The buffer battle


Back in 2009, I reported on new research indicating that “pesticide cocktails” -- mixtures of common agricultural pesticides, including common off-the-shelf herbicides, and so-called “inert” ingredients -- are more deadly to salmon than they are when used separately. That finding came about as part of a larger effort by the US EPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service to respond to court orders requiring Endangered Species Act consultation on pesticide uses which could impact threatened and endangered species.  Results of the first such lawsuit, which affected ESA-listed Pacific salmon, were reported by Jodi Peterson for HCN in 2004.  

So far, pesticide application restrictions have been ordered for water bodies where ESA-listed salmonids, the California red-legged frog and other endangered species in and around the San Francisco Bay are present.  These are the areas where court orders have forced the responsible federal agencies to consult on impacts resulting in use restrictions around water bodies where listed species are present. You can get the whole story of pesticides and the ESA -- including links to the relevant court orders -- on-line from the EPA.  

Farming often goes right down to stream banks. This photo is from northwest California's Scott River Valley.

Efforts to shield endangered fish and wildlife from toxic pesticides have paralleled efforts to protect farmworkers from pesticide drift poisoning, as reported by Rebecca Clarren for HCN  and in Orion magazine.

There appear to be no government efforts underway to consider pesticide spraying impacts on other workers or on other ESA-listed species. Worker and environmental advocates, however, could file copy-cat lawsuits to force the EPA to extend protection from pesticides to other workers and other threatened and endangered species.

Consultations between the EPA - which registers pesticides and decides how they may be used -- and the agencies which are responsible for recovering endangered and threatened species have been dragging on for nearly a decade.  With a myriad of toxic pesticides on the market these consultations are bound to be time consuming. Opposition has further delayed the consultations; no-spray buffer zones around permanent and seasonal water bodies have been very contentious, with the Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups challenging the agencies’ science and fighting the buffers every step of the way. To date, only a few pesticides have completed the consultation process that has resulted in restrictions on spraying them near streams and other water bodies.   

Cattle often graze down to the water's edge, as shown here at Johnson Creek in the Scott River Basin.

Opposition has been most fierce in Washington, where the farm group Washington Friends of Farms and Forests has led the way.  Recently that group organized a lobbying effort in the state's legislature against the buffers.  The Friends claim that the stream buffers ordered so far by EPA will put them out of business and must be changed.  The Capital Press, an agricultural weekly, quoted the group’s executive director:  "The fallout from this -- if it continues the way it has been going -- is going to be huge….It is going to be like what the spotted owl did to the timber industry."

Some Washington legislators have responded by sponsoring legislation which would require state approval of Habitat Conservation Plans for ESA-listed species.  

The deleterious effects that protections for the northern spotted owl had on the timber industry remain under dispute. The logging industry has contracted in the region, but this is something resource economists point out was going to happen anyway.  What is clear is that the dire predictions made in response to federal logging cutbacks did not happen. The timber industry remains an important economic sector in a regional economy which is now more diversified and therefore more resilient. Can modern agriculture thrive without pesticides?  The burgeoning -- and profitable -- organic farming industry suggests that the answer is yes. 

Furthermore, unlike loggers, farmers have access to Farm Bill programs, which compensate them for land taken out of production – including land in the no-spray buffer zones. In fact the federal government encouraged farmers to sign up for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP.  CREP provides significant financial compensation to landowners with the specific purpose in Washington State of encouraging salmon habitat restoration.

But few farmers have taken advantage of the CREP program. This puzzles federal agency leaders so much that they commissioned an anthropological study to investigate why farmers are not signing up.   Based on interviews conducted for the study, it appears that farmers in western Washington are hostile to the buffers because they believe pesticide spraying is not the cause of the salmon decline. Many of those interviewed blamed the Boldt Decision, which affirmed treaty fishing rights and allocated 50 percent of the salmon harvest to federal tribes. Agricultural folks also appear to be bitter because stream buffers they had previously negotiated with tribal and fishing interests are only half the width of the buffers EPA now requires. Unmentioned is the fact that waivers of the no-spray buffers are available for control of unwanted weeds. 

All this reinforces the observation that protecting at-risk salmonids and other ESA-listed species from pesticides has become a front in the culture wars. For pesticide manufacturers the issue is money; but for those who actually farm, the ability to use private property as one pleases no matter what the impact to other species, other people and other economies appears to be front and center. 

Stay tuned.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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