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Majestic Forests in Oregon at Risk from Timber Industry and Chemical Spraying

September 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With 30 million acres of forestland, Oregon has a lucrative timber industry that makes $13 billion each year. But some residents are worried about health and environmental risks posed by a common practice to increase tree growth: chemical spraying. Correspondent Ingrid Lobet reports for the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We head out West now to rural Oregon, known for its forests and as a place where the timber industry is a major player in the economy. But there is growing concern from some residents about chemical spraying practices.

The story comes from our partners at the Center for Investigative Reporting, who produced this story.

The correspondent is Ingrid Lobet.

INGRID LOBET, Center for Investigative Reporting: Western Oregon’s beautiful forests and fish-filled streams are known as a paradise for nature lovers, but this is also one of the finest timber-growing regions in the world.

With 30 million acres of forestland, Oregon’s timber industry generates $13 billion in sales each year. But in Triangle Lake, some residents worry that timber industry practices are exposing people to harm.

ERON KING, Oregon: I want to see one of those again right here.

INGRID LOBET: Eron King and her family moved here six years ago. They bought a one-acre farm, wanting to raise their kids close to the land.

ERON KING: When we found this place and were able to move in to this place, we thought we had found it. This is it. This is where we are going to be the rest of our lives.

INGRID LOBET: King knew she was moving into a timber area, but there was something she didn’t realize.

ERON KING: I knew that clear-cutting happened, but I didn’t know that the helicopter spray happened.

INGRID LOBET: This video, shot by King, shows the typical industry practice. After a clear cut, helicopters spray a potent mixture of herbicides to kill everything except fir seedlings.

By eliminating plants that compete for sun and water, timber companies can grow the trees faster and harvest more frequently.

Residents like King complain they are repeatedly exposed to potentially harmful chemicals through the air and, possibly, the water.

ERON KING: From up here on top of the ridge, what you can see is the big picture, really. They are spraying with helicopters all these ridgetops. And so everything they are spraying up top eventually gets down to all of these residents.

INGRID LOBET: Concerned, King says she tried to find out what exactly was being sprayed.

ERON KING: They give you a really long laundry list of what they could spray that day, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what they are going to spray.

And just knowing when they are going to spray would be incredibly helpful. That way, I could vacate my land completely, although I don’t feel I should have to. But I would love to get my kids out of here.

INGRID LOBET: Instead, Oregon’s Department of Forestry sends out notifications like this one, giving a possible 12-month window for spraying and a long list of herbicides that could be used.

There are a dozen different herbicides commonly sprayed on forests in Oregon, including suspected hormone disrupters like 2,4-D and atrazine.

This Oregon Department of Forestry map shows the extent of privately owned timberland where herbicides are routinely sprayed by companies like Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources and Seneca Jones.

Stu Turner is an expert on pesticide accidents. He’s told Triangle Lake residents the spraying being done in Oregon is risky.

STU TURNER, pesticide accident expert: Now, you can see this is a clear cut right here, where you can see the snow.

If you look very closely here in the photo, you can actually see a spraying helicopter. You can see one of the two rotors, and you see the stream of spray that is falling behind the aircraft.

You can see the ground is frozen; it’s got snow on it. They’re putting pesticides on snow. When that snow melts, it’s going to go off in runoff.

INGRID LOBET: Turner also says that in Oregon’s mountainous terrain, helicopters spray herbicides from much higher elevations than in crop agriculture, and that means the chemicals are more likely to drift down to where people live.

STU TURNER: They are playing with the most potent of our tools; they’re playing with them at the very highest rates allowable for any application, and under worst-case scenario for product leaving the field.

INGRID LOBET: The timber companies declined our repeated invitations for interviews. They referred us instead to a trade group, Oregonians for Food and Shelter, where Terry Witt represented the industry for 25 years.

TERRY WITT, Oregonians for Food and Shelter: Forest application of herbicides is done in accordance with the label, in accordance with all state laws, and so we believe that it does not represent an unreasonable harm.

