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Costs of Chemophobia

by Ted Williams

A weed’s second best friend (after a public-range, public-subsidized cattle rancher) is a chemophobic environmentalist. While some environmental organizations recognize herbicides as the most important of all tools to protect and restore biodiversity, others oppose all chemical use no matter what the formulation or circumstance. They have all read Silent Spring, but none have read it carefully.

Among the more arrogant and irrational chemophobic groups is the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), which has never bothered to learn that often there is no alternative to pesticides. In 1984 it obtained an injunction on all herbicide use on Forest Service land in Oregon and Washington and on BLM land in Oregon. The injunction required the Forest Service to voluntarily scuttle its old vegetative management plan for the Northwest and, with input from NCAP and other environmental groups, write a new one. The cost in biodiversity was horrendous.

Just as some of the worst weeds were appearing in some of America 's best wildlife habitat the injunction hampered weed management for five years on Forest Service land and three years on BLM land--not only in Washington and Oregon, but also all over the West. Already strapped for money and personnel, federal land managers chose to avoid herbicides rather than face the associated quagmire of resource-exhausting administrative appeals, lawsuits and environmental impact statements.

In the late 1990s I saw some of the results along the Salmon River in Idaho 's Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The topography of Craig Mountain and adjacent federal lands creates tremendous habitat diversity. Low canyon grasslands sustaining desert-like plants and animals give way quickly to higher-elevation grasslands and shrub fields, then more and different grasslands, then trees, plateaus and subalpine fir--all within three miles from the river.

There is, of course, a corresponding diversity of wildlife--bighorns, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, wintering bald eagles, to mention just a few of the more spectacular species. But this diversity is being eroded by yellow starthistle. Even from the river I could see it spreading in bilious green lesions along the high rim rock.

State and federal weed managers believe it would never have gotten away from them had the BLM and Forest Service been allowed to cut off its main access. This would have entailed continuing selective, point-and-squirt herbiciding of a few hundred acres of public land, mostly along roadways. Managers knew they weren't going to eradicate yellow starthistle in this drainage, but they were confident that this kind of spot spraying was keeping it in check.

Then the 1984 injunction came down, and the yellow starthistle took off. "It's pretty sad," comments BLM weed manager Lynn Danly. In Hells Canyon the injunction has allowed rush skeletonweed to drift down the entire drainage.

According to the Forest Service's Lynn Burton, that's probably the area's biggest threat to native wildlife. "Now rush skeletonweed is as far up into Hells Canyon as you can get," he said. "You can't drive or fly to it. You have to jetboat to the sites and then do backpack spraying." The injunction also let spotted knapweed march unmolested into Hells Canyon along the Dug Bar Road. Since the lifting of the injunction in 1989 the Forest Service has spent enormous resources just trying to knock knapweed back to where it was before.

When registered herbicides are used according to the label there is little danger to wildlife and humans. This, however, doesn’t mean that herbicides have no effect on non-target organisms. Just as chemotherapy is a shock to the body of a cancer patient, herbicide application is a shock to any native ecosystem. What the two treatments have in common, however, is that they can prevent certain death.

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