After a “professional and objective” review of the health risks involved, the U.S. Forest Service said Monday that it will end a self-imposed five-year ban on the use of herbicides in California’s national forests.
Environmentalists blasted the decision for ignoring the danger of spraying. Larry Glass of the California Coalition Against Pesticides said his group will petition Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson to overrule the decision.
“If he won’t listen to us,” Glass said, “we’ll have to take them to court.”
Even with timber industry support, Assistant Regional Forester Ray Weinmann conceded that the Forest Service probably faces a long and potentially costly court fight over the decision--precisely what it had sought to avoid with the health-risk review just concluded.
Unless blocked by a successful appeal or lawsuit, he said, plans call for spraying to resume later this year or early in 1990, probably in the Tahoe or Stanislaus national forests of the Central Sierra.
At stake are an estimated 300 million to 400 million board-feet of timber--enough to rebuild Burbank--that the Forest Service says it would permit to be cut down in weed-infested areas each year. Herbicides are used in such areas to control weeds that otherwise overrun the tree seedlings that replace felled timber.
At issue is the wisdom and safety of spraying 50 to 75 tons a year of toxic chemicals and suspected carcinogens on the forests--and, critics complain, on the people and wildlife there, as well as on the source of drinking water that eventually pours out of city taps.
“It surprises me some that they want to continue using herbicides in light of what’s come out in the four years they haven’t been spraying,” Glass said. “There have been all these studies documenting links between cancer and 2,4-D and a bunch of the rest of them.”
He said spraying hurts not only people and wildlife in Northern California but the water in the area. Nearly 85% of the state’s runoff comes from conifer forests. The Forest Service, which manages most of them, says herbicide levels in streams have exceeded federal standards only once.
Weinmann conceded that seven of the 13 approved herbicides are “assumed” to be capable of causing cancer in humans. But he stressed that the chemicals would be sprayed in such a way that most local residents and forest visitors would be exposed to less than one ten-thousandth of the dose found to cause ill-health effects in laboratory studies.
However, the worst-case scenario studied by the Forest Service found that a person who was accidentally sprayed by a helicopter, then drank tainted water, ate tainted food and walked into sprayed lands could be exposed to significant danger. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said such exposure is rare.
The Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service, which covers California and small parts of Nevada and Arizona, ended its herbicide spraying five years ago, after a federal judge in Oregon banned spraying in the Pacific Northwest. The judge ruled that the Forest Service in Washington and Oregon had failed to properly study alternatives to herbicide spraying, as required by law.
When the Pacific Northwest Region in Portland agreed to meet its obligation by comparing herbicides to other “vegetation management” proposals--such as hand-weeding, machine-slashing and fires--the Pacific Southwest Region in San Francisco launched an environmental impact study to do the same.
Last December, the Northwest Region announced that its comparison supported the widespread use of spraying. When environmentalists objected, the two sides decided that they will negotiate face-to-face, starting Wednesday, to try to avoid further litigation.
The Southwest Region’s environmental impact study released Monday reached a similar conclusion. It estimates that 55,000 acres a year would be sprayed with 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of herbicides. Except for enlarged buffer zones near streams and homes, spraying techniques would stay the same as before the ban.
The study would allow use of the most controversial chemical, 2,4-D, a probable carcinogen that in diluted form is sold as a garden pesticide and in concentrate was one component of the controversial Agent Orange defoliant used in Vietnam. However, Forest Service herbicide specialist John Neisess said the controversial herbicide will be de-emphasized in favor of newer, less-offensive weed killers.
Ironically, since the Pacific Coast regions began their herbicide ban, they have seen all-time record harvests. But James R. Craine of the Timber Assn. of California, an industry group, said herbicide spraying is needed to grow the next generation of trees to replace those record harvests.