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How a pandemic-related drop in Oregon Lottery revenues could lead to a rise in invasive plants

Spiky-stemmed gorse pushes out native plants — and COVID-19 is imperilling measures to keep it in check.

The lush, brilliant yellow flowers of gorse stretch for miles on the dunes along the Oregon coast. The invasive bush was introduced to the area in the 1890s, and has since dominated over 55,000 acres in Oregon. Its spread has pushed out native plants, hastening erosion on steep slopes and rendering fields once used for grazing or farming unusable. Because gorse’s waxy leaves are laden with flammable oil, it’s also a fire hazard: In the 1930s, a fire fueled by the plant destroyed the entire town of Bandon, and gorse fires have popped up along the southern Oregon coast as recently as 2015.

Gorse is also extremely tenacious — its roots are extensive, and some experts believe its seeds can be viable for up to 70 years. Sherri Laier, the noxious weeds program coordinator at the Coquille Watershed Association in southwest Oregon, calls it “a really nasty plant” — its spiky stems deter easy removal and require years’ worth of herbicide treatments, followed by regular monitoring for new growth. More extreme infestations require a team of workers using chainsaws and excavators. Typically, the association relies on grants from state agencies to fund this work, but next year, that funding may not continue. The culprit? An odd combination of factors: The coronavirus pandemic — and the Oregon Lottery.

Dustin Williams, the vegetation management foreman with the Curry Watersheds Partnership, applies herbicide to gorse on a private ranch in Brookings, Oregon. This type of work is made possible by state funds, some of which are tied to the Oregon state lottery. Erin Minster/Curry Watersheds Partnership

Like other state lotteries, the Oregon Lottery gives a portion of its revenue to state agencies and funds. For example, the Oregon Lottery provides 15% of its net earnings — around $107 million in 2019 — to the Parks and Natural Resources Fund. The fund is split evenly between the state’s parks department and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which offers grants to nonprofits, universities, tribes and conservation districts for projects benefiting natural areas and waterways. Those contributions were baked into the agencies’ budgets long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 — or realized that the state’s lottery revenue would drop drastically because of it. “We were hit pretty hard,” said Matt Shelby, the lottery’s community and corporate engagement manager.

See more about the economic balancing act to knock back gorse here: https://www.hcn.org/articles/how-a-pandemic-related-drop-in-oregon-lottery-revenues-could-lead-to-a-rise-in-invasive-plants

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.