Dead pines drive new herbicide rules in Oregon

A controversial weed-killer has split the state, and pit state regulators against feds.

 

What began in 2013 with a few dead trees has become a major die-off along the highway that winds through the Cascade Range, connecting the verdant floor of the Willamette Valley to the high desert of central Oregon. Over 1,400 ponderosa pines, some centuries old, have been killed, and more are expected to die. State and federal investigators blame their deaths on roadside spraying of the weed-killer aminocyclopyrachlor, or ACP, by Oregon’s Department of Transportation.

Toxic levels of ACP can still be found in area trees six years after the nearby roadside was last sprayed. The chemical is a known tree-killer whose label warns against letting it come into contact with the roots of desirable trees. But weed control specialists question whether other factors, like road de-icer and drought, might be involved.

The grove of dying trees has thrust a chemical known for its destruction on Midwestern golf courses and backyards nearly a decade ago into the spotlight in Oregon — exposing divides between state and federal pesticide regulation, and between environmental challenges on either side of the Cascades. Now, Oregon regulators are clamping down on a chemical that federal regulators banned under one name, but continued to license under another. As environmental advocates from the Willamette Valley spearhead an effort to ban ACP and reduce pesticide use overall, public works officials from central and eastern Oregon are asking to keep a chemical they say is important for managing invasive plants that threaten native ecosystems, agricultural operations and roads.

Dying ponderosa pines along U.S. Route 20 in Oregon have catalyzed a push to place broad restrictions on the tree-killing chemical ACP statewide.
Ryan Brennecke /The Bulletin via AP Images

Originally, ACP was sold by DuPont under the brand name Imprelis. When Imprelis came on the market in late 2010, it was a disaster: More than 30,000 customers complained of dead trees, and DuPont estimated that its liabilities would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. DuPont soon yanked Imprelis off the market, shortly before the Environmental Protection Agency banned the herbicide in 2011. One might imagine trees nationwide breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing the chemical had been given the death penalty.

But DuPont had also registered the same tree-killing chemical under a different brand name, Perspective. Perspective, which was later sold to Bayer, stayed on the market in part because it has different label instructions, which warn against spraying it near the root systems of “desirable” trees. And, until recently, there was no public outrage, because Perspective is marketed for public uses, such as roadside spraying, rather than more visible ones like lawn care or golf course maintenance.

State regulators, however, placed a temporary ban on the product in September, as the dead pines made headlines. Now, the Oregon Department of Agriculture is in the process of finalizing a rule that severely restricts the herbicide; it’s open for public comment until Feb. 26.

The new rule would prohibit roadside spraying of ACP, and limit its use to small patches or confined areas like mining and industrial sites. Rose Kachadoorian, the program manager for the state’s pesticide licensing program, said the Oregon Department of Agriculture is “weighing the risks and benefits” and acting with an “abundance of caution” in its proposed restrictions. Kachadoorian, the president-elect of the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials, said Oregon is the first state to put such comprehensive limits on ACP-based products.

But public-works managers who use ACP in central and eastern Oregon say the ban ignores the realities they face. “I feel like we can put a buffer around trees, but let’s not take it out of the hands of people in eastern Oregon,” where the arid climate means many areas are treeless, said Matt Wenick, weed coordinator for Grant County.

Wenick and Don Farrar, weed officer for Gilliam County in Oregon’s wheat belt along the Columbia River Basin, said ACP helps them control invasive species like leafy spurge, using fewer applications and avoiding older, more toxic chemicals. “It can’t hurt things in this area,” a wheat field-dominated landscape, where pesticides already play a major role in shaping the environment, Farrar said. “Invasive species should be a bigger deal for people who care about the environment than herbicides.”

Pesticide watchdogs and environmental health advocates, like Lisa Arkin, executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Toxics, would like to see Oregon completely ban ACP and implement plans that prioritize non-chemical controls for weeds and other pests. In 2013, state lawmakers passed legislation to promote such procedures, but Arkin said official practices don’t match the law’s intent.

Still, Arkin said, the new rule shows Oregon’s Department of Agriculture is stepping up on environmental protection. “Oregon is a leader for restricting ACP,” she said. “But they’re leading after a tragedy of old-growth pines being killed and an unknown amount of ongoing damage.” The harm to the environment and the cleanup costs, which will be paid for by taxpayers, “could have been avoided if EPA had taken action to take this chemical off the market in the first place.”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected]  or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...