PANNA: Herbicides to Fight Forest Fires?


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Herbicides to Fight Forest Fires?
September 13, 2002

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has approved a plan to spray the herbicides glyphosate and triclopyr on nearly 5,000 acres of timberland to reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fire. The project area lies within the Eldorado National Forest, watershed of the San Francisco Bay Area and point of origin for Bay Area drinking water. The Plantation Protection Fuels Project is the first time the Forest Service has proposed to use herbicides for fire reduction; herbicides are commonly applied by USFS and private timber companies during tree planting projects to lessen competition for new seedlings. However, in the Eldorado National Forest, the herbicides will be applied among mature trees–in this case 40 to 60 year old Douglas Firs–that support a variety of wildlife. The California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) and Sierrans for Safe Passage (SSP) have appealed the Forest Service decision on the grounds that use of herbicides for fire fuels reduction is an environmentally dangerous new precedent and is hazardous for both people and wildlife. The groups argue that use of mechanical brush cutters and thinning are the appropriate tools to use.

“The Forest Service has really gone too far with this proposal,” said Vivian Parker, biologist for the California Indian Basketweavers Association. “They want to turn the forest floor into a sterile dead zone, killing valuable native shrubs and herbs on 4,522 acres of publicly owned lands. These native plants provide important food, nesting material and shelter for many species, including black bear, quail and deer. Use of brush cutters is more than adequate to provide brush control, without risking contamination of our streams, poisoning culturally valuable plants, and injuring native wildlife. This proposal makes no ecological, scientific or moral sense.”

The conservation groups also disagree with the Forest Service assumption that spraying of herbicides will reduce fire danger, “After two treatments, the amount of surface fuels will be the same, irrespective of the treatment used,” said Dan Zimmerman, of Sierrans for Safe Passage. “The truth is, herbicides will actually increase the short term fire danger due to the dead stems and foliage left behind. Mastication shreds the surface fuels, laying them down and speeding up the decomposition process.”

The Forest Service has proposed herbicide use despite several recent court rulings requiring more thorough assessment of the impacts. Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS) filed a suit against USFS for the Cottonwood Project’s plan to use herbicides on 22,000 acres of Tahoe National Forest after the 1994 Cottonwood forest fire. In that case, a federal judge ruled that the agency had failed to consider adequately the effects on human health and wildlife from herbicides, which may act as endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and immune system suppressors.

Two other cases have brought the weight of the federal courts to bear on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is charged with regulating pesticide use, but has yet to evaluate the full impacts of forestry herbicides on wildlife which has been listed as threatened or endangered. The courts have asked EPA to perform this evaluation in consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and develop a mitigation plan for herbicide use in areas with endangered species.

“These same problems are at issue in the Eldorado National Forest project,” Parker said. “No one knows what the real effects are from the widespread use of herbicides in our forests. In fact, most laboratory studies have focused only on the lethal effects from ingestion. They seldom have looked at the more subtle effects of these products on eggs and sperm, developing embryos or on juvenile organisms. However, recent laboratory studies have shown that even infinitesimally small amounts of some herbicides used commonly in forestry can have devastating effects on the ability of frogs and other amphibians to reproduce successfully.”

Use of herbicides also frequently results in an increase in aggressive non-native or noxious weed outbreaks. According to Parker of CIBA, EPA has not considered the potential impact on California Indians who still use national forest system lands for gathering food, for hunting and fishing, for basket plant materials, and for ceremonial purposes.

The Forest Service plans in the Eldorado National Forest bear continued scrutiny. As a result of the CIBA/SSP appeal, the plan is under review by the Regional Forester for Region 5. A decision is expected by October 10, 2002.

Sources: California Indian Basketweavers, Sierrans for Safe Passage press release, August 19, 2002 and U.S. Forest Service, Region 5, Plantation Protection Fuels Project,

Contact: Vivian Parker, Resource Policy Analyst, The California Indian Basketweavers Association, P.O. Box 2397, Nevada City, CA 95959; phone (530) 622-8718; email; Web site or Dan Zimmerman, Environmental Investigator, Sierrans for Safe Passage, phone (530) 477-6510.

PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don’t always get coverage by the mainstream media. It’s produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.

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