Facing Imazapyr Head-On

by Franklin Graham, March 11, 2015

On Thursday evening, March 5th, 120 Mendocino residents met at the Comptche Community Center to discuss Imazapyr (a broad spectrum persistent herbicide) used to control/eliminate tanoaks on Mendocino Redwood Company timberlands. The concerns most people have about toxic substances in the environment are immediate and visceral. “Stop it.” “Don’t poison us.” “Find a nontoxic solution.” “Not in my backyard!”

The issue is complex and many sided. No quick fix or easy solution has been found. Proponents and opponents alike want to see the issue resolved. All agree that a way must be found to eliminate the use of toxic herbicides. In a post meeting communication with Greg Giusti, University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources and member of the North Coast Water Board, he stated that: “I have come to accept that when addressing the herbicide issue we often have conflicting views between the “physical sciences” (chemistry) and the “social sciences” (public perceptions). The two often, if not always, talk past each other. (March 9, 2015). With Greg Giusti’s comment in mind, one outcome of the meeting is a hopeful sign: the dialogue continues.

This installment focuses on some of the information given by planned speakers, each one having wrestled with forest practice issues for years. Comments and observations (admittedly but a sampling) by invited speakers and community members are highlighted, ably moderated by Jessica Thompson. Everyone was given the opportunity to speak. In the second hour, Mendocino Redwood Company representatives (Jesse Weaver, Navarro Watershed Forest Manager, and Sarah Billig, Stewardship Director) were offered time to provide the company’s perspective. Both opted to listen and respond to questions from community members. While it is vitally important to know MRC’s position, perhaps the best course the MRC representatives could have taken was to listen and not present a prepared defense. Details of MRC’s current operations and practices, as described by MRC can be found online at www.mrc.com. Again, Greg Giusti, post meeting, made a point that should be recognized by all concerned. “Without a doubt this is currently the most contentious topic in modern forestry (at least in Mendocino County). The reliance on chemical vegetation management is a legacy of past timber extraction that allowed hardwoods (mostly tanoak but not exclusively) to become dominant on what has historically been conifer dominated sites.”

A review of some of the science behind Imazapyr must be deferred for a second installment. The second installment will also give an overview of Mendocino Redwood Company’s perspective on the use of Imazapyr. Applications to eradicate/eliminate tanoaks, the stated goal expressed by Michael Jani, MRC forester and president, is to return timberlands to a historical and sustainable balance, of which tanoaks represent about 15% of standing trees. It is worth pointing out at this juncture that not much is known (scientifically) about imazapyr in relation to redwood timberlands. After three decades of use to control a wide spectrum of “un-wanted” vegetation, Imazapyr remains an especially divisive issue with respect to use in timberlands.

Framing the Discussion: Serving as moderator, Jessica Thompson opened the meeting. After setting the order of presentations, she put the issue in perspective with map projections of the area of concern. One map showed the impact of the hack and squirt application using imazapyr on 85,000 acres, an estimated 1,000,000 tanoak trees per year of MRC timberlands. A series of aerial photos were shown to put in bold relief the impact of using imazapyr, the images some regard as of “dead zones”. The use of Imazapyr costs MRC about $300 per acre to hack and squirt. Nontoxic methods, by hand removal, may cost two and three times that ($600 to $900 per acre). Using simple math, it is estimated that MRC has spent $2,550,000 thus far to eradicate tanoaks. It was not clear if cost estimates include more than one application. MRC has stated that it does not use Garlon or Roundup on tanoaks. Both are considered more toxic. Garlon and Roundup, however, are still used by MRC to control huckleberry and other bushy plants.

Mike Kalantarian was the first speaker. He outlined his observations and concerns. In 2012, he and Elaine, his wife, first noticed large swathes of dead standing tanoaks from their ridge-top property in Rancho Navarro and along the Comptche to Ukiah road. The Kalantarians took their concerns directly to Andy Armstrong at MRC in Ukiah. Throughout 2012, the visual impact and environmental degradation of millions of trees turning orange to brown to barren continued to evoke comment and concern from local residents. MRC acknowledged that the “visual impact” can be disturbing. However, MRC insisted that the use of imazapyr is necessary. The problem of too many tanoaks, which makes regeneration of conifers more difficult and long-term, is key to MRC’s achieving its economic goals. The Kalantarians have continued, since 2012, to stress that MRC’s use of imazapyr, or any toxic herbicide for that matter, is a flawed strategy. In 2012-13, MRC published on its website an analysis of the damage caused by the 2008 lightning fires. Forty-two percent (23,196 acres) of the 54,817 acres burned was MRC land. The burned areas represent a disproportionately high percentage of fire damage to MRC land, the implication being due to stands of dead tanoaks. MRC must be aware of the increased potential for fires due to hotter summers with dry lightning events, but, according to Mike Kalantarian, MRC downplays the fire danger. Kalantarian concluded his remarks by mentioning two THPs, slated for the Albion area and Turtle Creek, where MRC has agreed not to use imazapyr. Kalantarian invited everyone to access his website that archives information on the use of imazapyr and forest practices: mk.users.sonic.net/mrc/

