By Nathan Barton
A correspondent recently asked me an interesting question. Is it government’s duty to protect us from weeds? Is it government’s job to control weeds?
Although he was asking the question regarding a particular subject, in reality, there are several ways that we can answer this question.
I am not sure about whether it is the case nationwide, but most county governments in western States have “weed and pest control departments” as an agency. Sometimes, this is a separate, special district of some type, together with “mosquito control” and “animal control” and “recreation services” districts or bureaus or agencies.
Originally, these were apparently part of road departments, taking care of weeds along the public roads. But the mission of government agencies always seems to creep. These expanded to dealing with weeds on public lands in general, such as parks, school lands and such places. And then they became a regulating agency: given the power to order people to treat (kill) the weeds on their private property. And then the power to tell people HOW to deal with weeds on their property. Many, if not most, county agencies today have the authority to require that landowners prepare and submit a weed control plan for their own property. The agency can approve or deny that plan, and take enforcement action if the plan is not followed or is not sufficient to control weeds. The agency can require certain methods (such as chemical or biological or mechanical) be used, and even require (or prohibit) use of certain chemicals.
The logic behind this is that the seeds of weeds are easily scattered from one property to another by wind, animals, humans, or equipment. The “proper management” of weeds is therefore a compelling interest of the local government (or even state or FedGov agencies) as a matter of public health, environmental protection, and even water conservation.
And appearance. In many cities and towns, weed control is one of the many things regulated by code enforcement: those usually thuggish men and women who go around with clipboards and ticket books and tape measures. They write up landowners and tenants if the grass (and weeds) are too tall, the vehicles don’t have current license plates, there is litter on the curb or the gutter, mud on the sidewalks (or snow not cleared off in the legally-mandated time after a snow), and so forth.
Large bureaucracies exist in many states for the purpose of determining that some weeds are worse than others, and which plants are weeds and which are not. Noxious weeds are those which are survivors – they spread rapidly, choke out good plants, and sometimes are poisonous to livestock or wildlife. They are often introduced, non-native weeds (from Europe or Asia).
I am not saying that weeds don’t sometimes need to be controlled. That some weeds are worse than others. That sometimes weeds can spread all over the place and choke out good, or at least native, plants. We all know about kudzu in the South, and may know about salt cedar (tamarisk) in the Southwest. But there are many others. Shasta daisies, a pretty little white-flowered ground cover, is considered such in some places. Scots thistle (the national flower of the Kingdom of Scotland) is a weed most places, as is Russian thistle (better known as tumbleweed) and other thistles. And you also find such things as hound’s tongue (named for its seeds) and creeping jenny. Russian olive, once a favored tree to plant in windbreaks and shelter belts, is now a “noxious weed” in many states.
But nowhere can I find, in the state or federal constitution, any authority granted to these governments, or some part of them, to control and manage weeds. Especially not on private property. Can you? It would seem to be a responsibility of the landowners, including the civilized idea that you do not do things, or allow things, on your property, that cause harm (physical, not emotional) to your neighbor. Why on earth should governments get involved?
If it is a failure to make people take responsibility for their own actions, there are alternatives. If it is mission creep, we need to push it (government) back in its hole: in part by taking responsibility for our own actions, and working with our neighbors to get them to also take responsibility. We don’t need government to get involved.