TALKEETNA, AK - In the summer of 1992, the Alaska Railroad Corporation finally bowed to a protracted citizens' campaign against herbicides, agreeing to end its use of chemical herbicides to clear its tracks. In the wake of this victory, however, the giant corporation Monsanto introduced a new chemical threat to the Alaskan environment, securing the support of a Native corporation in a plan to aerially spray large tracts of the Native corporation's land with the herbicide glyphosate. The release of this toxic chemical presents a new danger to Alaska's pristine forests and is another indication that the pesticide industry's campaign to market its wares is moving north.
Pawn in the pesticide wars
For the past two decades, while the rest of the United States has been embroiled in pesticide wars, Alaska has seen only skirmishes. In 1978, Jay Hammond, then-governor of Alaska, issued a directive which banned the use of herbicides by state agencies. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) immediately halted its roadside spraying. Even the U.S. Forest Service took its cue from the state and veered away from most pesticide use on the Tongass and Chugach National Forest lands. The Alaska Railroad (ARR), then a federal entity, was the only governmental agency to continue heavy herbicide use.
Since the 1950s, the Alaska Railroad has been chemical-dependent. In the 1970s, the ARR solved its vegetation management problem by treatment with surplus drums of Agent Orange (2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) leftover from the Vietnam War, as well as Bromacil, Amitrole and Picloram. Hammond's 1978 order expressed a need for more information on herbicides before they could be used in Alaska, and the 500-mile-long railroad right-of- way became a de facto ground for experimentation.
Bill Burgoyne, pesticide use specialist for the Alaska Department of Conservation (DEC), conducted his own experiments with 2,4-D and Tordon on the railroad from 1978 to 1980. In 1979, Du Pont Biochemicals tried to gain a foothold in the market by testing a new formulation of the herbicide Bromacil on Railroad lands. But it was Dow Chemical USA that made the winning connection. In 1981, Dow's industrial specialist, Jerry Beachell, wrote a letter praising Burgoyne's research, and speculating about the herbicide ban, suggesting that perhaps it was just that Governor Hammond's "emotions at that time were directed at the phenoxy herbicides [Agent Orange]."
Thereafter a cozy relationship developed between Dow, the Railroad and the DEC. Dow offered ARR free chemicals for experimentation, as well as advice and encouragement. The Railroad accepted both and Beachell sent his thanks, writing, "[I]t's cooperators like you that make chemical companies like ours survive this increasing age of environmental concerns."
ARR was a willing cooperator with Dow, but it was DEC's Bill Burgoyne who functioned as a virtual representative of the chemical company. When Dow learned that jurisdiction over ARR was to be transferred to the state - and so come under the governor's ban - Beachell appealed to Burgoyne: "Perhaps some more extensive spraying could be done on the railroad next year before the state assumes control to establish some efficacy and disappearance bases [measuring how long chemical residue remains detectable in soil] for future reference on state property. Hopefully sometime the total ban on herbicides can be lifted."
Burgoyne subsequently arranged with the Railroad for more extensive cold climate studies of Garlon, Dow's replacement for the phenoxy 2,4,5-T. He contacted the Alaska Department of Transportation and the U.S. Forest Service to ask if they too would be interested in Dow's offer of free chemicals. When a resident of the railbelt sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in Washington, D.C. for information on its pesticide use, Burgoyne sent his own letter to the FRA urging that the request be denied.
Despite the powerful alliance - the DEC, the ARR and Dow - against them, the people who lived along the tracks fought hard against the spraying. In rural Chase of southcentral Alaska, where there are no roads and the only means of travel is along the railroad tracks, the residents had been reporting oversprayed streams to DEC and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for nearly a decade with no tangible results. In 1982, local citizens met with Railroad officials and convinced them to flag "sensitive areas" adjacent to streams, gardens, cabins and flagstops as non-spray zones. During the regular spray run that year, the flagged areas were skipped as agreed. But two days later, the spray truck returned.
"I saw it go through at about midnight," says Chuck Blaney, whose cabin stands 100 feet from the tracks at Chase. Over the next few days, as Railroad officials denied that they had sprayed, Blaney and other trackside residents watched the plants along the tracks turn brown and die.
"They just turned the nozzle on in Talkeetna and didn't turn it off for the next 30 miles," says Paul Bratton, a Chase resident and founding member of the grassroots group Alaska Survival. "Creeks, sloughs, flagstops. Everything was sprayed."
Within the month, Alaska Survival, represented by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, filed suit in federal court to stop herbicide spraying on the Alaska Railroad. While the suit was under review, Federal Judge James van der Heydt allowed ARR to continue spraying. In August, ARR sprayer Eric Lind was fired after objecting to spraying in rain - a practice which violated provisions of ARR's pesticide-use permit - near the town of Whittier. It was not until the following year, 1983, while ARR was again being investigated for overspraying creeks, that the court prohibited ARR from herbicide use until it had complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by preparing an environmental impact statement. But before any environmental document was produced, control over ARR was transferred to the state. For the next six years, it sought to buck Hammond's ban. The Railroad made annual attempts to reinstate herbicide spraying, failing each time due to unflagging public opposition.
Suddenly, in the spring of 1992, ARR seemed to turn over a green leaf. The agency's new chief engineer, Tom Brooks, declared that the Alaska Railroad was "sensitive to the public's concerns about herbicides," and, in a precedent-setting move, ARR became the only major railroad in the United States to adopt a non-herbicide vegetation control program. Convicts are employed to clear weeds from the ballast, and rail equipment is used to cut vegetation in the rights-of-way along the sides. Canadian Pacific Rail's steam machine, which is still in the prototype stage, potentially offers another chemical alternative on which ARR has set its sights.
