Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Preserve: ‘We want to keep our Icelandic flora’

Lupines may be beautiful, but they’re also an invasive species. RÚV reports that lupine propagation around the Krossanesborgir nature preserve near Akureyri, North Iceland, may well be having a significant—and negative—impact on indigenous plant and animal life.

‘The point of no return’

As Egill Bjarnason explained in his 2018 New York Times article about the ongoing lupine controversy in Iceland, “[t]he blue Nootka lupine are native to North America and a familiar sight in flower gardens there. They have spread wildly in Iceland since their introduction in the late 1970s to halt soil erosion.”

But while the plant does have positive attributes (it’s a free ‘fertilizer factory,’ as Egill explains), and while tourists and even many Icelanders love the plant for its characteristic violet-blue blossoms, it spreads much more easily than originally anticipated and, among other places, has made significant inroads in Iceland’s central highlands, where originally, it was thought it wouldn’t be able to survive.

Locals used to be encouraged to spread the seeds—some villages would even distribute free scoopfuls of seeds at gas stations. But in spring 2018, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland stopped its seed distribution program after 42 years, with director Arni Bragason remarking of the plant and its impact on the local environment, “We’re at the point of no return.”

Timing is everything

Krossanesborgir was designated a nature preserve in 2004 in order to protect its diverse plant and bird life. But with the encroachment of lupine in the area, this this ecosystem is now endangered, says Jón Ingi Cæsarsson, the former chair of the Akureyri organizational committee.

“All of the undergrowth and moor vegetation is going to vanish and instead, we’ll have these tall, beautiful plants. But that’s not something we want—we want to keep our Icelandic flora, especially in these nature preserves,” he said.

Local officials are aware of the lupine situation and the plant is cut back on a regular basis, including in Krossanesborgir, says Rút Jónsdóttir, Akureyri divisional manager.

“We usually begin [cutting back lupines] around June 15-20,” she explained. Working out the right time to start the mowing is difficult, she continued: too early, and birds will still be nesting in the area; too late, and the lupines will already bloomed. (Timing is everything when it comes to lupine eradication, explains Egill. “Killing the plant is a three- to five-year process that involves cutting them back at the peak of the bloom, when the plant is putting its energies into the flowers and the roots are correspondingly weakest. Mowing down the plants has proved more effective than herbicides.”)

‘It will take off if we don’t rein it in’

The lupine has not yet made significant inroads within Krossanesborgir, but Jón Ingi is nevertheless concerned that it may only be a matter of time. Roughly 30 species of birds nest in the area, he explained, making the area particularly important from a preservation standpoint.

“The lupine is here and is lying in wait and will take off if we rein it in. We’ve seen what happened on Hrísey [a small island in Eyjafjörður, north of Akyreyri, known for its bird life]. The number of breeding birds will most definitely decrease [in Krossanesborgir], just like happened there.”

Residents, Landvernd Protest Proposed Land Reclamation and Development Project

Both residents of the Skerjafjörður neighbourhood in Reykjavík and Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association, have levelled strong protests against the City of Reykjavík’s proposal for a new, 4.3-hectare [10.6-acre] land extension to a stretch of local shoreline known by some locals as Shell Beach, Fréttablaðið reports. The city argues the extension is necessary to support a proposed adjoining residential neighbourhood, ‘New Skerjafjörður,’ which will be home to as many as 1,300 new residents. But opponents say that such development plans would increase pollution and traffic, as well as destroy a unique ecosystem and popular recreational area.

The Proposed Site. Screenshot from Preliminary Assessment Report on Land Fill in New Skerjafjörður, City of Reykjavík

Per the city’s 95-page report on the proposed project, land fill would be used to build up a 700-meter [.43-mi] stretch of the existing beach and also extend the shore 100 meters further into the sea. However, the site is currently home to mudflats which are protected under nature conservation law. The city contends that the mudflats would not be destroyed but rather would be able to regenerate after the initial construction. “The coastline will be shaped such that it looks like a natural beach and endeavours will be made to ensure that mudflats can reform in place of those that will be disturbed,” reads the report. The project is said to be “…part of the densification of populated areas and the construction of new neighbourhoods in the southwestern part of the city, in accordance with the Reykjavík Municipal Plan, 2010 – 2030.” The area is very popular amongst walkers and cyclists but although there would be some disruption to these activities while the landfill is created, the city says, the disruption would be not be significant and will allow for new paths and recreational areas to be built on the site.

See Also: City Council Approves New 102 Reykjavík Postcode

The project was posted and open for public comment until January 25th. During this period, it received considerable negative feedback from constituents.

“It should be clear to everyone that the land reclamation and planned structures will have a significant and negative impact on the landscape and its appearance,” wrote Landvernd in a public comment on the project. The association said that the project will result in a “man-made stone structure…it’s difficult to make a convincing argument for the societal need to spoil mudflats like these, which there are few left of in the capital area.”

Another commenter on the project was engineer Sigurður Áss Grétarsson, who worked for the Icelandic Road Administration for a long time and also oversaw the construction of the Landeyjahöfn harbour in South Iceland. Citing a report by a city conservationist, Sigurður noted that the beach has remained largely unchanged since the 19th century, and hasn’t already been disturbed, as the city has suggested. He also said that the proposed undersea wall that is supposed to help with the regeneration of the mudflats is too narrow to actually break waves and do any good.

“If the intention is to destroy the mudflats, then the city should just say it straight out,” he wrote, “instead of being deceptive and throwing dust in people’s eyes.”

See Also: New Neighbourhood By Reykjavík Airport to Prioritise Pedestrians

At time of writing, an online petition to “Save Skerjafjörður” had 528 signatures. “The proposed site is one of the few remaining natural areas in Reykjavik [sic],” reads the petition text. “It is one of the few such areas easily accessible to lower-income residents of the city (i.e. those without cars) such as the students in the nearby dormitories and newly built housing complexes. Tourists and summer visitors enjoy this small bay, whose clay bottom makes it a unique ecosystem, unlike the rocky shore that borders it, one of the few remaining bits of natural shore in the city. It is among the first areas to provide a sheltered home to migratory birds (the oyster-catchers and golden plover have already arrived). School groups, cyclists, and marathon runners appreciate the beauty of the path through this area. At no time have more people enjoyed it than in this time of Covid. Once destroyed, this charming natural shore can never be re-created. Human attempts to ‘rebuild’ natural scenerios [sic] are doomed to failure.”

A visualization of the proposed new residential neighborhood, New Skerjafjörður. Screenshot from Preliminary Assessment Report on Land Fill in New Skerjafjörður, City of Reykjavík

The petition also calls into question the new residential neighborhood, which, the petitioners say, “will put even more stress on existing streets that can barely handle the traffic they have to deal with, and the cars will add to the pollution in a city that already has too much.” They question whether so many people would even want to live in New Skerjafjörður, as the plans for the neighborhood were developed prior to the COVID pandemic, which “has made a lot of people re-think their ideas about where and how it is best to live, and companies re-think the possibilities of having employees work at home. It is no longer necessary that everyone live as close as possible to their place of employment, or that these places of employment be centrally located.”

There are also future risks to consider, write the petitioners. “In times of climate change, any building along the coast is unadvisable [sic]. With rising sea-levels, coastal buildings will be at risk of flooding within a generation or two.”

The period for public comment on the project has now closed.