A pile of cut wood on the side of a northern Maine logging road. Credit: Josh Keefe / AP

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Heather Spalding is deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Plantation-style forest management — with clearcutting followed by herbicide spraying to eliminate competing plants — may yield short-term gains for industry, but it also poses immediate and persistent harm for Maine’s people and ecosystems. Maine must stop poisoning the North Woods and start managing forest ecosystems as if the future mattered.

If forest productivity is the problem, the solution is not to spray more herbicides. Nearly 40 percent of timber harvests in northern Maine have left degraded stands, due to overcutting (cutting more than growth), understocking (not enough trees left behind for full use of growing space) and highgrading (cutting best and leaving the rest).

Scientists recognize that forests play a critical role in fighting climate change. Contrary to forest industry claims, and Gov. Janet Mills’ four-year plan for climate action, clearcut forest land can be a net carbon emitter to the atmosphere for 10 to 15 years. Although chemically treated softwood plantations may temporarily grow more rapidly without competition from hardwoods, decomposing organic matter on the ground and in the soil emits more carbon than it stores. Short rotations lead to a lower average volume of trees per acre (including clearcuts), and thus less stored carbon than longer rotations or partial cuts where cut is less than growth.

A truly scientific approach to using herbicides in forestry is to adopt the precautionary principle and to acknowledge that there may be problems with aerially spraying toxic chemicals over vast forest ecosystems and people. The rational approach is to avoid, reduce and find alternatives to spraying herbicides, rather than assume that herbicides have no problems.

The most commonly used herbicide in plantation-style forestry is glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). In addition to being classified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen, glyphosate is linked to chromosomal damage, fetal development harm, reduced liver and kidney function, and endocrine system disruption. The chemical giant Bayer (which purchased Monsanto in 2018) paid a settlement of $9.2 billion for more than 100,000 injured plaintiffs who asserted they had contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from glyphosate exposure.

Recent studies show that glyphosate also is toxic to amphibians and soil fungi. EPA reported in December 2020 that 93 percent of the plants and animals on the endangered species list and 96 percent of their habitat were directly threatened by glyphosate. Glyphosate now is banned in many countries worldwide.

Chemical alternatives to glyphosate could be just as dangerous if not worse. Fortunately, good forestry doesn’t need herbicides. In 2001, Quebec banned the use of glyphosate in forestry and replaced herbicide use with manual thinning. And while Maine’s largest forest landowners regularly spray vast acreage ( more than 16,000 acres in 2018), most forest landowners in Maine spray infrequently or not at all.

Aerially spraying pesticides can cause off-target drift. Banning aerial spraying of herbicides for forestry is an essential step toward protecting Maine’s organic farmers and others whose livelihood would be ruined were their property contaminated by chemical trespass.

One of the most troubling aspects of aerial herbicide policy in Maine is that a foreign company, J.D. Irving, is the only company that is conducting aerial applications for forestry in Maine, according to recent testimony from Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control Director Megan Patterson. Maine public policy should be determined by Maine people and their legislators, not by foreign industrial-scale landowners and multinational agri-chemical monopolies.

Mills and the Legislature have a perfect opportunity to shift toward more ecologically friendly forestry management practices. Fifth-generation logger and Senate President Troy Jackson’s bill, LD 125 – An Act To Prohibit the Aerial Spraying of Glyphosate and Other Synthetic Herbicides for the Purpose of Silviculture, has bipartisan support and deserves Mills’ support too.

Maine’s elected leaders should embrace LD 125 and encourage forestry management practices that will sustain future generations of Maine working families whose livelihoods depend on a healthy forest ecosystem.