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Bill Would Ban Aerial Herbicide Spraying In Maine Woods

Hilton Hafford
Courtesy Photo
A clear-cut outside Allagash in 2019. Glyphosate is sometimes used after clear-cutting to prevent vegetation growth.

A bill that would ban the aerial spraying of glyphosate and other toxic herbicides used by the forest products industry is getting strong support from environmental and health groups, organic farmers and guides familiar with the North Woods.

But along with large landowners, the Maine Forest Service is opposed, characterizing glyphosate as an essential tool to help grow trees.

The debate over glyphosate comes at a crucial time in the effort to combat climate change. The Mills administration’s Climate Action Plan identifies the state’s forest and agricultural lands as a place to sequester and store carbon, protect biodiversity and increase ecological resilience.

Large forest landowners use glyphosate to suppress vegetation that competes with valuable timber species such as spruce and fir. But they say they use it sparingly, on fewer than 15,000 acres every year.

“If you go to an area that’s been sprayed by these aerial herbicides, the silence will take your breath away. It’s quite striking. There are no birds chirping. No squirrels running around and no trace of wildlife,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash.

At a public hearing before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Jackson said he has seen the irreversible damage that herbicide spraying has caused over the past three decades. A logger by trade, Jackson is also worried about safeguarding drinking water and protecting public health in the rural logging communities that he serves.

“Most of the places that this is done are on the edge of civilization. They’re on the edge of the North Maine Woods and are concerned about speaking out and being blackballed for it,” he said.

Glyphosate has been deemed a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization. It has been banned or restricted in more than 17 countries, and bill co-sponsor Republican Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford said an increasing number of recent studies are raising red flags about the harm it can cause.

“The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a draft biological evaluation for glyphosate,” he said, “and finds that glyphosate is likely to adversely effect a significant percent of endangered species and critical habitats.”

But Patty Cormier, the director of the Maine Forest Service, said landowners use glyphosate in a targeted and limited way that has been decreasing over time.

“These companies, they’re not trying to use it willy-nilly. They’re using it effectively and efficiently and it’s expensive and they don’t want to do it if they don’t have to do it,” she said.

Cormier acknowledged that glyphosate has become a polarizing issue. A similar bill was introduced just two years ago. If the ban on aerial spraying is approved, she said the result will likely be ground applications that are manually intensive, site disruptive and require multiple treatments.

Committee Chair Rep. Maggie O'Neil of Saco suggested Cormier was “green washing” the effects of glyphosate and undermining the Mills administration’s climate plan with her position. But large landowners said the bill itself is a threat to those goals.

“A ban on approved herbicide use in Maine will effectively result in a ban on tree planting in the state,” said Anthony Hourihan, who represents Irving Woodlands, the largest landowner in the state. “While the world is looking to plant more trees in the fight against climate change, this bill will result in less trees being planted in the state.”

Hourihan says Irving plants about three million trees a year in Maine. With the use of herbicides, he says trees are able to grow faster, invasive species are kept at bay and carbon is sequestered at four times the rate of a natural regenerating forest.

Hourihan did not provide the committee with any evidence to support the claim, which environmentalists dispute.