PLATTSBURGH — With the sparkling waters of Lake Champlain as a backdrop, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand promoted a plan to fight the spread of invasive species.
On a whirlwind tour Friday that also included stops in Lowville, Tupper Lake and Long Lake on Friday, she described the benefits of her invasive-species bill on the Clinton Community College second-floor veranda as dozens of sailboats and other watercraft dotted the lake behind her.
“From the Great Lakes to the Finger Lakes and from the lakes and streams of the Adirondacks to the Hudson River, New York state is blessed with beautiful bodies of water,” Gillibrand said. “These vast natural resources help drive our economy, offer miles of recreation, attract tourists and provide clean drinking water for millions of families.
“If we’re going to protect these resources today and for future generations, we need to prevent the spread of invasive species.”
Gillibrand introduced the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Prevention Act of 2013 as an effort to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more support in preventing the transportation of harmful fish and wildlife into the country and to prevent the spread of species already existing in communities.
North Country representative Bill Owens is co-sponsor of similar legislation in the House of Representatives.
“All of these bodies of water are interconnected,” Gillibrand said of Lake Champlain and its reach to the Hudson River, the St. Lawrence River and beyond. “What’s a threat to one is a threat to all.”
The current law governing the import of animals into the United States is more than a century old. Known as the Lacey Act, critics have called it ineffective in protecting the country from thousands of non-native fish and wildlife species, including such invasives as the Burmese python, Asian carp, northern snakehead and, most prominently in Lake Champlain, the zebra mussel.
Such infestations have cost federal, state and local governments tens of millions of dollars annually in efforts to control invasive species.
“It’s a broken system and does not do enough to prevent the spread of invasive species,” Gillibrand said of the Lacey Act.
The proposed legislation would create a new screening system to proactively review requests to import live animals and to restrict those that would pose serious risks should they be allowed to enter the country.
The bill also gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service greater flexibility and authority to make science-based decisions to prohibit or restrict live animals based on potential harmful impact.
The Lacey Act does not require that, before importation, animals be screened for what kind of impact they might have on an ecosystem, for disease they might carry and for the risks they pose to human health or the environment.
That law currently lists 237 species as harmful to the environment, including the zebra mussel. Once on the list, species cannot be transported into the country or across state lines, but the process to add to the list can take up to four years, enough time for invasives to take damaging control in an area it has been introduced into.
GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
Gillibrand’s legislation would also give the Fish and Wildlife Service the ability to respond quickly to emergency situations when non-native wildlife threatens a habitat or community, she noted.
Bill Howland, executive director for the Lake Champlain Basin Program, thanked Gillibrand for her efforts and emphasized the importance of a federal presence in fighting the onslaught of invasive species.
He also commented on the oppressively hot day and reminded everyone on hand about the recent series of regional storms and unseasonably high lake level, weather trends that he connected to global climate change.
“There are 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes, and 49 of those species can be found in Lake Champlain,” Howland said, noting that invasive species can often take hold in an ecosystem that has already been stressed by climate change.
New York Assemblywoman Janet Duprey commented on state legislation passed a year ago that gives the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Agriculture and Markets oversight in regulating the transportation of potential invasive species.
“I believe New York state is ahead (of efforts to protect communities from invasives), particularly in the Adirondacks,” she said.
Clinton Community College President John Jablonski welcomed and introduced Gillibrand and the other speakers as he gave a brief history of the college’s main building, which was built in 1911 after the original Hotel Champlain had burned to the ground.
“The breezes that are blowing remind us of why this site was chosen for the Hotel Champlain,” he said as a stiff wind tried to offset the hot temperatures of the day.
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