The U.S. Forest Service is fighting off invasive weeds in the Petersburg and Wrangell areas with a large-scale management program launching next month. The agency will use a combination of mechanical methods and hand-pulling, and for the first time in Petersburg, it’s also planning to use chemical herbicides. As Robbie Feinberg reports, that’s left some residents worried about the health of the land.

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The weed management program is the first large-scale plan of its kind in the Petersburg and Wrangell areas. The whole process will take up to ten years to complete, with an aim to remove weeds such as canary grass, hawkweed and bull thistle from up to 200 acres of land each year.

Most of those weeds get here through visitors –on the shoe of a tourist or on the tire of a car from out-of-state. But even with those new species coming in, the problem has yet to really get out of hand in Alaska.

“Compared to down south, it’s super tiny,” said Carey Case, the Forest Service’s team leader for the project. She says that while 200 acres of land a year may sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to states in the lower 48. “There’s places in Oregon and Washington where the amount of treatment that they’re looking at is 15, 20, 40,000 acres a year. And that’s not treating everything. So this is pretty small. We’ve been averaging about eighty acres of treatment a year.”

In the past, the Forest Service has treated that land through smaller projects, with most only covering a limited area. But this is the first time the agency is fighting the problem in a comprehensive way. To take on that amount of removal, the team is pursuing a strategy of combining hand-pulling, hand tools and herbicides to remove invasive species in the area. Case said one of the biggest reasons her team chose that combined strategy was for both effectiveness and flexibility. She says that what it takes to kill one weed may not be the same for all of them. “So there’s a lot of individual scenarios that go along, as well as what each invasive species actually responds to. Some respond best to mechanical treaments. Some respond best to hand-pulling. And some respond, basically only, to herbicides.”

But those herbicides, which can contain potentially toxic chemicals, have become something of a controversial topic in Petersburg. The issue has grown recent months after the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation made it OK for the state to use herbicides on state land without a permit.
In response, the borough assembly initially looked at adding a law banning herbicides and pesticides in the borough but instead decided to send a letter condemning the ruling to DOT Commissioner Patrick Kemp.
In the letter, Mayor Mark Jensen wrote, quote, “Many of our residents gather berries, fiddlehead ferns, and other traditional foods along roadways in our area. If herbicides and pesticides are applied, there is simply no way to protect against contamination.” Other Southeast communities like Skagway and Haines have sent similar letters over the past few months.

But the Forest Service’s spraying program is different from what the D.O.T. could do. First, it will only use herbicides in small, targeted areas – not in large amounts near airports and highways. And as a federal entity, the agency is still required to obtain a state permit for spraying. Case said that’s in addition to all sorts of reviews from within the agency, too.

“On the Forest Service end of things, anytime we propose to use herbicides, the regional forester has to sign off on it, and before she signs off on it, there’s a pesticide use coordinator for the Forest Service at the regional level who would have to approve any plans or would have us apply any plans. So there’s probably a five-step process in the Forest Service before we can use herbicides,” Case said.

With so many reviews to deal with, the agency will start the mechanical part of the program in September but will probably have to wait until 2014 before it starts using herbicides.

Even with those safeguards in place, though, many are still concerned about the risk of contamination across the region. Pamela Miller is the executive director of the organization Alaska Community Action on Toxins, and she said herbicides are unsafe to use, no matter what. “Many of them, even the chemical known as Roundup, which is associated with birth defects and certain types of cancers called non-Hodgkins lymphoma. So these are chemicals that shouldn’t be used in sensitive places that are not only important fish and wildlife habitat but are used for picking greens and berries and other subsistence activities. It’s just not a wise move.”

Miller added that while herbicides may be cheaper now, invasive species could develop resistance to those chemicals in the future. That could lead to even more chemicals and the need for stronger herbicides. “And in the long run, it makes a lot more sense to employ people in the forest to remove them manually, people who know the forest who can get out there and remove them. And it takes care of the problem without poisoning the environment and people as well.”

The Forest Service’s Case acknowledged that everyone won’t be happy with the plan. But she said that her team is being as careful as possible when it comes to deciding how and where to spray. In particular, they’re paying close attention to potential drift– that’s when herbicides sprayed into the air in one area are blown into other places, like watersheds with fish. To combat that, Case said her team is using aquatically approved herbicides as well as spraying far away from rivers and streams whenever possible.
“The herbicide methods we’re proposing would be selected to the individual plant, where you either paint the herbicide on, you directly inject the stem with herbicide, or you spot spray right at the base of the plant. So it wouldn’t be a boom truck with herbicides being sprayed throughout. It’d be somebody with a backpack sprayer that’s licensed that would treat each individual plant,” she said.

The comment period for the program has already passed, but members of the public who did comment can still appeal the herbicides until the middle of September.