Voters on Oregon’s thickly forested and heavily logged Central Coast will decide this coming Tuesday whether to ban the aerial spraying of tree farms, but advocates face stiff headwinds from local officials and the timber industry.
It marks a high point for those concerned about the large-scale use of pesticides in the Northwest on clearcuts, with worries centering around the chemicals, their composition and what happens when they drift from spray sites to nearby homes and streams or percolate into local ground water.
And now in Lincoln County, some citizens want to prohibit corporate tree farmers from showering their plantations with the toxic stew that is meant to tamp down competition from brambles, brush and other fast-growing plants against valuable Douglas firs.
After getting enough signatures last year to put Measure 21-177 onto the ballot, it’s slated for a May 16 special election.
If approved, it would create the “Freedom from Aerial Sprayed Pesticides Ordinance of Lincoln County” and affect how timber owners such as Weyerhaeuser, Hancock Forest Management and others treat their lands after logging.
The measure comes as the issue of spraying clearcuts from helicopters and planes has been building, with significant coverage in recent years in The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting, High Country News and the Eugene Weekly.
Stories have focused on chemicals drifting onto rural schools and homes, forest workers who have been sickened, family animals dying, and spray being applied too close to waterways.
Supporters of the Lincoln County measure say it’s about protecting drinking water and themselves and reducing the problem of overspray.
There’s been a heated debate in the local newspaper, where letters fill the opinion pages with each new biweekly issue of the Newport News Times, while slick brochures flood mailboxes and doorbellers talk to neighbors.
Among the opposition, all three Lincoln County commissioners and the sheriff. The Oregon Forest & Industries Council is also against it, saying in a voter’s pamphlet statement, “The prudent use of pesticides is a highly-regulated, important tool for successful forest regeneration.”
(A bill currently in the Oregon’s Senate would require the state Department of Forestry to be notified of proposed treatments.)
As a Weyerhaueser official explained for a Daily Astorian article last fall, timber companies could become “out of compliance” with state laws if their seedlings aren’t “free to grow” within half a dozen years of clearcutting.
Some opponents have taken issue with several terms in the ballot measure, including construing the word “aerial” to apply to treating fishing boat hulls, and the words “direct action” to suggest the possibility of vigilantism by citizens.
Others say it would lead to higher labor costs — but on the flip side, that potentially also could mean more jobs.
Indeed, there are other ways to apply the chemicals than from a helicopter or plane, though even then there can be concerns. When Hancock wanted to backpack spray a cut above Depoe Bay, the mayor objected to the state Department of Forestry, because it was close to the city’s water supply and a salmon-bearing stream, and the timber company eventually backed down.
As it stands, next week’s vote will test which way the winds are blowing when it comes to aerially spraying tree farms in a county on Oregon’s coast, with implications beyond.
Editor’s disclosures: As you can see by the above images, I’ve spent a fair amount of time fishing and recreating in Lincoln County over the past decade, where my inlaws live. My father-in-law has been active in supporting the measure as well.