NEWBERG, Ore. — Last year, Western Helicopter Services could only spray herbicides about a third of the time that was scheduled.
The rest of the time, they were waiting for weather conditions to improve and become suitable for spraying.
“We don’t go out and spray willy-nilly,” said Rick Krohn, president of Western Helicopter Services of Newberg, Ore.
Due to the speed and efficiency of spraying by air, though, the company was able to make the best use of the time windows that became available, Krohn said. “If we were trying to get that done by ground, (we’d) never get it done.”
The realities of aerial herbicide spraying in forestry were discussed during a June 22 workshop organized by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, an educational organization that examines controversial issues in timber management.
“You don’t get much tougher than herbicides right now,” Mike Cloughesy, OFRI’s director of forestry, said of the issues facing the industry.
In recent years, two Oregon aerial applicators have faced regulatory penalties for spray violations and one of them was sued over alleged trespass damages by rural residents. Several bills have also been proposed in the Legislature to restrict aerial spraying and voters in Lincoln County banned the practice under an ordinance that’s now being challenged in court.
Speakers at the workshop explained why aerial spraying is a commonly used tool in the timber industry.
Aerial spraying plays a role in the “vegetation management” phase of forestry, preventing weeds from dominating young trees, said Jay Walters, field coordinator at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, timber clear cuts must be replanted within two years and trees must be “free to grow” unencumbered by vegetation or other serious problems within six years.
The chemicals must be mixed and loaded more than 100 feet from streams that bear fish or that are used for domestic water, and aerial applicators must spray at least 60 feet from waterways and standing water with a surface area larger than a quarter-acre, said Walters. Under a law passed in 2015, aerial applicators must also maintain a 60-foot buffer around inhabited dwellings and school campuses.
A year ago, digital subscriptions to the ODF’s “Forest Activity Electronic Reporting and Notification System,” or FERNS, were made available to members of the public who wanted to learn about upcoming timber operations.
The number of subscriptions has grown to nearly 600, up from about 400 under the agency’s earlier paper notification system, Walters said.
Even so, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Forestry haven’t noticed an increase in complaints about herbicides since the digital subscriptions went live.
“People who had concerns were getting through to Forestry and us,” said Mike Odenthal, ODA’s lead pesticide investigator.
Notifications must usually be submitted to ODF at least 15 days before a spray operation but they remain valid for a year.
Because there have been examples of malfeasance among applicators, people should be notified of spray operations to make arrangements, such as keeping animals and children indoors, said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. Dembrow, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, was among several elected officials at the workshop.
“I think there’s a need for us to build on the FERNS system to be a more real-time notification system,” Dembrow said.
Dembrow said he expects legislation dealing with notification and reporting to be introduced next year.
With the difficulty of anticipating weather changes, the timber industry will likely continue to oppose such proposals as “logistically difficult, if not impossible,” said Scott Dahlman, policy director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness group.
“I think it’s going to run into the same problem we had before,” he said.