Sonoma Ecology Center

Sonoma Ecology Center embroiled in chemical controversy

By Tara Treasurefield

This is a case where the harm caused by a biological pest far outweighs the potential for harm from glyphosate,” says Mark Newhouser of the Sonoma Ecology Center. Newhouser is talking about a $1 million project he’s coordinating that is designed to eradicate the invasive plant arundo from watersheds in the Bay Area.

Glyphosate is the SEC’s main tool in this effort. Since that’s the active ingredient in Monsanto’s controversial herbicides Roundup and Rodeo, its use by the SEC has some of the organization’s natural allies up in arms. Many environmentalists say the SEC is headed in the wrong direction.

“Glyphosate is no more going to eradicate arundo than any other method,” says Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “A totally different mindset is necessary. There needs to be a community-based approach. All kinds of people who care about their watershed need to get involved.”

Rabyn Blake, cofounder of Santa Monica Mountains Coalition for Alternatives to Toxics, worries that children who play in watersheds may be exposed to the herbicides being used there. She advocates manual removal of arundo.

Been there, done that, says Newhouser. “Originally, we went the strictly mechanical route–smothering, cutting, uprooting–and were beaten,” he says. “The arundo grew back and thrived. Volunteers left frustrated, and we lost a restoration opportunity. After careful consideration and review of the science, we found that glyphosate can be used effectively and without environmental harm.”

There’s no question that arundo is a problem. It outgrows native plants, provides poor habitat for animals, and thrives in streambeds, causing flooding and property damage when it breaks loose in clumps. Arundo is also a fire hazard. It grows to a height of 25 feet to 30 feet, burns when green, and can carry fire into the canopy of mature native trees that are unadapted to fire, including cottonwoods, alder, maple, and willow.

“Then arundo resprouts from its hardy, fire-resistant rhizomes,” Newhouser explains. “Soon, a monoculture of arundo dominates riparian life. Ecological balance is disrupted, and biodiversity is lost.”

And the SEC is far from alone in arguing that using glyphosate is necessary. The organization’s partners in the Arundo Eradication Project include the UC Davis Information Center for the Environment, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Newhouser stresses that eradication is only a small part of what SEC and its partner organizations are doing. “We’re not just out eradicating plants,” he says. “We’re trying to eliminate problems and augment the natural environment by stabilizing banks, planting trees, and educating the public about living in harmony with the environment.

“If used in the proper way, glyphosate is good for the environment,” Newhouser continues. “But there’s so much distrust that people are ready to fight something that could be good for them.”

Blake admits to a great deal of distrust. “Several state agencies are managing an ongoing program within the Santa Monica Mountains to do spraying and painting with Roundup,” she says. “They produce all kinds of studies to show that it is safe. But other studies link glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.”

Robert J. Kremer, a microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and professor of soil science at the University of Missouri, also has reservations. “Glyphosate is systemic,” he says. “It is transported within the plant and is not broken down. It may even be excreted into the soil through the roots.”

If glyphosate is overused, says Kremer, it is potentially detrimental to the health of beneficial plants.

A high level of glyphosate use is possible, since the eradication project also treats other invasive plants, including fennel, Himalayan blackberry, broom, perennial pepperweed, cape ivy, and tamarisk. “If another invasive species is in the vicinity of the arundo, they’ll go ahead and remove it,” Newhouser says. And SEC has submitted a proposal to expand the project to the whole state.

In response, Kremer advises restraint.

“Adverse effects may not be seen for some years after initial applications,” Kremer says. “The best recommendation is to be very cautious with the use of Roundup, because there are biological and ecological impacts other than simply eliminating the undesirable plant species.”

From the January 17-23, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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