The “monstering” of tamarisk: How the government “found” water for a big copper producer in wartime by vilifying a plant

In her recently published book, The Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris blithely whirled readers through a whole new world of ideas about conservation. 

She wants us to give up on the notion of a pristine world untouched by man, and accept nature's half-wild state today — as long as we are half-wild ourselves. 

Along the way, she introduces all sorts of fascinating people, New Conservationists one might call them, and plenty of startling new ideas. 

An example: Tamarisk, or salt cedar, widely accounted a villain today, according to scientists and government bureaucrats, but scientists working for the government introduced this plant to the Southwest in the 19th century, and advocated for its propagation for three quarters of a century, before abruptly changing their minds for a particular reason involving the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Marris points out the irony — and the hypocrisy — and suggests maybe tamarisk deserves compassion.   

And she points out a paper, The Monstering of Tamarisk: How scientists made a plant into a problem, by Matthew Chew of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University

This paper turns out to challenge a central tenet around which a wilderness group of which I am a member has been organized — the journeying into the wilderness to remove and eradicate by violent but non-chemical means the plant tamarisk. 

So I read the paper, and it changes my mind. This is the rarest sort of scientifc paper; more than readable, it's startling. Data, history, facts, sources — this paper has all the academic credentials. 

And it's well-written. Examples? Glad you asked….

The story of tamarisk (Tamarix spp.), flowering trees and shrubs imported to New England sometime before 1818, provides an example of scientific "monstering" and shows how slaying the monster, rather than allaying its impacts, became a goal in itself. 

This is an account of scientists creating a monster; not by asesmbling and reanimating one as envisioned by Mary Shelley, but by declaring that an organism one presumed tractable was flouting human intentions, and recasting it as malevolent. 

Today when unhappy outcomes arise [from the re-dispersal of biota] we are used to specialists blaming the biota by labeling them "alien" and "invasive," declaring that taxa refusing to defer to putative prior claims are unbelonging and even morally defective, reconfiguring both the discourse and objectives of science. 

My purpose is to iluminate episodes in the process by which a plant taxon once valued for particular inherent qualities was subsequently devauled and disparaged for very nearly the same reasons. 

Thousans of acres of tamarisk had to be using lots of water, so eliminating them had to yield some benefits, however hard to predict. Pecos personnel knew of some ways to kill tamarisk, and their knowledge was visible and measurable in acres of dead vegetation. A water pumping, water-wasting monster was attacking the Pecos River. In some minds, confidence was high that it could literally be slain. However, confidence was lower that the water it was stealing could actually be recovered. as a result. 

[Turns out, Chew says, that tamarisk colonized the Pecos River, and it turned out that the Phelps-Dodge Corporation wanted to develop a huge copper mine on the river in the l930's that needed water…which they "found," with the government's active assistance, by destroying tamarisk, using flame-throwers. Not to mention 2.4.5-T, aka Agent Orange. ]

The monstering of tamarisk required the kinds of organizaiton and impetus that only the federal government could provide in that era. 

Tamarisk was a convenient scapegoat for the complex problems encountered by government water managers, be they true believers in the monster or otherwise. Even so, it does not seem to have mattered strongly to the principals whether suppressing tamarisk ever made more actual "wet water" available. They could demonstrate productivity in acres of vegetation laid waste, again and again, while suppressing or simply ignoring the substantial doubts lingering over their theories, methods, and mandate. Monstering tamarisk was far from a superstitious exercise. It was an effective way to perpetuate a program. 


Hard to believe a plant so beautiful could be so evil. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

4 thoughts on “The “monstering” of tamarisk: How the government “found” water for a big copper producer in wartime by vilifying a plant

  1. Interesting…has your perspective been written up, may I ask, in the press? Since I’ve been exposed to your work I’ve started to see the narrow-mindedness in the government’s anti-tamarisk efforts, but I’m not sure how widespread that perception is, if a picture of a government scientist happily pulling a salt cedar out of a creek bed in this recent High Country News story on the issue is representative:


  2. Sorry for the very belated reply. After many years of watching the tamarisk story (and other ‘invasive species’ stories) unfold, there is a lot I could say in answer to your question. Tamarisk is a ‘foreign’ enemy a politician can demonize without fear of public backlash because it has no ‘pro-‘ constituency. Organizing people ‘against’ something is far easier than organizing ‘for’ it. Encouraging anti-tamarisk sentiment is a budget and program builder for agency managers. It is a ‘bleeding’ human interest ‘lede’ for reporters and editors, a cash cow for herbicide manufacturers and a source of grant funding for academics. ‘Tammy-whacking’ is cathartic for environmentalists who want to ‘make a difference’ but rarely have opportunities to take direct action; at the end of the day the ‘body count’ confirms that what they did mattered. Scapegoating tamarisk allows even PC, liberal-minded folks to express and ‘act out’ fear-and-loathing they would deplore if similarly directed at human beings. Big picture objectivity is rarely sought or valued in such a situation.


  3. I’m another tamarisk convert. I worked along the Middle Rio Grande for a out 10 years mapping vegetation and completing bird counts. In the beginning I too believed we needed to eradicate tamerisk. But after a few years, I realized tamerisk was not the villian, we were. I saw that natives could out compete tamerisk if there was enough water. I saw tamerisk removed and nothing return. The birds now along the river need the tamerisk. Thanks for helping get the word out. But it might too late and too few hear your story.


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