gallery Herbicides and Forest Fires

Glyphosate and other herbicides like atrazine and imazapyr are routinely used in forest maintenance and by the timber industry, though exact data for amounts applied are a little difficult to obtain.

Just how many pesticides are they using in forests? In California for example, one timber company manages 1.7 million acres of forestA study led by Forest Ethics found the company used more than they claimed to, about 770,000 pounds of pesticides between 1995 and 2007.[i] 

If you think the Forest Service might be a little more conservative in its use, think again. Back in 2005 whistleblower Doug Parker who worked with the USDA Forest Service for over 40 years was fired after reporting misuse of pesticides by Forest Service employees.[ii] 

Researchers from the University of Montana looked at the USDA Forest Service and concluded that in 2010 alone, “1.2 million acres of U.S. federal and tribal wildlands –an area the size of 930,630 football fields – was sprayed with 200 tons of herbicides. By far the most commonly used active ingredient was glyphosate –most commonly known to consumers under the brand name Roundup – which is a nonselective herbicide that also kills native grasses and herbs.”

“The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees 193 million acres in the U.S. – a quarter of all federal lands – declined to share its data on herbicide use. Mike Ielmini, the Forest Service’s National Invasive Species Program Manager, told the researchers that he had concerns about his agency’s data quality.” [iii]

The United States is not alone in practicing chemical forestry. In Canada, forests are also targeted with pesticides. As reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2018, “It’s an annual event — a mass extermination of broadleaf trees mandated by the province. The eradication of trees like aspen and birch on regenerating forest stands is meant to make room for more commercially valuable conifer species like pine and Douglas fir.”

“But experts say it also removes one of the best natural defenses we have against wildfire, at a time when our warming climate is helping make large, destructive fires more and more common.”

“When aspen and other broadleaves are allowed to flourish, they form “natural fuel breaks” if their leaves are out, according to Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of B.C. That’s why aspen stands are often referred to as “asbestos forests” in wildfire science circles.”

‘It blows my mind that nobody is talking about this,’ said James Steidle, a member of the anti-glyphosate group Stop the Spray B.C.”[iv]

Rather than being helpful at all, the use of glyphosate in forests is likely a big factor in the intensity and extent of damage caused by wildfires. As mentioned previously, it kills young Aspens and Birch trees and other broadleaf species, trees which act as a natural fire wall. On top of that overall tree health is diminished, for the herbicides prevent trees and plants from absorbing and holding water, making them dry as matchsticks.  According to the Sierra Club, “Glyphosate is a patented desiccant. Its desiccating effects reduce a plant’s ability to uptake water. Glyphosate has non-target impacts. Glyphosate use could lead to Sudden Oak Death, Oak Wilt, and a host of Scorch Diseases in which plants can no longer absorb sufficient water and thereby become very flammable. More dry and dead non-target vegetation increases the risk of fire.”[v]

This is not too shocking for those familiar with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. And it seems sadly, we’re just repeating the same old mistakes. Too often when humans try to manage wild places or animals or meddle with nature, what may start out as good intentions ultimately nearly always backfires.

Rachel Carson brought this issue to light back in 1962, back when DDT was the herbicide of the day. In her book, she describes the damage DDT inflicted on forests.

“This is what happened in some of the western national forests a few years ago, when in 1956 the United States Forest Service sprayed some 885,000 acres of forested lands with DDT. The intention was to control the spruce budworm, but the following summer it was discovered that a problem worse than the budworm damage had been created. In surveying the forests from the air, vast blighted areas could be seen where the magnificent Douglas firs were turning brown and dropping their needles. In the Helena National Forest and on the western slopes of the Big Belt Mountains, then in other areas of Montana and down into Idaho the forests looked as though they had been scorched. It was evident that this summer of 1957 had brought the most extensive and spectacular infestation of spider mites in history. Almost all of the sprayed area was affected. Nowhere else was the damage evident. Searching for precedents, the foresters could remember other scourges of spider mites, though less dramatic than this one. There had been similar trouble along the Madison River in Yellowstone Park in 1929, in Colorado 20 years later, and then in New Mexico in 1956. Each of these outbreaks had followed forest spraying with insecticides. (The 1929 spraying, occurring before the DDT era, employed lead arsenate). Chemical pest control in the forest is at best a stopgap measure bringing no real solution, at worst killing the fishes in the forest streams, bringing on plagues of insects, and destroying the natural controls and those we may be trying to introduce.”[vi]

So little has changed yet so much more harm has been done. Is the misuse of herbicides contributing to the spread of tree disease, causing trees to lose their natural resistance to invasive beetles, to white pine blister rust, to aphid infestations, to fungus disease? Are the massive amounts of herbicides and fungicides used harming soil quality so far as to make the trees not just unable to absorb water, but unable to absorb nutrients as well? Without our meddling, would the forests throughout the west be thriving and healthy today? Nature is after all very capable of thriving on its own, without human interference. What on earth are we doing to these majestic landscapes and to the animals that dwell within when we so obnoxiously use chemicals where they don’t belong?

The time has come to stop meddling with forests. Killing chemicals do not help trees, people, animals or ecosystems. We have to stop being conned by the chemical companies whose products are little by little destroying the planet’s health and our health.

This is our country on Roundup, accounting for agricultural use only. How brown will this map become when public lands, forests, wildlife refuges, grasslands and national parks are accounted for?

Glyphosate Map USGS

As shocking as it may be, this is the green reality.



Sources —————————————————————

[i] Study on Timber Industry’s Use of Pesticides Triggers Alarm, Scott Streator, Land Letter, January 29,2009


[iii], Herbicide usage for invasive non‐native plant management in wildland areas of North America, Viktoria Wagner, Pedro M. Antunes, Michael Irvine, Cara R. Nelson, Journal of Applied Ecology, 29 June 2016

[iv] “It blows my mind’: How B.C. destroys a key natural wildfire defense every year,” Bethany Lindsay · CBC News ·