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Dangerous Roadside Spraying

When killing weeds meant killing game birds.

Spraying HerbicideA friend responded to my roadside herbicide rant from our Facebook page last week, a post that (thank-you!) was greeted with scores of comments. Seems he was a hippie back in the day, politically active and, as was common there about the time of the , slowly gaining awareness of the complex web of environmental problems the world was facing. He took his bike out of the midwestern college town where he lived and was enjoying a pedal in the country when he came upon his county’s roadside spray team hitting the ditches hard with herbicide

What they were spraying was wild hemp. Like much of farm country in the years ahead of World War II, farmers in his home state had been encouraged to plant the hardy crop when the Navy started to rapidly expand and the previous source of hemp for rope making, the Philippines, was threatened by the Japanese. This hemp wasn’t the sort that hippies normally liked. It’s uses were limited to what could be made of its skeins and pulp. Only a fool would smoke it. Once it was discovered during the first months of the War that the brand new compound nylon could be used to make rope, the hemp was left to go to seed. It spread everywhere including along water courses and unplowed draws, but grew best (and often undisturbed) in roadside ditches.

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So our friend stopped and asked the men what they were doing. They didn’t have to remove masks to answer. They weren’t wearing any. The men answered that they were killing off the plants so hippies like him wouldn’t smoke it. Our friend chuckled and tried to explain. But the men just laughed and went back to their business. On the other side of the road they were using the kind of crop sprayer that farmers used to cover several rows at once. The spray was coating a section of the road even as its long arm covered the shoulder and the ditch. Turns out the state legislature in an act of questionable wisdom had earmarked a handsome sum of money to eradicate the hemp that had spread in the ditches and elsewhere.

And it was just at that point that our friend saw something that would change everything. A pheasant was flushed from the weeds ahead of the sprayer and ran across the road to where the men had just finished hand spraying on the other side. There had a been a lot of publicity in the state about how the pheasant population had been on decline.

Now pheasant hunting was a source of pride to this farm state and also an economic boon. Hunters from surrounding states had come for years to hunt pheasants here. But now that too was in decline.

Our friend then started contacting various hunting groups as well as the university biologists. It didn’t take long for the biologists to predict that the spray program, by crippling the bird’s reproductive abilities as well as killing them outright was most likely the largest single contributor to the decline in pheasant numbers. Soon, what he called the hippie and hunter coalition — strange bedfellows indeed — was going to the county commissioner meetings and arguing against the hemp eradication program (yes, our friend says he cut his hair for the cause). Within a year, with all kinds of people joining the cause, the state legislature killed the program. Need I say that the pheasant populations soon rebounded?

This story has many lesson, not the least of which is the harm roadside spraying programs can do. But it also shows that it’s in everyone’s interest to keep harmful chemicals out of our environment, even if those involved are from groups as disparate as hunters and non-violent peace-niks. And it also shows how people joining forces in a common cause can get governments to stop something as foolish, ineffective and dangerous (not to mention expensive) as roadside spraying programs. It took folks in San Mateo County, California six years to put an end to general spraying of roadsides. People in the state of Oregon are as they educate the general public to the dangers. These movements aren’t just in the United States. People are seeing the harm.

Roadside spraying is just one part of the dangerous, often flagrant spraying of herbicides and pesticides. And while some will argue that we need to spray to stop invasive weeds, evidence shows that . Roadside spraying is a problem, as our friend’s experience has shown, specific enough that we can fight it. What’s happening in your region to stop indiscriminate roadside spraying? If the answer is nothing, maybe you, like my friend, can join with your friends and do something about it.

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9 Responses to “Dangerous Roadside Spraying”

  1. Catherine Moore on August 30th, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    I live in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. The rampant weed around here is French Broom, which can handily overwhelm native ecosystems. It’s everywhere, but is most prevalent along roadsides that have lots of sunlight.

    Mowing is not effective. It just serves to scatter the seed, which is the last thing anyone wants to have happen, since the seed is viable for 80 years. There aren’t enough people or money for manual removal. We have to spray, preferably before the blasted stuff blossoms.

    In our instance, spraying is less damaging than you might think. The broom grows in heavy, impenetrable thickets, and the problem of overspray is really minimal.

    Once the broom is dead, the natives start to come back, and after a few years, the resprout of the broom is small enough, you can pick it manually.

    • Dan VB on August 30th, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      Get some goats!

  2. my name is...slim shady on August 30th, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    no masks means these workers were exposed to microscopic liquid pesticide droplets on a grand scale.

  3. Peter Garcia on August 30th, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    As a conservationist, gardener and hunter, I appreciate write ups like this. Keep up the good work.

  4. Kathleen Raftery on August 30th, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    This is so wrong; people just don’t know. Yikes! More like killing many living things. We are so lucky to have a company like yours. I use your products all the time and have for years. I too am one of those hippies and proud of it.

  5. Develop an Objective Opinion on May 9th, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    I respect Catherine Moore’s thought, at least hers is founded with real experience. E. Vinje is spouting off second hand anecdotal nonsense with no legitimate evidence on the negative environmental impacts associated with roadside spraying. If you want to write an article to convince people (ignorant people like those listed above, who obviously do not know how to source check or filter through internet bullshit, like this article) at least make a notable and supported argument about the negative environmental problems associated with roadside spraying. Don’t just tell me some second hand hearsay story. This is nothing more than a story and if any of it is actually true, it only shows that there is power in a large group of loud ignorant people, especially when dealing with elected officials. Managing the vegetation alone roadsides is a necessary evil. Driver sight safety, clear shoulders for safe exit if need, reducing fuel loads that become potential fire hazards, lowering fuel and labor cost that would be needed to mechanically manage the vegetation, reducing the amount of time workers have to spend on the dangerous roadside areas, and reducing the spread of harmful invasive species that cause untold environmental, human health and economic damages are just a few examples illustrating the need safe and well conducted roadside herbicide programs. As for pheasant populations, native pheasant populations are likely taking a hit from many human activities. The larges factor affecting pheasant and other gallinaceous birds is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation caused by human population growth which requires more space and natural resources leading to increased human activity and environmental degradation.

    • Anonymous on August 30th, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      For me it’s not just the obvious fact that it’s a toxic substance being used willy-nilly on our right-of-ways or it’s impact on other plants and animals but also the aesthetics… If you prefer to look at dead brown foliage everywhere then I’d like to spray you with roundup. otherwise give me the weeds.

      • Anonymous on July 11th, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

        A hearty amen to that.

  6. Joel D Elrod on May 23rd, 2017 at 1:17 am #

    What state suffered the decline of pheasants due to roadside spraying of herbicides??? Alaska will start spraying our roadsides soon, our grouse population could be placed at risk because they migrate to road right of ways to gather gravel, plus moose and bears feed on roadside vegetation.

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