Many years ago, when we were renting a house in a town outside of Seattle,…
Roadside herbicide spraying has long been a controversial issue in Lane County, and that hasn’t changed.
Lane County served as a model for environmental stewardship when it banned roadside herbicide spraying in 2008 in response to community concerns. Mowing and other mechanical/manual techniques have proven largely effective at managing our county roadsides since then. Unfortunately, inadequate funding has negatively impacted that effectiveness, so a task force was convened in 2015 to deal with the problem. While some members of the task force were reportedly skeptical about lifting the moratorium on herbicides, they understood the need for addressing problem areas. As a result, ordinance 16-07 was passed in July 2016. The task force recommended several well-considered measures to protect and inform the public while allowing for limited use of herbicide spray.
Most of the problem areas relate to guardrails that are not easily reached by mowers. This month, the county announced that roadside spraying would be reinstituted along 400 miles of guardrails. (I suppose the idea of “limited” means different things to different people.) Excess vegetation can be dangerous as it grows toward the roadside and should be managed. Yet, it is evident from a quick ride around the area that not all guardrails present this problem. Guardrails are almost all over embankments, ditches, and waterways. County documents clearly state: “Studies documenting the presence of herbicides in area streams and effects of herbicides on salmon point to the need for public agencies to serve as models of environmental stewardship in landscape management.” The county does require a buffer zone around documented waterways, but a confounding problem is that many temporary seasonal streams are not documented and, therefore, not protected. Run-off after the use of herbicides will carry the chemicals from treated areas into these temporary waterways. These will then drain into larger waterways, thus defeating the effort to protect waterways directly.
While the Board of Health reached out to partners to identify less harmful herbicides, concerns remained about those that are allowed. For example, exposure to triclopyr has been associated with breast cancer and genetic mutations in people, (See pesticide.org/pesticide_factsheets), and has been shown to decrease survival in nestling birds and to alter frog behavior. Roads often serve as pollinator corridors, so herbicides can cause health problems for bees and birds, fish and other wildlife. The task force advised that “impacts to other species, including pollinators and amphibians should be considered.”
We commend the task force for sound recommendations including: “All decision making and process development will be transparent to the public and guided by human and environmental health considerations.” It’s up to us to be sure the county adheres to this, but there is much we do not know. We know that the county roads were inventoried, but we don’t know what was learned. Which areas are being prioritized? What are the criteria? Do we know if any seasonal streams are below the guard rails at targeted sites? To protect the public, the task force advised that signs be posted at sites a week before spraying, and then site information be made available on-line. We would also appreciate a list of proposed targets before spraying. The citizens of Lane County are savvy and could share valuable information about whether specific areas are actually in need of treatment, as well as the location of problem sites, temporary streams, etc. Some confusion exists about the spray process as well. Typically an area would be mowed first before spray application. If not, untrimmed but dying vegetation may create fire hazards and visual obstructions. But if, as stated, there are not enough mowers or the mowers cannot reach the vegetation, will the protocol be different?
The county ordinance states that “mechanical and manual methods will continue to be the primary tools within our program.” According to a county spokesperson, they have only five mowing vehicles and are understaffed, so do not have enough people to work manually at the problem sites. Worker safety, which may be compromised around guardrails on curvy roads, is of paramount importance. More workers, protective clothing, and temporarily closing lanes for worker safety would help a lot.
It would seem that much of the problem does not come down to the effectiveness of manual vs. herbicide control, but that the overriding problem is inadequate funding to carry out the program as originally requested by the people of Lane County. We hope that budget changes in the near future allow more money for effective mower and manual control.
If you live along county roads, one of the most important things you can do right now is to register your property as a no-spray area: lanecounty.wufoo.com/forms/no-spray-area-application/
Wherever you live, remind county officials that we are concerned about the use of chemicals in public places. Insist on transparency and limited use of herbicides.
The contact person for the Vegetation Management Program is Pamela Reber, Natural Resource Specialist 541.682.8521, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact the Lane County Board of Commissioners: email@example.com