PORT ANGELES — After years of debate, Clallam County has lifted a 26-year ban on herbicides as one weapon in the fight against noxious weeds on county roadsides.
County commissioners voted 3-0 Tuesday to approve an ordinance that creates an “integrated weed management” chapter in the county code.
The ordinance will be a blueprint for a publicly reviewed, annually updated noxious weed management plan that would allow the limited use of low-toxicity herbicides to control invasive plants that cannot be stopped by mowing, hand pulling, hydroseeding, introducing insects or other control methods.
“The notion that this ordinance will unleash widespread spraying is unfounded,” said Cathy Lucero, county noxious weed coordinator, in a four-hour public hearing Tuesday.
“The approach is targeted, using a variety of handheld tools only.”
State law requires the county to control invasive plants such as tansy ragwort, poison hemlock, butterfly bush, knotweed and scotch broom in its 528-mile-long, 1,050-acre-road right of way.
Unlike most jurisdictions, Clallam County does not permit spot spraying of herbicides on roadsides, having banned the practice in 1990.
“Looking at the fact that we’ve had the same policy for many years and as one looks at the environment, we are not winning the war against noxious weeds,” Commissioner Randy Johnson said.
“We’re working to solve a complex problem in a pragmatic and responsible way,” Board Chairman Mark Ozias added.
“I can guarantee all of you, particularly those who are upset, or who may be upset, that I’m going to be monitoring this program very closely over the next several years.
“And I hope all of you do as well.”
Commissioners have held a series of public hearings on the draft ordinance, the first in May 2015 and the second last Oct. 18, but delayed action to conduct independent research and to digest voluminous public input.
Each of the hearings drew considerable testimony from those on both sides of the herbicide issue.
Seventeen of 30 speakers who testified Tuesday said they supported limited herbicide spraying by trained professionals.
“This isn’t an ordinance to spray herbicide with a tanker truck,” said Bruce Paul, who serves on the county’s Noxious Weed Control Board.
“It’s an ordinance to control noxious weeds that are spreading through our county on our road system and replacing native vegetation. It is time for the county to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Thirteen speakers said they were opposed to any herbicide spraying, mainly for health and environmental reasons.
“No one opposes a ordinance,” said Darlene Schanfald, who has led in the opposition to herbicide spraying.
“No one opposes a plan. That’s not the question here. The question is are we going to use deadly poisons?”
Under the ordinance, those who do not want herbicides to be sprayed near their property can enter into an “owner will control” agreement with the county to take measures to control noxious weeds themselves.
“At the very least, it is the public that should be voting on whether to let the county use toxic chemicals on roadsides and beyond, or invest in a non-toxic weed control plan, making the county a safer place to reside,” Schanfald said.
Schanfald presented a joint letter from the Sierra Club North Olympic Peninsula, Protect the Peninsula’s Future, Olympic Environmental Council and Friends of Miller Peninsula State Park.
The letter alleged that critical public records were deleted by Lucero, that documents had been “moving targets” and that there had been no unbiased assessment of the noxious weed plan.
Like Schanfald, most of those who were opposed to herbicides were supportive of the intent of the ordinance and the county’s broader effort to control noxious weeds.
“To those who have said ‘Well I’m in favor of an integrated plan but without the use of herbicide,’ folks, that’s what we’ve had here in Clallam County, a de facto integrated plan without the use of herbicide for the last 20 however-many years,” Ozias said.
“Unfortunately, the problem is getting exponentially worse.”
Harley Oien was among those who raised concerns about the companies that produce herbicides and other carcinogenic chemicals.
“Do you want to be behind this parade of new chemicals, new and beautiful herbicides, and then suddenly find that you have this liability for having poisoned the wells and the streams and the waters of Clallam County?” Oien asked the board.
Lucero said the draft weed management plan has been reviewed by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ecotoxicologist and 40 other experts from local, state, federal and tribal agencies; environmental groups; and foresters.
“Noxious weeds know no boundaries,” Lucero said in a 40-minute staff presentation.
“State law requires the control of noxious weeds, for good reason, on both public and private property.
“The county has not been able to achieve compliance with the tools they had,” Lucero added.
“This ordinance commits the county to a strategic, comprehensive process to achieve the legal responsibilities and to me, more importantly, the stewardship goals that we have out there.”
The motion to approve the ordinance was made by Commissioner Bill Peach and seconded by Johnson.
“I really appreciate the process and the input,” Peach said.
“This issue has been discussed quite comprehensively.”
Johnson, a longtime forester, said it would be important for the county to plant native vegetation to help control noxious weeds and use herbicides as a “last resort.”
He added that herbicides have been shown to be the only effective means to control certain types of invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed.
Ozias thanked the public for its “incredible participation and engagement with this issue.”
He said he shared the concerns of citizens who testified about reducing chemical footprints, protecting food supplies, protecting chemically sensitive citizens and helping bees and other pollinators.
“I have worked very hard to understand the issue at hand,” Ozias said.
“I’ve had to challenge my own assumptions and work hard to be objective.
“I had no idea, for example, how much herbicide is used in habitat restoration and in our most ecologically sensitive areas.”
County roadsides, Ozias said, are the “most significant contributor” to the spread of noxious weeds.
Ozias said that there had been “a lot of confusion” about the county’s weed management program.
“That’s easy to understand when media articles are accompanied by photos of crop dusters and other items that are not at all relatable to the subject that we’re talking about here,” Ozias said.
Ozias said the ordinance “should reduce our overall chemical footprint.”
He predicted that a limited use of herbicides on county roads would have a “significant positive net benefit in the reduction of the use of chemicals in our most sensitive ecosystems and environments.”
“I can tell you that personally, if we find over the next several years that this is not accomplishing these goals, then I will be a leader in coming up with an alternative, a different idea for whatever changes are going to be necessary in order to solve this problem that we are legally obligated to solve,” Ozias said.
“We’re not legally obligated to use herbicide, but we’re legally obligated to solve this problem.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.