Next to speak was Charles Acker, from the Elk Water District. He stressed the increasing risks from global warming and climate change. The recent shift of the jet stream to the north, he said, is one factor in the ongoing drought California is experiencing. Although Mendocino has recently experienced heavy rainfall, due to storms that carried an atmospheric river to the coast, such storms do not measurably relieve drought conditions. The moisture from such storms quickly runs off and most of it is not stored below, in the roots and wood mass of the forest. Healthy forests pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it, providing what is known as a carbon sink (California politicians like to talk about carbon sequestration to offset pollution created by oil, gas, and coal). Mr. Acker stressed that a healthy redwood forest creates 8 inches of rain within its canopy each year, capturing moisture from the fog that streams in from the Pacific Ocean. Redwood forests are true temperate rainforests, if healthy. Mr. Acker makes the point that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is of no help with respect to the use of imazapyr. Science and investigation is required to find the chemical “off the reservation” before regulatory agencies will act. That is, find where imazapyr moves from areas treated by PG&E and MRC to land and water beyond their control, then perhaps something can be done. However, the science and monitoring is not in place. Corporations are driven by the bottom line. Charles Acker can be contacted at cacker@mcn.org

Norman de Vall, former Mendocino County Supervisor, spoke of the long and destructive history of forest practices in the redwood zone. Louisiana Pacific, Georgia Pacific, the Koch Brothers, Maxxam, Campbell, and Hawthorn — all examples of companies and tycoons interested in quick profits succeeded in creating most of the problems that that current timberland owners face today. Clear cutting, accelerated harvest cycles, and post-harvest abandonment, without restoration efforts, were the norm. The severely damaged forest floor, watersheds, and the streams and rivers, the natural habitat for wildlife, were not their concern. Gone were the days when a company like Pacific Lumber Company limited harvests to 2% of standing inventory, avoided clear cutting, and were generally regarded as good employers and stewards of the land. De Vall is wary of the motives of the Fisher Family, who hold the majority stake in “The Gap Empire.” He is skeptical of investor groups, such as the Washington State Teacher’s Union, whose pension funds depend on high returns, whether or not the foundation (the revenue from timber harvests) can be sustained without returning to rapacious practices. (A caveat must be given here. As Norman de Vall spoke, the above summary of his words is what I heard, or think I heard. Could some of it be “between the lines” of what he actually said, amplifications on his theme? I hope he forgives my taking liberties, for I tried to capture the essence of what he said.) As the meeting broke up, Norman told me that he misses his owls. Like this reporter, he has noted the growing silence of the forest, the disappearance of so much of the wildlife.

Ted Williams, Albion’s Fire Chief, rose to speak of fire dangers and the need to maintain healthy watersheds. As expected, a good number of volunteer fire fighters were in attendance. Williams’ observations drew many affirmative nods from the audience. At one point, a Comptche resident interrupted to praise CalFire and the local volunteer fire departments, those who “jumped on the 2012 grass fire that, had it crossed the road, it could have burned in the dead zone all the way to Ukiah.” Another person asked where the imposed special fire tax goes. Mr. Williams continued to speak from the perspective of fire safety, and the need to pay more attention to the large tracts of dead, standing tanoaks. There are no studies, no evidence anyone can cite, that puts the danger of fire damage in perspective. This lack of information that is needed to evaluate the fire threat and design effective countermeasures includes CalFire. Calfire does recognize the problem.

This week, Ted Williams, I am told, is to propose an ordinance to the Albion Fire District that makes it illegal to leave standing trees in a harvested area for more than 30 days. In a related development, Beth Bosk said that she believes that “there is a seven year commitment from MRC not to use herbicides in the Lower Albion Basin. The commitment is in writing from John Anderson, Albion Forester. The letter, she states, was distributed to interested Albion residents last month. Further, “7 years was chosen by MRC because it is the newest lifespan of a permitted timber harvest plan.” Ms. Bosk also volunteered that “On the coast, young conifers out-compete the tanoak sprouts in seven years on the cut-over lands where no herbicides have been used….

