Herbicide nightmare in the Gila National Forest

Sunset in the Gila. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)
Sunset in the Gila. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

The Gila National Forest sprawls across 3.3 million acres of rolling grasslands, ancient forests and rushing rivers in western New Mexico. It’s long been one of the Southwest’s most beloved destinations for hiking, camping, fishing and finding refuge.

Now the U.S. Forest Service wants to unleash a flood of toxic chemicals across this sanctuary, serving up a cocktail of 21 dangerous herbicides for use across the forest.

In its latest revised forest management plan, the Forest Service proposes spraying chemicals across the Gila, claiming these are “restoration” tools.

Don’t be fooled. These are poisons that have no place on our public lands.

These chemicals – including dicamba, picloram and aminocyclopyrachlor (ACP) – would devastate the Gila, which is home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species, including 13 threatened or endangered animals.

Dicamba, often sprayed on genetically engineered soybeans and cotton, is known to drift from where it’s applied, leading to more than 5 million acres of damaged crops, trees and backyard gardens over the past few years.

Even when used as instructed, these chemicals pose grave risks to people, wildlife and native plants.

Scientists at the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, have found that increasing use of dicamba poses an escalating threat to more than 60 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat.

Dicamba’s toxic spread is so common that German chemical companies BASF and Bayer were recently ordered to pay $265 million in damages to Missouri peach farmers whose trees were damaged.

Roadside application of ACP in Oregon unintentionally killed more than 2,000 ponderosa pines, including cherished old-growth trees. That led the state to ban most uses of ACP. And DuPont was ordered in a class-action lawsuit to pay landowners when the herbicide kills their trees.

Several chemicals in the Gila’s poisonous plan are highly resistant to breakdown, sometimes taking years to decay.

Due to their persistence, wood chips from poisoned trees and grass clippings cannot be used for compost because the toxins can continue to kill vegetables and flowers.

In response, states have warned consumers and farmers that the hay, feed or compost they’ve purchased may include persistent chemical residues.

Many of the toxic herbicides the Forest Service wants to spray across the Gila haven’t been studied in more than a decade, so the true risk to plants and animals is unknown.

The future for endangered species is worse. The Environmental Protection Agency has ignored the Endangered Species Act’s requirement to study the potential harms from these chemicals to endangered species. So who knows how the imperiled plants, animals and fish that cling to existence in the Gila will fare?

Astonishingly, the Forest Service mentions none of this in its Gila National Forest proposal. Even more galling, the herbicide scheme wasn’t studied separately, but instead slipped into the forest plan’s hulking, three-volume draft environmental impact statement.

Forest plans dictate land management direction for decades. The current plan, from 1986, needs updating to reflect today’s landscape, society’s evolving interests and the latest science. The plan should chart a sustainable course that provides real solutions to the climate and extinction crises.

Instead, the Forest Service wants to spray toxic chemicals, ignore the threats posed to people and wildlife, and flout scientific evidence showing the serious risks of using these pesticides.

The Gila National Forest is not the place to experiment with dangerous chemicals.

From imperiled monarch butterflies to old-growth ponderosa pines to the vegetables at your local farm stand, the risks associated with these pesticides are just too great.

The center has fought for 30 years to protect and restore the Gila’s clean waters, old-growth forests and rare animals like the Mexican gray wolf.

This proposal could upend everything. But the good news is that it’s not a done deal.

Public comments can be submitted to the Forest Service through April 16. People can email the Gila National Forest at SM.FS.gilaplan@usda.gov and tell them to pull this chemical nightmare out of the forest plan.

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