Senate President Troy Jackson has sponsored legislation to ban aerial spraying in forestry. Credit: Josh Keefe / BDN

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Frank Leavitt is a licensed master pesticide applicator in Maine.

For the better part of the last 25 years I have been working with foresters and others for whom the land is sacred, providing the best care possible to protect the tree landscape for which Maine is known. That includes, but is not limited to, aerial spraying of herbicides to help protect weeds from decimating our trees.

When people hear the words ” aerial spraying,” they typically have a negative reaction without taking the time to understand it.

So let me try and explain it.

Many of us have vegetable gardens in our backyards. Home gardeners take great pride in their yields but it takes a lot of work to make those tomato plants, beans, potatoes, carrots and more come to maturity. Sometimes we end up using weed control to stop them from strangling your produce.

The same logic applies to forestry. Foresters plant trees but without weed control, our spruce and fir trees would get choked, out-competed for nutrients, water and sunlight. It’s not good for business obviously, but it’s also not good for native species. In addition, if the forester can’t grow the trees he or she will end up having to sell the land, running the risk of development. We should all agree that the more land we protect, the better, especially when it comes to carbon sequestration.

It’s important to understand how targeted and precise we are, from start to finish, so that drift is not a factor.

First, the forester lays out the block of land to be planted. Foresters don’t plant or harvest trees near any waterways. Using GPS technology, we then map the site and also use aerial photography. All the GPS data is loaded into a navigation system aboard the helicopter, which provides the pilot with real time referencing. This isn’t required by the state, but it’s good protocol.

There’s also weather monitoring taking place on the ground every 15 minutes during application of the treatment. We are constantly taking in data about wind speed and direction. Maine’s regulatory standards prohibit us from spraying if wind speed is 15 miles per hour or above. But we go further. Anytime the wind gets above 8 to 10 miles per hour, we shut it down. Also, while the state does not require it, we use large droplet technology, which ensures the product lands where it should.

Just like with your home vegetable garden, herbicides aren’t the only tool foresters use to produce healthy trees, but they are a necessary tool. Foresters implement something called Integrated Pest Management. It’s a comprehensive land management practice that involves both modern farming practices as well as regenerative ones and is widely considered best practice across the country.

Unfortunately, a bill pending in the Legislature seeks to ban aerial spraying. Aside from being detrimental to the stewardship of our land, it’s also unnecessary.

Two years ago, the Maine Board of Pesticides Control and the forest products industry conducted an independent assessment of industrial forest management companies that were engaged in aerial application of herbicides on forested land. Their report found that the state’s regulatory framework for aerial spraying was functioning as it was designed to, concluding, “we observed a consistent and genuine effort on the part of forest managers and pesticide applicators/suppliers to minimize reliance on and use of herbicides, principally through thorough planning and integrated pest management.”

Pesticides and herbicides go through a rigorous approval process by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Board of Pesticide Control also review these products, and conditions of use, before allowing their use. All these entities use science and data to make their decisions. And that’s how it should be.

Several years ago I was conducting an aerial herbicide application when three women walking on the logging road confronted me. They had several questions about what I was doing, why, and how. When I explained the details of the operation, they left satisfied.

It’s my hope that lawmakers will listen to our voices and the science that determines uses, and vote no on this bill.