Barry Vogel, Ukiah attorney and well-known host of Radio Curious, outlined his concerns about the “economic poison” that in his view has destroyed the forests. Mr. Vogel takes a historical perspective, one that in part goes back to 1850, what forests were like then. But, certainly since at least 1997, people have come to realize that the primary motive of timber companies is “get more money out of the ground.” It is not herbicides that have destroyed the forests. Herbicides are the vehicle, “the attempt to use a chemical application to speed up a normal reforestation.” Of course, overharvesting and failure to protect the properties is the primary cause. Nonetheless, “the forests are gone,” he said. In place of the timber companies that created the problems, one family has become the poster child (my phrasing, not Mr. Vogel’s) of what is wrong with current forest practices, namely the Fishers’ of San Francisco, collectively worth $11 billion, the majority stockholders in “The Gap Empire.” Mr. Vogel exhorted those present to “save what is left.” He wants to see 50 and 100 year plans for forest restoration put in place, with public involvement. One approach that he recommends is to go back to the enacted state laws of 1983-4 (the same timeframe when imazapyr first came on the scene) that serve to regulate “public nuisances.” If there is the potential for something to become a “public nuisance” the law can be applied to prohibit or limit. At the county level, the General Plan can be invoked to prohibit or regulate.

Ed Nieves, Coordinator–Mendocino Environmental Center, rounded out the speaker list. His view is that the economic costs of fires and the decreasing amount of rain and moisture in the forest has not been adequately addressed, certainly not by CalFire. He is concerned that CalFire’s review process does not adequately address the fire threat to communities. Mr. Nieves cites the 3-year period of extreme fire hazard due to stands of dead trees post-harvest. Over 16 years, MRC has killed at least 15 million trees, and harvested another 15 million or so. That is, MRC has removed over 30 million trees from the redwood rainforest lands they control, which has led not only to an increased fire hazard but also the net loss of retained moisture that is necessary for a healthy forest environment. So, while there is ample reason why people are concerned with imazapyr, it is fire that concerns Mr. Nieves most. He pointed out, post-meeting, that in the last 10 years California has experienced its largest fires in history, especially in conifer forests. The evidence of increasing risk of fires, major fires, is there. CalFire, he points out, in his discussions with Charlie Martin, the THP Review Chief, acknowledges the threat of climate change. But at the same time, CalFire has not taken a position on how to deal with the concern because the metrics, the science, is not in place. Climate Change is at the top of CalFire’s list of concerns, but there is no plan to deal with it. Mr. Nieves also addressed the matter of the economic cost of the fire dangers. It is widely acknowledged that the wine industry suffered losses due to a “smoky” 2008 vintage. And yet, the economic cost of fires, which is likely to increase over the coming years, has not been adequately addressed. CalFire, in his view, needs to give more attention to both the fire plan and the community wildlife in its review process of every Timber Harvest Plan. As an environmental activist, Mr. Nieves exhorts everyone to become involved, more involved. He believes that direct action, through letter writing, phone calls, and personal contacts make a difference. Talk to your board of supervisors, the California Department of Forestry, CalFire, to everyone. It was an enthusiastic plea that rounded out the presentation of invited speakers. (mecgrassroots.org, 707-234-3236)

With questions and comments solicited from the audience, many stood and made their views and concerns known. Overall, fire danger was a dominant theme. The use of herbicides was understood to be a main cause of the increased fire danger. Interestingly, one man encouraged everyone “not to single out MRC.” He believes that MRC is but one company managing timberlands. (Although not stated during the meeting, it should be noted that of the more than 1,000,000 acres of timberland in the county, MRC’s stake is about 24 percent of the total.)

Finally, representatives of MRC, Jesse Weaver and Sarah Billig were given the opportunity to present the company’s perspective. They chose to listen to concerns and respond to questions. In this light, the balance of the meeting was given over to members of the audience who reinforced the observations and concerns expressed by the speaker/presenters. The visual blight, fire danger, and the need to stop applying herbicides on timberlands were on everyone’s mind. The meeting proceeded in good order, with all views respected. 120 independent minded people acted with a strong sense of purpose, order, and respect for the views of others.

With so much ground to cover on this issue, only so much can be said in one article. With this in mind, the plan is this. 1. In the second installment survey some of the available scientific information on imazapyr and outline Mendocino Redwood Company’s plan for reforestation. The reader should, of course, check the MRC site out on his or her own and talk with the company. 2. In a third installment discuss alternatives to imazapyr, what are some economic factors that need to be considered, and where do the political and regulatory organs of government come into play, or should come into play?