The U.S. Forest Service is taking the fight against weeds into the air. But what might also be in the air is a storm brewing between regional foresters who are touting the advantages of aerial spraying of herbicides, and environmentalists who are bemoaning its dangers.
A final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest last week includes provisions to spray 9,000 acres of weed-infested land by air each year, in addition to 6,800 acres sprayed from the ground.
A similar EIS released in draft form by the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) in mid-March attracted the attention of Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), which won a de-facto extension of the 45-day deadline for comments by hosting its own public meeting in Missoula in late May and suggesting that officials come along.
With an eye on maximizing treatment at the lowest cost, the Bitterroot version proposes spraying 13,000 acres from the air and 22,000 acres from the ground. The preferred options of both forests also includes mechanical controls such as hand-pulling and biological controls such as the use of the knapweed gallfly.
After the BNF finished its draft, officials scheduled three public meetings in the Bitterroot Valley. When Alex Gorman, program coordinator for WVE, attended the Stevensville meeting she found she was the only Missoula resident present.
So Gorman asked Bitterroot officials to hold a meeting in Missoula since Missoula is the closest metropolitan area, many Missoulians recreate in the Bitterroot, and the concern about the potential for herbicides to travel by wind or water to distant locations.
Bitterroot officials denied that request, a decision Gorman characterizes as “totally ridiculous.” But Ken Hotchkiss, team leader on the Bitterroot’s draft weed EIS, later accepted Gorman’s invitation to attend a meeting in Missoula to accept additional comments for the final EIS some three weeks after the deadline.
“We took written comments. We got a tape. And those will be part of the record,” Hotchkiss says.
Although Bitterroot officials capitulated on the 45-day limit for comments, Hotchkiss says he wasn’t worried about setting a precedent in which forest managers around western Montana come to the city instead of environmentalists going to the forest.
“That wasn’t a major concern,” Hotchkiss says. “[But] at some point you can’t keep considering comment.”
Not surprisingly, the 30-odd speakers at the Missoula meeting were unanimously opposed to aerial spraying, with their concerns ranging from the dangers of herbicides to the “undemocratic practices of the Forest Service on public lands.”
The most fundamental similarity between the draft EIS from the Bitterroot and the final EIS from the Beaverhead is the provision for applying weed-killing chemicals from the air for the first time in both locations.
The Bitterroot draft contemplates using herbicides on 35,000 acres from both the air and the ground while the Beaverhead final is committed to using herbicides on 15,800 acres annually.
The appeal period for the Beaverhead EIS expires in mid-July. Hotchkiss says Bitterroot officials will finish their final EIS before the end of year in preparation for weed management next year.
The similarities between the two are not mere coincidence. Both forests are under pressure to get serious about weeds, especially in the wake of the fires of 2000, which increased the vulnerability of both forests to the usual suspects of spotted knapweed, Canada thistle, leafy spurge, and Dalmatian toadflax.
“We’re getting some regional and national directives to try and deal with our weed problem,” Hotchkiss says. “That directive doesn’t specify any specific kind of treatment.”
But once forest managers compare the magnitude of the problem with their available resources only one option looks feasible to them. For example, weeds are present on some 267,000 acres of the 1.6 million acre Bitterroot and herbicide application by helicopter or slow-flying airplane costs $22 per acre and hits the hard-to-reach spots like steep hillsides. In contrast, ground application of herbicide costs $160 an acre and hand-pulling costs $410 an acre.
“Aerial spraying starts to look pretty good,” Hotchkiss says. Differences between the two weed programs include a 300-foot buffer zone around streams and lakes on the Beaverhead versus 100-foot buffer zone on the Bitterroot, a detail that may be reexamined during final review, according to Hotchkiss.
Additionally, the Beaverhead proposal expands the repertoire of herbicides. According to spokesman Jack de Golia, the forest supervisor was previously limited to using 2,4-D, Picloram and Diacamba, herbicides approved by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the new EIS, all herbicides registered with the EPA will be available.
“So if the EPA says chemical XYZ is good for this weed, we don’t have to go through the whole process,” de Golia says.
At the Missoula meeting, no one disputed the threat noxious weeds pose to western Montana. Native grasses can’t compete and the wildlife which depend on them become stressed. Also, soil erosion accelerates and passes on secondary problems to fish. In addition, weeds are the bane of agriculture. But another concern is simple aesthetics, say both Hotchkiss and de Golia. Weeds decrease the recreational experience along trails and other places people frequent.
“It’s just not as pleasant camping in a patch of weeds as in native grasses,” Hotchkiss says.
But the irony is that last summer an herbicide dosage gone awry killed or damaged 15 ponderosa pine trees in the Bitterroot. Officials chalked that mistake up to “driver error,” an over-application of chemicals intended to kill knapweed.
And that’s the problem with herbicides. When discussing potential harm to amphibians, with their highly absorptive skin, de Golia noted the paradox faced by those charged with maintaining forest health.
“We don’t want to lose what we’ve got by getting rid of weeds,” de Golia said.