AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature is considering a bill to ban aerial application of an herbicide used by large forest management companies for decades that has been linked to cancer and environmental damage.
L.D. 125, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, seeks to prohibit aerial application of the plant killer glyphosate and other synthetic herbicides often used in combination with clear-cutting to manage the tree species that grow on industrial forestland.
Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. and is part of the formula for more than 750 products used by homeowners, farmers and foresters and in industrial areas to eliminate unwanted vegetation, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, a cooperative between the Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The herbicide has come under increasing scrutiny since the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified it as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
The chemical is a key ingredient in the popular weed-killing product Roundup, developed by the agricultural giant Monsanto. In June 2020, Monsanto’s German parent company, Bayer, said it would pay $10.9 billion to settle claims the Roundup had caused cancer in some users. The company continues to maintain that Roundup is safe.
Jackson, a logger himself, said using glyphosate and other herbicides in forests has caused irreversible damage to the environment and poses ongoing risks to people’s health and other businesses including organic farms, whose crops can be contaminated when the chemicals are sprayed nearby by helicopters and airplanes.
“If you go to an area that’s been sprayed by these aerial herbicides the silence will take your breath away,” Jackson told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Tuesday. “It’s quite striking, there are no birds chirping, no squirrels running around and no trace of wildlife.”
The measure has gained the support of dozens of environmental advocates and the state’s organic farming community. Others testifying in support of the bill include fishing guides and others who earn their living in Maine’s remote northern forests.
“I’ve seen the effects of the toxic spraying firsthand,” Hilton Hafford, a registered Maine Guide and retired logger from Allagash told the committee during an online public hearing Tuesday. “It’s affecting our rivers, our brooks, our streams, our wildlife, and that habitat for our wildlife. There are no more cold stream waters and the trout are almost nonexistent in places where aerial spraying has taken place.”
Hafford said forest managers are supposed to protect streams and other water bodies with buffer zones where there is no cutting or spraying, but the rules are seldom enforced.
“It’s like having a speed limit with no one to police it,” he said. “At some point we have to ask ourselves, are we going to sacrifice our wildlife and our environment for the bottom line of one industry?”
Jackson’s bill has also gained bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford.
“There are a lot of collateral issues with this product,” Bennett said, rattling off data from several studies. He noted that concern about the chemicals’ impact on farming, wildlife and public health is growing.
Other bill supporters at the hearing included representatives of the Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Opponents included the Maine Forest Service.
Forest service Director Patty Cormier said banning aerial applications could backfire because forest managers would instead turn to ground applications, which may be more detrimental. Cormier said aerial application of herbicides in Maine has dramatically declined in recent years, but herbicide use is important to large landowners facing increasing demand for wood supplies in competitive markets.
“Alternatively landowners may simply give up on intensive silviculture,” Cormier said, “which would reduce forest growth rates and the allowable harvest thereby impacting Maine’s forest industry and the forestry sector economy overall.”
The sector contributes about $8 billion to the state economy and one of every 20 jobs in Maine is tied to the state’s forests, according to the nonprofit Maine Woods Forever.
Rep. Joseph Underwood, R-Presque Isle, a committee member, also opposed the measure, saying state government and the forest industry have worked cooperatively for years to manage the state’s forests. Underwood seemed to dismiss concerns of environmental damage or public health risks.
“Nobody wants to see anybody hurt in any way shape or form,” he said. “Landowners up here want to treat their land with the greatest respect and they do. Allow them, along with the government and private ownership to manage the lands and as long as nobody can come up with a specific reason for why they should change, then leave them alone.”
But bill supporters point to studies that show how synthetic herbicides can harm wildlife, people and the environment.
“As a recognized ‘probable human carcinogen’ glyphosate is bad news for Maine’s environment and the people who live in and visit the north Maine woods,” said Jim Gerritsen, an Aroostook County farmer for 45 years who grows Maine certified seed potatoes with his family. “Fortunately, sound modern forestry doesn’t need herbicides like glyphosate and it’s time to ban this high-risk aerial spraying.”
The bill will be the subject of a work session next week before the committee votes on whether to recommend the bill to the full Legislature later this year.