INGRID LOBET: Delivering the herbicides via helicopter, Witt says, is by far the best method.

TERRY WITT: It’s a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides, according to the label. In many cases, the terrain is such that it becomes very impractical to — and very dangerous to send people on foot into areas to do spraying.

INGRID LOBET: Witt says he hasn’t heard of any cases of wide-scale herbicide contamination from the forest industry.

Of course, none of this is an issue on federal land, where nearly all spraying has been banned in Oregon since the 1980s, when residents successfully challenged the use of herbicides, including Agent Orange.

Jim Furnish, a former Forest Service deputy chief, says his agency discovered that hand-cutting unwanted brush was just as effective.

JIM FURNISH, former deputy chief, U.S. Forest Service: Suddenly, then herbicides were no longer essential or necessary. It may be preferable economically, but you have to bear in mind that this Douglas fir timber is worth a lot of money.

So you can afford to do other more costly methods, provided that they are still effective, and turn a handsome profit.

INGRID LOBET: But in Triangle Lake, opposition to the spraying has been growing. Fed up with what they viewed as chemical trespass on their private property, residents banded together, complained to the state and finally contacted Dr. Dana Barr, a national expert in pesticide exposures at Emory University.

DANA BARR, Emory University: It seemed like a significant enough situation that it should have at least garnered some attention and should have been evaluated.

INGRID LOBET: Barr tested the urine of 41 residents.

DANA BARR: I found breakdown products of the herbicides 2,4-D and atrazine in all of the urine samples that we tested.

INGRID LOBET: These herbicides don’t stay in the body, so that meant people had been exposed recently.

DANA BARR: It was not what I’m used to seeing, that we — we don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples. But it was surprising to find them in all of the samples tested.

STU TURNER: When Dr. Barr’s sort of results came back, I was stunned. Some of these subjects were children that just have never been exposed. They live in the country. And they live on a basically organic franchise, on this little farm. So the only real source has to be the forestry.

INGRID LOBET: Dana Barr’s findings also caught the attention of Oregon’s Health Authority. It launched a two-year study, with help from the Centers for Disease Control. The first round of testing also found the herbicide 2,4-D in residents’ urine.

Herbicides are designed to work on plants, but a growing body of research suggests some may have profound effects on humans.

Suzanne Fenton works for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

SUZANNE FENTON, National Institute of Environmental Health Science: Herbicides are understudied. There’s not a lot of funding for it.

But even worse than that is the fact that early life exposures to herbicides are really understudied. We know that many herbicides are endocrine disrupters.

INGRID LOBET: Endocrine disrupters act like hormones, but they relay the wrong signals to and from the brain and reproductive system.

Fenton has found that mice whose mothers were exposed to atrazine for just three days while pregnant experienced changes that lasted throughout their lives. Atrazine is heavily used in Oregon forestry.

SUZANNE FENTON: It can affect pubertal timing, so it can affect breast development during the period of puberty.

It can then also — if it persists, if the effect persists, it can affect lactation. So it can affect the ability of the mom to provide nutrients to her offspring.

INGRID LOBET: Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine, says on its website that it stands firmly behind the safety of atrazine and that there are no known human effects from the recommended use of this herbicide.

Under the heightened scrutiny, timber companies quietly decided not to spray atrazine and 2,4-D near populated areas this spring. But that meant the state said it couldn’t test for those chemicals either.

At a meeting held with area residents where those announcements were made, the state health department promised the study would resume in 2013.

JAE DOUGLAS, Oregon Health Authority: This investigation is ongoing. We are going to stay here. We are going to stay here. We are committed to this investigation.

INGRID LOBET: The industry says it welcomes the state’s investigation into its practices.

TERRY WITT: And if there’s data that shows that the practices need to be altered, the industry is more than willing to look at what recommendations could be employed.

INGRID LOBET: The only change many concerned residents will accept is for the governor to call a halt to spraying on company-owned forestland, or at least they say, keep it away from where people live.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find a link to the original story from the Center for Investigative Reporting on the Rundown.