From a ridgetop knoll on Bald Hill, in Anderson Valley's “Deep End,” the Rancho Navarro home of Elaine and Mike Kalantarian affords a generous view of the wooded hills to the northeast. They share the home, which they purchased in 1997, with their 12-year-old daughter. In the foreground, a hill spans out above a tributary of the Navarro River's north fork, John Smith Creek. The towering Sanhedrin Mountain rises out of the distant east background, its name given by Missouri-born pioneers who wrote with awe in their journals regarding their encounters with seemingly limitless stands of massive, old-growth redwoods in hills much like this one.
Most people who live today among these ancient forest remnants share a watershed with a large corporation that profits from cutting, milling, and shipping the second and third growth trees. In the Kalantarians' neighborhood, that corporation is the largest of all the region's timber outfits, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC). John Smith Creek meanders through several miles of MRC property, starting near the Comptche-Ukiah Road. It empties into the northernmost portion of the Navarro, just down the hill from the Kalantarians' home.
This past April, a mysterious new feature emerged in the Kalantarians' viewshed. The leaves on a very large swath of trees suddenly turned brown. The trees – hundreds of them – were standing dead. The dead zone stretched out in a band across most of the visible hillside. The bark soon turned an orange tint and the leaves, themselves having turned red, dropped. Within a few months, the trees' now-rotting stems were eerily visible.
Mike Kalantarian phoned MRC. The family had lived at the Rancho Navarro site for 15 years, yet had never seen trees die so quickly.
They received a call back from MRC forest manager Andy Armstrong. Armstrong explained that the company had applied a non-selective broad-spectrum systemic herbicide called Imazapyr via a method called “hack-and-squirt.” The practice involves cutting around the base of the tree, peeling back the bark, and spraying herbicide into the freshly opened gashes.
The trees were all tan oaks, an ancient native of Pacific Northwest forests that most modern timber companies regard as a scourge; the junk tree cuts a figurative chunk out of their profits on land they could plant with more lucrative redwood or Doug fir. Though tan oaks play a valuable long-term ecological role, they compete for water and space in the near-term with these more desirable (read: marketable) trees. Hack-and-squirt is the cheapest method of eliminating them on the scale companies such as MRC (or Hawthorne Timber, or Sierra Pacific Industries, or Weyerhaeuser) operate on: an immensely large scale.
The Kalantarians were taken aback to learn of the herbicide spraying near their backyard, and especially concerned about the potential impact on their daughter and other people's children, who have grown up swimming in the nearby reaches of the Navarro.
“Who gives them the right to poison our environment, just because they own all this land?” Elaine Kalantarian says. “The water washed through and comes to our property and our groundwater. I don't think they have a right to poison it.”
The Kalantarians exchanged e-mails and phone conversations with Armstrong several more times, furnishing links to studies that demonstrate Imazapyr's detrimental health consequences and bringing up with him ways of managing the tan oaks that don't involve poison. It soon became clear the company did not plan to alter its practices in response to their concerns. Even worse, Armstrong noted that MRC plans to carry out additional hacks-and-squirts in the area in the near future. The Kalantarians decided to go public, crafting a letter that appeared last month in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Their letter noted, “How much of this goes on around here? Mendocino Redwood Company owns nearly a quarter million acres: … According to their website, over the past 13 years (1999-2011) they have unleashed 50,352 pounds of this highly concentrated toxin into our environment. That's about two tons per year. To kill tanoak. Which could be used for many other things (firewood, lumber, energy). Because they say they can't afford the alternatives (wouldn't leaving them alone be cheaper?). Someone has determined that poisoning us is most cost-effective.”
Imazapyr & Its Consequences
Cause-and-effect links between cancers and specific poisons are notoriously hard to prove, at least as far as the American juridical system and scientific establishment are concerned. A fraction of the individuals who likely suffered dire health consequences by virtue of living downwind from nuclear weapons testing facilities, for instance, have ever been able to collect claims in court. Questions that are inconvenient to those who hold the scientific purse-strings are largely left unexamined. Occasionally, inconvenient truths are actively suppressed by those with sufficient wealth and power.
Yet, general patterns are not difficult to establish. For example, it is clear that rates of some cancers in Mendocino County are alarmingly high. The California Cancer Registry, a division of the California Department of Health, tracks reports of cancer by county, further breaking them down by gender and ethnicity.
According to the Registry, from 2004-08, people living in Mendocino County reported a higher incidence rate for California's most common cancers by a statistically significant amount. The breast cancer rate in women was 17.5 percent higher than the state average. The lung and bronchus cancers rate among women was 26.2 percent higher than the state average. The cancer rate overall among women is nearly 10 percent higher than the state average.
Meanwhile, the male cancer rate is five percent greater than the state average. Colo and rectum cancers and “Liver & Intrahepatic Bile Duct” cancers are highest relative to the rest of the California male population.
