Clearing the air over herbicides

Last year the battle over herbicide spraying of forest lands in the Pacific Northwest was joined in earnest. The issue has not yet been resolved, but when it is, 1979 may be looked back on as the year it was decided in favor of the herbicide's opponents. At least, the tide seems to have turned in their favor as the fight changed from a protest by a few "far-out left-wing hippie environmentalists" to a general public outcry.

Herbicides, mainly a phenoxy compound known as 2,4-D, are used to retard growth of vegetaton that competes with commercially valuable young conifers in reforestation areas. The herbicides are sprayed from helicopters over logged-over public and private forest lands.

This year spraying in southwestern and western Oregon was delayed by protesters who insisted that the herbicides are a serious health hazard. Many spray projects by the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, and private operators were cut back or canceled because of the protests. Bad weather and the advent of deer-hunting season also were factors in cutting the spraying to a fraction of what had been planned.

Protesting citizens in southwestern Oregon delayed spraying operations by refusing to evacuate spray areas. Pregnant women threatened to chain themselves to trees in the spray areas.

Anti-herbicide organizations went into court to halt the spraying. An anti-herbicide injunction was turned down, but the biggest ally of the movement was the weather, which blocked much of the planned spraying until the start of deer-hunting season in September.

Some protesting citizens volunteered to clear brush manually from some scheduled spray tracts without compensation. Hand clearing is widely advocated as an alternative method of brush control. But forestry management experts say it doesn't make sense economically and prefer the aerial herbicide sprays.

There was suggestions that some of the protest was motivated by a concern over marijuana crops. The Bureau of Land Management denies that spraying was aimed at marijuana, and protesters say the marijuana issue was raised as a smokescreen to discredit the protest.

The herbicide 2,4-D is similar to the banned 2,4,5-T, but does not contain dioxin. Forest scientists say there is no reason to fear 2,4-D. Dioxin-containing 2,4,5-T was banned earlier in the year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency after a study in the Alsea River area of western Oregon showed unusually high incidence of miscarriages among women in and near spray areas.

Clear-cut logging, advocated by timber interests and opposed by environmentalists, lends itself to spray herbicide control when the areas are reforested. The tracts of 50 to 60 acres are denuded of all vegetation in the logging process and then replanted with young coniferous trees with commercial potential. The herbicides are applied to hold down the growth of competing brush and noncommercial deciduous trees.

The great virgin forests of the Pacific Northwest (Douglas fir, spruce, pine, western hemlock, cedar, etc.) are "climax" forests that have taken hundreds and thousands of years to produce. The growth of brush and noncommercial trees that take over burned-over or logged- over areas is part of a natural process. The areas will eventually, over many, many years, redevelop into the "climax" forests of giant conifers.

Forestry management, in the hands of commercial wood-products interests, the state forestry department, Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service, attempts to accelerate the process by reforestation and spraying with herbicides to inhibit competing growth. This environmentalists say, is tampering with nature without adequate concern for the consequences.

Environmentalists generally seek to let nature prevail by opposing the harvest of timber on public lands or by allowing selective harvest rather than clear-cutting. They want to preserve more wilderness and roadless areas. Also involved is the threat to fish and wildlife inherent in the destruction of habitat and deterioration of stream conditions due to siltation and erosion. These are consequences that are inevitable in clear-cut logging.

Of paramount concern to a large segment of the anti-herbicide movement are the hazards -- real or percieved -- to human life as well as wildlife.

The controversy, until recently, has been mainly between forestry management interests, both government and private, and the residents or users of forest areas. Now, because of citizen pressure, local governments are getting into the act.

Counties and cities are studying both herbicide and pesticide practices in their jurisdictions and within watershed areas that may be the sources of municipal and local water supplies.

Several northern California counties have passed resolutions asking that herbicide spraying be stopped. Officials of several western Oregon counties have been moving toward opposition to herbicide use.

Medical doctors in Lincoln County, on the central Oregon coast, have called for a halt to aerial herbicide spraying, citing what they regard as unusual levels of birth defects among newborn babies in areas where herbicides have been used.

The Forest Service has restricted the use of 2,4-D drastically, but has not banned it outright.Ironically, this same action was taken by the Forest Service against 2,4,5-T shortly before it was banned completely by the EPA.

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