Death from the sky in northern B.C.


BY PETER EWART

The images are alarming.  In photo #1 — a wetland with abundant green grasses, broad leaf plants and young trees, an ideal habitat for insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals.  In photo #2 — the same wetland gripped by a grey death after being sprayed from helicopters with the herbicide glyphosate.  Most of the vegetation (except for a few coniferous trees) is now dead and the insects and other animals gone.

Despite its alarming nature, this scene is played out every year over thousands of hectares in the northern Interior of BC with the Prince George and Quesnel regions being ground zero for the bulk of the spraying (Photo #3).

Such were some of the graphic images shown at a packed meeting on the evening of March 28 at UNBC organized by Stop The Spray BC, featuring forestry activists James Steidle and Herb Martin as presenters.  The title of the meeting was “Starving moose, burning forests and contaminated blueberries: a case for broadleaves and a new paradigm in Central British Columbia.”

As the presenters explained, the group is circulating a petition calling upon the B.C. government to stop spraying the province’s forests with herbicide (1).  Currently, between 10,000 and 20,000 hectares of forests are sprayed every year mostly in the Central Interior.  Since 1980, over 1.3 million hectares have either been sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate or manually brushed in the province.

The rationale the government is using to justify this massive spraying is that it promotes the growth of conifers like spruce and pine (which are immune to glyphosate), while killing other broadleaf species like aspen, birch, cottonwood and willow.  Because there is a lack of mills in the region that process broadleaf trees, species like aspen are classified as “weeds” to be eliminated.  This is despite the fact that aspen and other broadleaf woods are very useful materials and are extensively processed in some other jurisdictions.  In addition, broadleaf trees like aspen sequester 45 per cent more carbon than lodgepole pine and 25 per cent more than interior spruce thus helping mitigate global warming.

Nonetheless, timber companies are required by government legislation to eliminate the so-called weed trees in areas they have logged or else face penalties.  A preferred way to accomplish this is to dump herbicide in massive doses on the land base.  Manual, non-spray brushing could potentially create many more seasonal jobs in the forest.  Yet that method is little utilized today.

But, as Steidle and Martin pointed out during the March 28 meeting, there is a serious downside to choosing spraying.  Glyphosate is highly toxic to a wide variety of plant life, including broad leaf trees and shrubs, as well as flowering and fruit bearing plants, like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and Saskatoon berries.  This smorgasbord of vegetation serves as vital food for a wide range of wildlife, from bees and other insects to birds, beaver, moose and deer.  For example, aspen ecosystems provide habitat “for at least 55 species of mammals and 135 species of birds.”  However, after the grey death of spraying, this wildlife either dies from starvation or is forced to relocate.  In addition, the herbicide glyphosate, which is manufactured by the giant chemical corporation Monsanto, is highly toxic to a number of amphibians, insects and invertebrates.

Spraying also changes the bio-diversity of the forest. Coupled with preferred planting practices, it propagates monocultures of trees, especially of lodgepole pine.  This, in turn, creates more favorable conditions for the spread of insect infestations, like the mountain pine beetle, and diseases.  Forestry scientist Suzanne Simard of UBC points out that forests are complex adaptive systems, where all of the species, including those pesky broadleaves, shrubs and herbs … interact and adapt to create a resilient whole system that is greater than the sum of its parts” (2).  Narrowly focusing on growing just one part of the forest system, i.e. pine or other conifers, disrupts the whole system and causes it to be more susceptible to stress, insects and other disturbances than a mixed system of forest.  Indeed, some studies have shown that far from hindering the growth of pine and spruce, broadleaf species play a role in facilitating it.

The summer of 2017 saw major forest fires in British Columbia.  Ironically, one of the natural firebreaks on forest fires can sometimes be the same broadleaf trees that are being eradicated by spraying.  As proof, Steidle and Martin displayed photos of an out-of-control forest fire which stopped when it reached a large grove of green-leaved aspen.  These broadleaf trees are less flammable than conifers because they have higher water content and lower resin.

Contrary to what the Monsanto corporation argues, some sources are claiming that glyphosate can also have a toxic effect on human beings.  For example, the World Health Organization says that the herbicide is “probably carcinogenic” and there have been various reports of people and livestock sickened by the spray.  This does not bode well for Indigenous people and others who gather berries, herbs and other foods from the forest.  In that respect, some jurisdictions, municipalities and countries have already banned glyphosate and others are considering doing so, although the herbicide is still widely used not only in forestry but in the raising of crops, rail side clearing and for other purposes.

As opposition to spraying from foresters, scientists, ranchers, trappers, residents and communities grows in our region and across the province, how long will such an irrational, environmentally-destructive practice continue?

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca

  1. Stop The Spray BC. March 30, 2018.  http://stopthespraybc.com/
  2. Simard, Suzanne. “Free growing: Caught in a modern Kodak moment.” BC Forest Professional.  Sept / Oct 2012.  http://stopthespraybc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/BCFORPRO-2012-5_Full_Issue.pdf