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Yellow star thistle is one of the noxious weeds that has invaded Northeastern Oregon’s canyon country. Mark Porter photo
by Katy Nesbitt/The Observer
Use of herbicides on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest will be limited this field season due to a decision handed down in Portland’s U.S. District Court.
Judge Michael Simon agreed with the League of Wilderness Defenders that the forest’s 2010 treatment plan did not adequately consider the cumulative impacts of herbicides in newly identified treatment areas.
The decision does allow the continued use of herbicides on lands identified in the 1992 and 1994 environmental assessments, including the use of the newly approved herbicides for a total of 10 allowable chemicals.
In addition, eight of the 10 approved herbicides may still be used on approximately 840 additional acres on 150 sites, not mapped under the plan, which includes high priority Early Detection/Rapid Response sites discovered and mapped after the 2008 mapping relied upon in the decision.
It also allows the Forest Service to combat invasive species on lands not identified in the 1992 or 1994 assessments using any means other than herbicides — namely hand pulling.
Wallowa Resources of Enterprise administers contracts for weed control both on and off the forest. Mark Porter, watershed stewardship coordinator, oversees the contracts and said one of his concerns of the 20-year-old assessments is that new species have been introduced in that time.
“Having this cumulative effects analysis is important not just to Northeast Oregon, but the entire Pacific Northwest Region,” Porter said. “In 1992, we didn’t know there was any rush skeleton or meadow hawkweed, two of the nastiest weeds we have. They weren’t here then, so we can’t treat them effectively.”
Porter said these two weeds pose a huge threat.
“They are both perennials and spread their seeds like dandelions,” Porter said. “They are hard to find and hard to kill.”
The Forest Service argued they are now unable to use herbicides on 17,000 infested acres and explained why the prior management policy, which de-emphasized herbicide use, had proven ineffective. The court found that explanation to be reasonable and the plaintiff recognizes the ecological threat posed by aggressive weeds.
The decision said continued restrictions on herbicide use for another year or two, while the Forest Service completes the required cumulative impacts analysis, will not tie the hands of the Forest Service entirely. Those 17,000 acres — as well as any newly identified infestations — may be treated using any and all non-chemical methods. Once the Forest Service has adopted a corrected decision, its range of treatment options may well expand, allowing it to pursue more aggressive treatment of weeds.
Meanwhile, aerial herbicide application is out of reach, too, said Porter.
“In this kind of country, you have to have that kind of tool,” he said. “It’s too expensive and time consuming otherwise.”
Simon halted all weed treatment on the Wallowa-Whitman until the Forest Service re-analyzed their cumulative effects of herbicide uses.
However, Simon disagreed with the plaintiff’s claim that the plan didn’t comply with the local forest management plan or the National Forest Management Act. Neither did he uphold their argument that the agency needs permits to use herbicides on national forests.
The forest wrote the 2010 assessment to align itself with both the national and regional weed treatment plans. The regional forester noted in the Region 6 2005 Record of Decision, the “need for an updated list of herbicides for use in National Forest System lands in Region 6 was one of the primary components for an updated invasive plants management direction.”
The forest adopted a plan that would have treated 22,842 acres of sites infested with invasive species, 0.9 percent of the forest’s land base.
Last summer, the Forest Service argued that the The League of Wilderness Defenders did not “explicitly seek a broad injunction halting all aspects of the project.” On Aug. 10 the injunction was lifted, weed treatment work resumed, but more than 40 days were lost.
This year, three weed control projects directly affected by the decision are funded by Title II of the Secure Rural Schools Act.
A proposal to spray meadow hawkweed in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on Bear Creek, the Minam River and Wing Ridge is being diverted to treatment on Sage and Squaw creeks along the border of the wilderness.
A plan to spray Japanese knotweed along the Snake River at Somers Creek was changed to injecting chemicals by hand into each, individual plant.