The grassroots anti-chemical movement remains powerful in Alaska, but the pesticide industries have not retreated. Like good generals they have merely altered their avenues of approach, searching for a new way to circumvent the public will. And this past summer, Monsanto came forward to lead the way.
"It seems like every time we face another pesticide threat, we find a corporate schemer," says Bratton. "The pesticide companies like Monsanto are not just trying to sell a product, they're manipulating the public process and trying to subvert the will of the people."
In late winter of 1992, Monsanto applied to the DEC for a permit to spray the herbicide glyphosate on 150 acres in the Windy Bay area of the Kenai Peninsula. Windy Bay is private land owned by the Port Graham Corporation, one of the many Native corporations set up by the 1971 federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Because the project involved aerial spraying, a DEC permit was required and the public was informed of Monsanto's plans.
During the public hearings, it became apparent that Monsanto's project was an extension of herbicide experimentation that has been taking place at Windy Bay over the past five years, and more recently near Fairbanks on the Tanana State Forest; neither project had provided public notice or opportunity for public comment, as required by NEPA. Both projects were funded by the federal government through State and Private Forestry - a branch of the U.S. Forest Service - and the Institute of Northern Forestry. And both projects were directed by herbicide researcher and strident chemical industry defender Dr. Michael Newton of Oregon State University.
Newton has long been known as a defender of the chemical industry and an advocate of herbicides, including Agent Orange. In a research paper, he wrote, "Chemicals ... are the only approach now known capable of dealing with the scale of currently non- stocked cutover land [in Alaska]." Speaking to a group of about 30 Alaska state and federal foresters, Newton revealed his vision for Alaska's future in forestry. He said, "Thirty-five years ago, the Lower 48 was in the same place we are now in Alaska. Here we can accelerate the process."
Monsanto was one of the chemical companies whose products were used in Newton's experiments, and it was eager to accelerate the process. With the help of Newton, Monsanto representative Ron Crockett convinced the Port Graham Corporation's board of directors that herbicides were the solution to the problem of reforesting recently clearcut coastal forests. And when Monsanto offered free chemicals, free advisory help and free services of a spray plane to try out glyphosate at Windy Bay, the board accepted.
"What Monsanto is offering the people of Port Graham is a modern-day smallpox blanket," says Bratton. "Warm fuzzy reassurances that herbicide spraying will solve the problems created by clearcutting, but ... [we have] seen what's happened outside of Alaska. It just adds the problem of toxic contamination on top of the problem of a devastated forest."
Native corporations own approximately four million acres of lands in Alaska. ANCSA stipulates that the corporations use these lands to provide economic security for indigenous people. In seeking ways to make money off the land, the Port Graham Corporation, along with a number of other Native corporations, has been logging the forests, although the difficulty of reforesting coastal forests after clearcutting has somewhat discouraged that effort. Brush and weeds that grow in the clearcut areas hinder the growth of seedlings. But industry promises of success with herbicides makes massive clearcutting of Alaska's coastal and taiga forests more likely.
Crockett says that controlling competing vegetation with glyphosate cuts the growing time of trees in forest stands by up to 25 years, and thus benefits Native corporations which rely on timber.
In approaching Native corporations, Monsanto found unaccountable and potentially huge buyers of its herbicides. Native corporations are run by boards of directors, often with little involvement from the indigenous communities they represent. A comfortable business relationship, hidden from public view, developed between Monsanto and the board until Alaska's permitting requirement for aerial spraying operations brought the Windy Bay project to light in Port Graham.
Many Port Graham villagers opposed the spraying. And even the board of directors objected when Monsanto's Crockett tried to persuade the DEC to allow spraying within 180 feet of water, instead of the previously stipulated one-half mile set- back. Crockett told the Monitor that his recommended buffer zone was derived by doubling the most stringent set-back requirements ever implemented in Canada or the continental United States. Kit Ballantine, acting director of DEC's Division of Environmental Health, initially refused Crockett's appeal. "We don't think we should modify the set-back as long as the corporation objects," she said.
But Crockett persisted. In a letter to the DEC, he wrote, "It has been my hope through the permitting process that decisions ultimately would be made on a technically sound basis. I am uncertain that all of the stipulations would measure up to that standard." Ultimately, Monsanto largely succeeded. DEC changed the set-back from one half-mile to 400 feet. According to Crockett, the Port Graham Corporation "felt comfortable with" the 400-foot buffer zone. Monsanto and Port Graham proceeded with the project.
The DEC failed to inform the public that it had granted the permit for more than two weeks after doing so; DEC paralegal assistant Billi Wilson blames the delay on "lack of secretarial help." Alaska Survival, along with other environmentalists, commercial fishers and charter boat operators, filed for an adjudicatory hearing and stay immediately upon learning of the permit approval. But before DEC could act on the appeal, Monsanto sprayed.
Rejecting the quick fix
Fifteen years and three administrations after Governor Hammond's ban on herbicides, Alaska is once again in jeopardy of falling victim to the quick-fix promises of the chemical industry. This time around, there is no elected official willing to take the lead in protecting the integrity of Alaska. But the grassroots defenders of this pristine country are ready and determined.
In October 1992, a demonstration against herbicides was held outside an Alaska Reforestation Council's workshop where Michael Newton was the featured speaker. That same month, statewide conservation groups came together at a Herbicide Summit to seek ways of dealing with the impending threat of herbicides to the Alaskan environment.
And in 1992, environmentalists formed a new group, Alaskans for a Herbicide Free Environment, with one goal in mind - to ban herbicide use on public state lands. The group has sponsored a ballot initiative that would do just that. Says Cindy Sykes, a member of the Green Party of Alaska and one of the primary sponsors of the initiative, "If [the initiative] works, great. If not, we'll try something else. Alaskans don't give up easily."