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  • Megan Kaun

Words from Rachael Carson

"When taxpayers understand that the bill for spraying the town roads should come due only once a generation instead of once a year, they will surely rise up and demand a change of method" Silent Spring 1962

If that were only the case...In Silent Spring, Rachael Carson describes in detail the issues with managing roadsides with routine pesticide applications. In her usual very thoughtful and well-researched way, she describes the trouble with the current practices (which are still the same today) and provides a perspective on how roadside management could be transformed to save money, reduce toxic burden, and maintain habitat. Her words speak for themselves:

"And where are the men who supposedly understand the value of proper habitat for the preservation of wildlife? Too many of them are to be found defending herbicides as ‘harmless’ to wildlife because they are thought to be less toxic than insecticides. Therefore, it is said, no harm is done. But as the herbicides rain down on forest and field, on marsh and rangeland, they are bringing about marked changes and even permanent destruction of wildlife habitat. To destroy the homes and the food of wildlife is perhaps worse in the long run than direct killing. The irony of this all-out chemical assault on roadsides and utility rights-of-way is twofold. It is perpetuating the problem it seeks to correct, for as experience has clearly shown, the blanket application of herbicides does not permanently control roadside ‘brush’ and the spraying has to be repeated year after year. And as a further irony, we persist in doing this despite the fact that a perfectly sound method of selective spraying is known, which can achieve long-term vegetational control and eliminate repeated spraying in most types of vegetation. The object of brush control along roads and rights-of-way is not to sweep the land clear of everything but grass; it is, rather, to eliminate plants ultimately tall enough to present an obstruction to drivers’ vision or interference with wires on rights-of-way. This means, in general, trees. Most shrubs are low enough to present no hazard; so, certainly, are ferns and wildflowers.

Selective spraying was developed by Dr. Frank Egler during a period of years at the American Museum of Natural History as director of a Committee for Brush Control Recommendations for Rights-of-Way. It took advantage of the inherent stability of nature, building on the fact that most communities of shrubs are strongly resistant to invasion by trees. By comparison, grasslands are easily invaded by tree seedlings. The object of selective spraying is not to produce grass on roadsides and rights-of-way but to eliminate the tall woody plants by direct treatment and to preserve all other vegetation. One treatment may be sufficient, with a possible follow-up for extremely resistant species; thereafter the shrubs assert control and the trees do not return. The best and cheapest controls for vegetation are not chemicals but other plants.

The method has been tested in research areas scattered throughout the eastern United States. Results show that once properly treated, an area becomes stabilized, requiring no respraying for at least 20 years. The spraying can often be done by men on foot, using knapsack sprayers,

and having complete control over their material. Sometimes compressor pumps and material can be mounted on truck chassis, but there is no blanket spraying. Treatment is directed only to trees and any exceptionally tall shrubs that must be eliminated. T he integrity of the environment is thereby preserved, the enormous value of the wildlife habitat remains intact, and the beauty of shrub and fern and wildflower has not been sacrificed. Here and there the method of vegetation management by selective spraying has been adopted. For the most part, entrenched custom dies hard and blanket spraying continues to thrive, to exact its heavy annual costs from the taxpayer, and to inflict its damage on the ecological web of life. It thrives, surely, only because the facts are not known. When taxpayers understand that the bill for spraying the town roads should come due only once a generation instead of once a year, they will surely rise up and demand a change of method."

Following the publishing of Silent Spring changes did occur; dangerous products like DDT were taken off the shelves and our society grew a consciousness over pesticide use and chemical use in general. Following her death by cancer, the chemical industry made a concerted effort to devalue her research and words. The industry used misogynist tactics that alluded to her as a hysterical women full of fantasy. These tactics were largely successful. The chemical industry then began their age-old process of product swaps; creating similar but technical new chemical compositions when one active ingredient became too unpopular/damaging. This June is the 61st anniversary of the publishing of Silent Spring.

Perhaps, with the baton in our hands now, we will continue on this path and realize the dreams of this extraordinary visionary.

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