Forest brush round-up in question
August 31, 2004
Ten years after the Cottonwood fire decimated almost 50,000 acres of forest south of the Sierra Valley, the Tahoe National Forest’s plan to accelerate forest growth by poisoning brush in the burn area still raises controversy.The disagreement between the Forest Service and several California environmental groups produced a lawsuit in 2000, which prompted the Tahoe National Forest to initiate a full Environmental Impact Statement and reduce the brush reduction area to 13,500 acres. The new proposal calls for the use of two herbicides – including one that is the active ingredient in Roundup – to kill about 80 percent of the brush that the Forest Service says is crowding trees and slowing forest growth. The plan proposes spraying the 13,500 acres, section by section, over a five-year period.The draft environmental statement is complete, but the Nevada City-based Forest Issues Group (FIG), Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and the California Indian Basketweavers Association contend that the use of herbicides in the area is unnecessary and risky.”Even if they are minimal risks they are still risks that don’t need to be taken,” said FIG spokesman Don Rivenes, who said the herbicides could damage microorganisms and streams. Rivenes said that the Forest Service should not race to grow the forest, but allow the natural process to take its course.”The purpose of a healthy forest is not to grow a forest as fast as you can,” said Rivenes. “It is to grow it [naturally].” Sam Wilbanks, Sierraville district ranger for the Tahoe National Forest, said that the conditions following the fire were abnormal and required a plan to ensure healthy reforestation.”Almost 90 percent of it burned to nothing but white ash and burnt sticks,” said Wilbanks. “If we don’t do something to intervene, the chances are it will remain a brush field for hundreds of years.”Without intervention, the forest could take between 100 and 200 years to reach maturity, said Wilbanks, while the plan to control the brush will likely see a mature conifer forest in 40 to 50 years.Wilbanks said that experienced scientists have backed up the use of herbicides in the area, and despite delays and legal challenges, the Forest Service is still pushing for the plan because agency officials believe it is necessary.”We’ve been kind of working on a shoestring for the last couple years because we really, strongly believe that this is the right thing to do,” said Wilbanks.Controlling brush with herbicides has been a “tremendous success” in other parts of the state, he noted.”It’s not an exotic, strange new compound,” said Wilbanks. “Most people use it in their yards.”However, Rivenes said that when Roundup is used in backyards or in agricultural settings, it is used to kill noxious weeds, a use of the chemical that the Forest Issues Group does not oppose. The problem with applying the chemical in the forest south of Sierraville, he said, is that it will be used to kill native brush that has grown naturally following the fire.The brush has beneficial qualities, like balancing the nitrogen content of the soil, Rivenes said. He added that the groups will continue to oppose the herbicide use and plan to appeal the project if it is approved.The comment period for the draft environmental impact statement on the Tahoe National Forest herbicide plan ends on Sept. 20.Comments on the draft statement, which is not available online but can be requested from the Tahoe National Forest, can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Sierraville Ranger District, Tahoe National Forest, P.O. Box 95, Sierraville, CA 96126.