dee raises English holly and cattle near Washougal, Wash., said the observed holly trees in King County can be blamed on mismanagement. Developments are being built over old holly orchards that weren't entirely removed. "Twenty-five trees on 80 acres is not invasive, not considering the millions of seeds," he said.
Lakewold also wondered whether people were confusing holly and Oregon grape, which looks quite similar to the untrained eye.
Timothy Miller, weed scientist with Washington State University Extension, serves as a science adviser to the state board and is chairman of that board's Noxious Weed Committee. Miller specifically asked the growers, "What would the impact of the listing be?"
Gene Biboux, president of the Northwest Holly Growers Association and holly farmer in Cheshire, Ore., said, "The connotation itself gives us a bad name. ... I think it will destroy us."
He said the English holly industry is intertwined with other Christmas products in the Northwest, including Christmas tree growers and wreathmakers. "We sell through mail-order, wholesale and retail. We employ thousands of people."
Lakewold said the psychology of listing something adversely will have significant market impact. "Any noxious listing means California won't allow import." Half the production of Washington and Oregon orchards goes to that state, he said.
Dee Bajema said florists no longer use Queen Anne's Lace because it has been declared noxious. "We've all been trained that if it's noxious, it's bad."
Biboux suggested that a more effective approach to problem areas would be to get youth corps and inmate labor to eradicate specific areas. "That would be more effective than regulating the industry."
Lakewold asked what King County expects from getting English holly listed as a noxious weed.
Alison Halpern, executive secretary of the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, said a listing would state that holly has "an ecological or economic impact and it is difficult to control. ... Its impact on small businesses would determine any mitigation of changes in regulation."
Biboux asserted the legal standing of English holly, citing the definition of "invasive species" in the Strategic Plan of Washington Invasive Species Council: "Invasive species do not include intentionally planted agronomic crops."
"The proposal shouldn't have ever gotten this far," he said. "We're a viable agricultural crop."