Spraying in North Cascades Forests?
This Naturalist Note was written by graduate student Gina Roberti as part of the Fall Natural History Project in North Cascades Institute’s M.Ed. Residency coursework. You can view other students’ work here.
As a graduate resident, I live and work within the boundaries of North Cascades National Park, surrounded by metamorphic peaks which assemble the headwaters of the Skagit River. Understanding the health of the Skagit Watershed is of great importance to me. As an environmental educator, teacher, and resident, an understanding of the history of land management in this watershed is central to my education and place as a resident of the North Cascades.
The following article reflects my personal journey researching the use of forest chemicals on public and private forest lands in the Pacific Northwest. I focused on a topic that is, by its nature, uncomfortable and not often discussed. Spraying of forest chemicals—herbicides, pesticides and fungicides—is a common, if not ubiquitous practice in the commercial forestry industry.
A report in Oregon documented 18,000 pounds of pesticides sprayed on forest lands in one year (within a study area of 184,320 acres). If these quantities are extrapolated to the roughly eight million acres of private forestland in Washington State, it is probable that hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals have been applied in Washington. While I failed to discover the quantity of forest chemicals applied in the Skagit watershed, it is likely on the order of tens of thousands of pounds over the last several decades.
In modern forestry practice chemicals are used at every stage of growth: herbicides reduce competition from understory plants, fungicides and insecticides target pests that thrive on densely packed monoculture stands, and fertilizers are used to stimulate growth of saplings once competing understory growth is eliminated. Washington State Department of Natural Resources website reports on their general information page that herbicides are typically applied “once or twice in the 40-to-65-year life span of a managed stand of timber in Washington state.”
While the amount of herbicides applied by the forestry industry is much less than that of the agricultural industry (15% vs. 72%, respectively, according to EPA data from 2006-2007), many of the chemicals used are shown through laboratory studies to be toxic at varying concentrations to wildlife, soil organisms and human health.
Glyphosate, one of the most widespread forest chemicals is the primary active ingredient in Roundup, 4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) is commonly found in herbicide lawn treatments in the US (though is banned for use on lawns and gardens in Denmark, Norway, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario). Laboratory studies document the potential for glyphosate and 2,4-D to cause birth abnormalities, neurological problems, and behavioral changes in animal subjects.
Most forest chemicals are synthetic compounds created in laboratories with specific targeted biological effects. Their derivatives can persist beyond the boundaries of permitted application areas, affecting the health of neighboring ecosystems, wildlife, forests and human communities. While State and Federal laws mandate protection of public resources (WA Forest Practices Act, Northwest Forest Plan, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, etc.), State and Federal forest management policies also permit the application of forest chemicals regulated by the US EPA and Department of Agriculture.
Through my research I learned about the history of legislation governing forest practices in Western Washington and less about specific story of forest chemical use in the Skagit drainage.
My failure to find any publically reported numbers on the amount of forest chemicals applied historically in Skagit county suggests that close oversight (detailed documentation and monitoring) of forest chemical application is limited. Lack of data has made it difficult for me to reach any definitive conclusions about the history of forest chemicals in the Skagit drainage.
For an excellent article reporting on the widespread use and controversy of glyphosate (one of the most commonly used forest chemicals), see the following article from the Northern Woodlands (2012).
For further history on the impacts of forestry practices legislation such as the Northwest Forest Plan, see the following article from High Country News:
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages forest practices on public (state) and private timber lands in Skagit County. The link below is an overview of DNR policy on the use of forest chemicals, with links to WA Forest Practices legislation.