By Sam Lucy
As spring hillsides melt to green, robins sing and water (thankfully for the Okanogan) flows, some awaken their thoughts to fresh earth, sweet-life smells, and growing things. For others, thoughts turn to spraying. Several important issues face Methow Valley residents this spring. Environmental challenges and concerns here have only been compounded by last summer’s wildfires and subsequent late summer storms. One thing remains intact, however, and that is the Okanogan County commissioners’ distaste for those who care about their countryside.
I haven’t a clue why the commissioners hold such an antagonistic view toward the Methow Valley (last I looked we contributed significantly to the county’s tax base) but their latest slight against residents here is the sudden revocation of dozens of no-spray agreements. Furthermore, these folks who received notice of “non-compliance” apparently never again can regain county graces.
This comes as a great disappointment to many — young mothers, beekeepers, gardeners — however, it comes as no surprise. The “war on weeds” is age-old and has always been one of the county’s favorites. Notice the .04-percent of your tax bill each year that goes directly to spraying. Nor is it surprising when we know that Commissioner Kennedy was head of the county Weed Board back in the 1990s, lobbying at a national level for more funding. In fact, when a small group of us here applied for supplemental funding from the EPA to try non-chemical weed control along a mile of the West Chewuch, Ms. Kennedy was appalled. She scolded the EPA. Fifteen years later, this section of road remains weed-free, toxic free, has low-growing grass and is, essentially, maintenance free.
But let me not get in the way of the county contradicting itself. In one statement, the road crew (Department of Public Works) talks of maintaining a 1-foot dead zone next to the pavement, in the next they speak of spraying to control noxious weeds? That’s two different objectives when it concerns individuals trying to comply with county goals.
In yet another, the goal is “to maintain a sterilant zone from the edge of the asphalt to the bottom of the ditch.” In many cases, this would be a much greater distance than the aforementioned 1 foot — whether actual noxious weeds were identified or not.
The fault doesn’t really lie with the Department of Public Works, though, because the chain of command goes this way: County noxious weed boards are under jurisdiction of the state weed boards. The county Weed Board in turn charges the county road department to control noxious weeds within its “right of way” (county roads). The reasons for this vary. Keep in mind there is very little, if any, science involved in this policy.
As a long-time organic crop-producer here (disclaimer!) you may have guessed I’m no fan of herbicides. As with many “conventional” growers, our fields are not always “weed-free” yet seldom do we find noxious weeds in them and, if so, we deal with them immediately, even though they generally come from elsewhere. Such is life. That said, I know and am friendly with a wide variety of crop producers who use chemicals. In most cases they use them judiciously and sparingly. And, unlike the county, often as a last resort.
Several times the Department of Public Works has said that mowing the roadsides is simply too cost-prohibitive — though it is commonly done in other counties both in the state and nationwide. I’d be curious to know just how the county rates the effectiveness of its spray program? Blanket spraying various cocktails of herbicide two or three times a year, year after year, always changing “the mix” because … because the weeds have not been eradicated? Perhaps the county gets subsidized by certain chemical companies? Even so, these costs must quickly add up.
As far as non-compliance, who actually walked the various agreements to determine that pacts were not being kept? Requesting individual reports and how these decisions were arrived at and by whom should give some insight as to these revocations.
The commissioners claim they are becoming “more and more frustrated” with these no-spray agreements. Yet, they are becoming more uncomfortable with the liability for poor spraying practices as the county has been cited several times over the years and is now hiring out more and more of the spraying. At what cost?
It is somewhat serendipitous that the letters of non-compliance come out during “anti-bullying” week in school. Yet the sad fact remains: This vendetta that the county commissioners hold against the Methow Valley is alive and well and these revocations are just one more form of punishment served to those who give a damn. Most anyone might agree it would be unwise to take out your baby stroller, go for a run or bike or walk along any road recently drenched in herbicide. Yet this happens time and again because the government, unlike many crop producers, does not have to post when, what or where they spray, even in areas of obvious high use such as public roads.
Here is potentially useful information if you become concerned about government herbicide use. First, study the noxious weed laws of Washington state as they pertain to specific weeds, mandates and land-ownership. If you suspect a violation (spraying in waterways, in the rain, breeze, on private property) get a picture of the applicator in action if possible, then immediately call the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Give a detailed report including time, place, and environmental conditions. Violations occur often.
WSDA Pesticide Division: (877) 301-4555
Health Department: (800) 633-6828
EPA (Seattle): (800) 424-4372
Most importantly and regardless of county mandates, let’s continue good stewardship of our home place.
Sam Lucy is co-owner of Bluebird Farms near Winthrop.