Imazapyr is by far the most heavily used chemical in Mendocino County's merchantable forestlands, which cover most of the county's western half. The chemical works by inhibiting the first enzyme used when plants synthesize branched chain amino acids. Within a few hours after an application, synthesis of DNA (genetic material) and cell division stops. Plant growth stops, first in the roots and then in the above-ground plant. An organism as large as a tan oak tree can take up to a month to die after being sprayed.
Timber industry reps maintain that Imazapyr is the least of all possible evils. Some go so far as to say it is entirely harmless. MRC also defends its practice by noting that it did make a go at using tan oak, rather than poisoning it. Their intention was to sell it to Home Depot. They were unable to generate enough board feet to create a sufficient economy of scale, however, so as to make it profitable. A few years into the effort, MRC abandoned it.
One of the more thorough MRC defenses that exists in the public record are these remarks by company forester John Anderson, recorded during a public meeting in Westport last year:
“MRC has tried several methods including Girdling, Shade Mats, Vinegar, and others, but has not been able to control without use of herbicide. The most successful method, using the least amount of herbicide is the hack and squirt method. MRC stated that less herbicide is used with this method than with foliage or aerial spraying. Imazapyr is the herbicide that is used to control the tanoak. It was also explained that there are buffer zones next to all water. The buffer is determined by type of water. For example a river or stream might have a different buffer than a small pond. The area that the herbicide is used in has to have signs posted when treated, and there has to be training for the applicator. MRC stated that they try to use herbicide only once in the life of a stand (60-80 years).”
Tom Kisliuk, a professional forester based near Fort Bragg, who was called upon to provide technical information about Imazapyr at a public meeting last year, tells the AVA, “I'm not a fan of herbicides, but I am a fan of tan oak control, and [hack-and-squirt] is the only effective method that is known to mankind. So, it's a conundrum.”
Meanwhile, MRC is far from the only company in the area that uses Imazapyr. Hawthorne Timber Company, Mendo's second biggest timber outfit, also widely uses it. Smaller timber operators like Jerry Philbrick of Comptche are loud proponents of it, in some cases.
The Redwood Forest Foundation owns the 66,000-acre Usal Forest on the northwestern coast of Mendocino County. Though the Foundation is not-for-profit, and though its stated purpose is to practice restoration forestry, it also uses Imazapyr.
“One type of herbicide application that uses only a limited amount is called 'hack & squirt,' the RFFI web site explains. The bark is hacked and a small amount of toxic chemicals squirted into the tree, which kills it over time. When the tanoak canopy is gone, redwoods and douglas fir get sunlight and have the chance to grow. “
Opponents of Imazapyr counter that while less of it is being used than its forerunner chemicals that were used to control undesirable trees and vegetation in the same forests, its toxicity is more concentrated. Thus, the appearance that timber companies are using smaller amounts of herbicides is deceptive.
As I noted last week, a number of health concerns have emerged in studies of the herbicide. A Fall 1996 article in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, written by Carol Cox, notes that “Adverse effects found in laboratory animals after chronic exposure to imazapyr include the following: fluid accumulation in the lungs of female mice, kidney cysts in male mice, abnormal blood formation in the spleen of female rats, an increase in the number of brain and thyroid cancers in male rats, and an increase in the number of tumors and cancers of the adrenal gland in female rats.”
Additionally, the herbicide can cause plant damage at levels too low to be detected by standard testing. Those who irrigate food crops or use ground water supplies may thus be impacted by persistent presence of Imazapyr in the environment.
In a 1997 study published by the journal Weed Research, RW McDowell and others found that heavy rainfall causes significant transport of Imazapyr, which binds to sediment particles that prevent it from degrading as quickly. The chemical readily desorbs, meaning it readily disperses downstream when carried by said sediment. Notably, the European Union banned the chemical in 2003.
Els Cooperrider, a Berkeley-trained biologist and former owner of the Ukiah Brewing Company, has been active for many years in opposing the widespread use of toxic chemicals in Mendocino County, having been involved in battles with both Louisiana Pacific and MRC.
“Probably there have been many, many cancers from timber company spraying,” she says. “I've known of many people around here with brain cancers. There have been miscarriages that we're damn sure were related to spraying. I think the health consequences are huge. But nobody, or at least nobody with enough money to invest in such a project, cares enough to really look into it. They don't want anybody to know.”
Cooperrider compares the practice of removing so much tan oaks to continuously removing the scab from a wound. “I visualize a wound on the soil, just like a wound on a knee. The skin grows a scab to cover the wound. The forest does the same thing, covering its own scar with brush and fast growing trees like tan oak, ceanothus, madrone. That holds the soil in place and softens the torrential rains so moisture can be absorbed.”
She adds, “Then these idiotic timber companies come along and remove the scab. And, of course, they remove the scab by spraying and killing it all.”
Herbicide Poisoning in Mendo, Past & Present
The timber industry's dependency on a wide range of agricultural chemicals has long met with intense opposition by Mendocino County residents, many of them people from middle class backgrounds who have chosen to live here because of a perception of the landbase as unspoiled.
