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How I Changed My Mind About Herbicides

by | April 4, 2022

I started a new job as an invasives species specialist with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District in the spring of 2021. First impressions? Fast learning, bunches of online meetings and workshops, and opportunities for certifications and in-person training. Best of all, a ton of cool fieldwork.

Two fiedworkers wearing waterproof waders and standing, ankle deep, in a stream, examine dense stands of dried grass growing along the creek. Two small inflatable rafts float nearby the workers.
On-the-ground surveys not only allow us to monitor the progress of our invasive plant eradication efforts but also help us find and respond to new infestations early on. Once reed canarygrass takes root, it can be very difficult if not impossible to get rid of. Photo credit: Katherine Schake

Right away I realized I had landed in a highly cooperative venture. We work closely with many different folks, including state and federal agencies, non-profits, and tribal entities: the US Forest Service, Kenai Watershed Forum, US Fish and Wildlife Service, City of Homer, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Homer Electric Association, Homer Demonstration Forest, Seldovia Village Tribe, the State of Alaska, and more.

If you found that a mouthful, don’t worry. So did I. But amidst the alphabet soup of names, I found a community of passionate professionals working together to keep the wilds of Alaska pristine and unhindered by invasive species.

A group of workers dressed in safety gear pose for the camera
KP-CISMA partners come together each spring for training, including plant identification and herbicide safety. Certified pesticide applicators undergo regular training to maintain their certification through the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. KP-CISMA photo.

When it comes to the cool fieldwork, you might not be surprised to hear that working with invasive plants involves herbicides. Going into this job, I had some skepticism about using herbicides. But they’re one of the many tools laid out in our integrated pest management strategy, and I knew that. As I learned more about safe handling, proper mixing, and judicious application of herbicide, though, my aversion evolved. I developed an understanding of the utility of these products – there are times when other strategies (e.g., pulling, digging, smothering) just don’t work.

In fact, in some cases, yanking on plants can be more harmful than helpful. With orange hawkweed, for example, if you pull the flowers or break off the plants, it encourages the plant to spread. Experts have found chemical control – herbicide – the most effective method for eradicating this pretty but highly invasive plant.

Orange flowers surround a single fuzzy, white flower seed head
Manual or mechanical techniques like pulling, mowing, and digging can encourage the growth of some plants. For orange hawkweed, properly applied herbicides are the most effective tool because they kill the roots. Photo credit: Michael Shephard, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

I also learned that the herbicides we use to treat invasive plants carry the EPA’s lowest category signal word: “Caution”. Compare that to the much stronger “Danger” that accompanies the chlorine bleach some of us might add to our laundry, or the chlorine often used to purify drinking water. The gasoline I routinely pump into my vehicle (and occasionally spill while filling the lawnmower or snowblower) is more hazardous than the herbicides I use at work.

It became clear to me that the many benefits of ridding native ecosystems of harmful invasive plants outweigh the minimal risk involved with herbicide use. And, while herbicides aren’t a long-term solution to invasive plant management and should only be used when other methods aren’t sufficient, experience has shown me the benefit of judicious herbicide use in certain circumstances.

Certified pesticide applicators post informational signs at herbicide treatment sites. KP-CISMA photo.

I was recently looking back and thinking, wait a minute, have I been brainwashed? Have I become a company shill as I defend the use of what I once shunned? But no. Knowledge is power, and changing my mind was the result of learning new information.

With this job, I’ve had the opportunity to work in places I know well and now know in new ways. Places where development has opened up bare ground to host loads of harmful invasive plants and places where human-made pathways, like trails and roads, have become conduits for invasive plant spread. Many of these places lie adjacent to less-traveled landscapes, some of them untouched by humans. It would be devastating for invasive plants to take root in these wilder places.

Protecting native ecosystems from the harm of invasive plants is the priority! Spotting invasive plant infestations early and dealing with them quickly prevents them from spreading from developed areas into more-pristine, less-traveled places. Photo credit: Jen Chauvet

As I prepare for another season, I remain optimistic. With diligence and the appropriate tools (yes, that means herbicide sometimes), we can – and will – squelch these invasive plant infestations before they spread into the peninsula’s more fragile habitats and pristine landscapes.

Scroll down to the FAQs on the “Prevent” page of our website to learn more about herbicide safety and the use of herbicides in invasive plant management.

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