Ending the ‘Silent Spring’ on commercial forest lands

Passage of a bill to ban aerial spraying would be a long overdue step toward managing Maine forests as ecosystems.
forest land clearcut area in Allagash
In timber operations, like this one in Allagash, herbicides are typically applied after clearcutting to kill emergent hardwood species and foster growth of planted forests. Photo by Hilton Hafford.

At a public hearing on a bill to ban aerial spraying of synthetic herbicides in silviculture, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) shared a chilling observation: “If you go to an area that’s been sprayed by these aerial herbicides, the silence will take your breath away. It’s quite striking. There are no birds chirping, no squirrels running around and no trace of wildlife.”

Jackson’s words held eerie echoes of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”: “There was a strange stillness. The birds for example – where had they gone? … On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus … there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

Carson’s 1962 book warned about the dangers of applying pesticides by the planeload at a time when this country had few environmental regulations. Her scientific research helped inspire stronger legislation to protect wildlife and communities.

Yet nearly 60 years later, “the habit of killing grows,” in Carson’s words. Aerial herbicides applied in Maine by forestry corporations increased from 2013 to 2018. Jackson’s bill before the Legislature, LD 125, would end that deadly habit. 

How we treat the natural world, Carson recognized, is an ethical choice: “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself and without losing the right to be called civilized.”

‘Important tool’ or ‘elixir of death’

Some commercial timber operations rely on glyphosate-based herbicides. Known by trade names like Roundup, glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide – applied in forestry, agriculture and landscaping. 

Glyphosate was long thought to be less damaging and dangerous than some biocides that preceded it – like DDT, prominent in “Silent Spring” and banned in the U.S. in 1972. 

But numerous studies now link glyphosate to cancer (particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), fertility issues, liver damage and other health problems. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. A growing number of countries have banned or restricted its use.

Since Carson named biocides “elixirs of death,” decades of scientific data have confirmed that synthetic herbicides contaminate groundwater and surface waters, disrupt ecosystems and endanger wildlife

So why did the Maine Forest Service testify against an aerial herbicide spray ban – despite a state policy aimed at reducing reliance on pesticides?

In testimony before the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, government and corporate representatives recited from the same industry playbook: “herbicides are an important tool for Maine’s large forest landowners” (Maine Forest Service); “(we’re) fighting to keep a very important tool of our industry” (J.D. Irving); an “important, safe and effective tool” (Maine Forest Products Council); “an important tool” (CropLife America, the lobbying arm of pesticide manufacturers); “the most effective tool” (Seven Islands Land Company); “this essential tool” (Katahdin Forest Management); and a needed tool (Bayer Corporation, manufacturer of glyphosate).

Questioned by committee members skeptical of what one called “greenwashing,” by the Maine Forest Service, its director, Patty Cormier, finally made a statement that rang true: “With aerial glyphosate, you’ve got to look at the risks and rewards.”

Indeed. And is the state not morally obligated to assess who bears the risks and who reaps the rewards? 

Who stands to gain from this toxic rain?

In timber operations, herbicides are typically applied after clearcutting to kill emergent hardwood species and foster growth of monoculture conifer plantations or, in industry lingo, “planted forests.” According to the state’s silvicultural activities report, more than 15,000 acres were sprayed in 2018. 

One corporation, J.D. Irving, sprayed more than the other corporate landowners combined (based on data it provided to the Legislature). Irving’s “business model” relies on clearcutting and spraying, Anthony Hourihan, Irving’s director of land development, said in testimony; without spray, 75 percent of seedlings planted in its clearcuts would die. 

Critics question whether spraying would be needed if Irving used other management strategies as other companies do – rather than doing whole-tree clearcuts and planting spruce on lands better suited to hardwood forests. But extracting wood on short rotations from monoculture tracts is paying off for Irving Woodlands, judging from its annual revenues of roughly $29 million

Who stands to lose from this toxic rain?

While the “rewards” of herbicide spraying mostly head north to a private Canadian conglomerate, the risks remain with Maine communities and ecosystems.

“Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond?” Carson wrote. “Who has decided — who has the right to decide — for the countless legions of people who were not consulted …?”

Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Allagash)

For those living near intensively managed forest tracts, that is not a rhetorical question. Remote, rural communities, already struggling due to job losses in the forest industry, face apocalyptic landscapes and fear the effects of spray drift on drinking water, residents’ health, trout streams and soil ecosystems. Clearcut sites remain net emitters of carbon dioxide for 10 to 15 years, rather than storing carbon as a more mature forest would.

“The place we come from, the area we love is being poisoned,” said Jackson, a fifth-generation logger. He has heard from many “honest, good people who don’t like what’s happening,” but won’t speak out for fear of getting fired or being denied access to corporate lands (Irving owns 95 percent of the land base in Allagash, he noted). 

Jackson did not invite any constituents to testify on LD 125, fearing they might be subject to retaliation. “Even when I testify,” he added, “I fluctuate between (anger and) nervousness about what it’s going to mean to people in my area, people I’m close to.” 

Carson understood all too well the blunt-force tactics of industry that Allagash residents fear. She resisted writing what she called the “poison book,” knowing the backlash it would provoke. Before “Silent Spring” came out, one chemical corporation threatened her publisher with a lawsuit, and the industry mobilized 70 critical op-ed pieces. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association spent $250,000 defaming the book and smearing Carson personally.

Jackson also dreaded this confrontation with industry, saying “I don’t pretend to be a crusader.” But over 18 years serving in the Maine Legislature, he has come to realize, “My role is to speak out about things that aren’t right; I’m a voice for people who can’t do that.”

People say “(forest landowners) have all the control, and they do,” Jackson said. “They think we’re disposable.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just committed to advance environmental justice, working harder to ensure that all people – regardless of income or race – are adequately protected by environmental laws and regulations, and are not disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and their health risks. 

Will the state follow suit? Or will the Maine Forest Service and Bureau of Pesticides Control keep acting like the policy arm of industry, disregarding their duty to the state’s people and natural resources?

‘A better way’

As in the 1960s, our country is at a turning point – reckoning with longstanding human and environmental injustices. There’s a growing recognition that we need fundamental change.

“I’m more conscious of wildlife the older I’ve got,” Jackson said. “I don’t think the wildlife and I don’t think the people should be subjected to these chemicals.”

He knows there is “a better way to do forestry than this; we didn’t always use to spray poison on our land to maximize growth.” It takes more time and labor, but there’s no shortage of workers in rural Maine willing to do that work, he noted. 

Transforming forest practices requires changing the power dynamics in Augusta. Carson wrote of “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged …,” and people are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” Yet it is the public, she noted, “being asked to assume the risks.”

The people of Allagash have borne enough risk already. Every Maine legislator and every state agency should stand with them, supporting a ban on aerial spraying of herbicides in silviculture. 

Only by valuing the health of people and place above corporate profits can we keep the songs of spring alive.


Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler is a writer and editor who explores the complex interconnections between ecology and culture. Her "Sea Change" column, launched in 2014, highlights ways to live more sustainably and address our collective environmental and societal challenges, particularly the climate crisis. She holds a Ph.D. in natural resources and an MA in English/creative nonfiction writing (both from the University of New Hampshire), and an interdisciplinary honors BA from Brown University.
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