In the 1970s, though, the timber industry commonly used Agent Orange -- the chemical the US military famously sprayed to destroy vegetation during the Vietnam War -- to kill brush and hardwood in American forests. The herbicide is associated with a host of health problems, from severe rashes to birth defects. Its harmful effects continue to plague innumerable people throughout Vietnam many years after the war.
Mendo residents put forward an initiative to ban classes of dioxin-containing compounds, including Agent Orange. The measure passed among county voters, then was challenged by the timber industry. The California Supreme Court upheld the initiative.
But the California State Legislature passed a law that gutted pesticide regulation in California and overruled Mendocino County's voters. At the time, a Democratic majority ran the State Legislature. Jerry Brown was the governor.
(Notably, Jerry Brown is again governor. His wife and campaign manager, Anne Gust Brown, was a top lawyer and executive for several years for The Gap, Inc., which is owned by the Fisher family, the owners of Mendocino Redwood Company. The Fishers were among Brown's biggest campaign donors. While that doesn't imply that Brown has intervened on behalf of MRC during his latest tenure in Sacramento, it does symbolize the cozy relationship among ruling elites that inevitably skews legislative proceedings in their favor.)
The timber industry eventually yielded to public pressure and stopped using Agent Orange. The Environmental Protection Agency banned 2,4,5-T, one of the dioxins comprising the herbicide. The timber industry became dependent instead on aerial spraying using an herbicide called Garlon, which is chemically very similar to 2,4,5-T. Louisiana Pacific Corporation sprayed it on a wide scale on many of the lands MRC purchased in the late-'90s.
Els Cooperrider and her husband, Allen, have lived at their home near the Orr Springs resort, near the confluence of Turtle Creek with the South Fork Big River, for more than 40 years. The land is next to three former Louisiana Pacific tracts to which MRC now has title.
Cooperrider notes that MRC officials have portrayed themselves as different from their predecessors, including when the company first bought the land.
“With MRC, we thought we were supposed to get a green deal,” Cooperrider says. “They said they were gonna be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and practice restoration logging.”
Last year, though, MRC put forward a Timber Harvest Plan on its plot contiguous to Cooperrider's home, which centered on widespread Imazapyr use.
The Howard Creek THP
At nearly the same time, residents of the Howard Creek neighborhood north of Westport discovered that MRC planned to spray large amounts of Imazapyr upstream from them. The Westport Municipal Advisory Council, a body that exists under the jurisdiction of the Mendo Board of Supervisors and which lacks any legal authority, organized a public information session and invited representatives of MRC. MRC forester John Anderson, who is based in Fort Bragg, participated in the information session.
A WMAC letter to MRC in advance of the session stated, “The community recognizes it is desirable to restore Type A species. However, there is unanimous concern about using herbicides to accomplish this objective.”
Advisory Council Chairman Thad Van Buren, a Howard Creek resident, further wrote in his personal comments to MRC (thus not while acting in his capacity as chairman, “Please put yourselves in our shoes as you weigh this consequential issue. We appeal to you as members of the community, asking that MRC not put us at risk by using herbicides and an unspecified dust suppression product mentioned in Item 18 of the THP. My family and neighbors rely on water from Howard Creek for domestic drinking water and crop irrigation downstream. We also consider it debatable that the use of such potent chemicals is consistent with the sustainable forestry principles you seem to aspire toward.”
Many other residents took part in the hearing and made heartfelt pleas for the company to reconsider herbicide spraying. Van Buren commends the MRC reps he dealt with for being forthcoming and, within limitations, responsive to locals' concerns.
However, the company ultimately declined to alter any fundamental aspects of its plan. MRC officials agreed to monitor run-off in the stream in the peak storm event. They agreed to apply it only in the middle of summer, when it has a longer time to biodegrade prior to run-off during the rainy season. They agreed not to apply it within a certain distance of tributaries. Yet, they still used nearly as much Imazapyr as it would have otherwise.
Among those who attended the Westport public session were Els Cooperrider and Terry D'Selke, who lives in the same neighborhood as Cooperrider off Orr Springs Road. They had just begun the process of organizing their neighborhood to oppose MRC's plans to use Imazapyr. They took the opportunity to invite the MRC officials to come meet with residents in their community a short while later.
Nearly the entire neighborhood, which consists of 40-50 houses, attended the meeting. The spraying was to take place on tracts ranging from 160 to 589 acres. Unlike in the case of Westport, MRC backed down on their planned spraying near Orr Creek.
Instead, they announced they were withdrawing from the project and, moreover, putting these parcels up for auction. It remains up for auction, with the information on it available at http://tinyurl.com/c7n7zo6 . “The page ominously notes, “Auction Property #141, the 389± acre Dark Gulch Tract, located near the Montgomery Woods State Reserve and South Fork Big River, has an approved Timber Harvest Plan that covers the majority of this tract.”