Don't spray pesticides in Southeast

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Aerial application of pesticides is a bad idea anywhere. It is really bad in areas of Alaska where salmon spawn. And it is especially bad in Southeast Alaska, where heavy rains and high winds are almost a given, and where our landscape is frequently composed of karstlands underlain by caves and subterranean streams. I'd like to explain why this is, and to ask you to let the folks at the Department of Environmental Conservation know how you feel about spraying pesticides in our forests.

Right now, the State of Alaska is considering permits for the aerial application of pesticides to kill alder on Long Island. Nearby communities such as Hydaburg and Craig are greatly concerned about potential impacts to residents who hunt, fish and pick berries near Long Island, and rightly so. Berries, roots and other subsistence harvest can become hazardous to consume or use, and deer may ingest toxins and then be harvested outside the target areas.

However, all Alaskans should all be concerned about pesticide spraying because of the effects it could have on our salmon industry. Not only might pesticides hurt salmon and the people who eat them, they may very well destroy the best marketing tool salmon fishers have: the wild, pure nature of Alaska salmon.

Aerial spraying is, by its nature, imprecise. According to the National Research Council, under "typical" conditions, approximately 60 percent of pesticides applied aerially land outside the targeted area. Because of this, and the fact that most of the pesticide ends up on the ground, in the water, or on non-target species, much greater amounts of pesticide must be used to reach the recommended concentrations for the target species. Under these "typical" conditions, pesticide drift ranges from about 150 to almost 4,000 feet, but under adverse conditions, it can reach 50 miles.

In Southeast Alaska, the problem with pesticide drift is worsened by the fact that much of our region, including Long Island, is underlain by karst. Karst is a porous rock formation through which water drains like tea through a sugar cube. (This water, by the way, feeds some of the most productive salmon streams in Alaska.) On karstlands, water, instead of flowing overland in streams or rivers, dissolves tiny pores in the rock and forms underground streams and lakes. These can drain in directions totally different than surface topography would indicate. And, once contaminants enter the system, they are not filtered or removed as the water flows. What goes in at the surface comes out the bottom virtually unchanged. As a result, contaminants cannot be controlled if they flow through karst.

Why does all of this matter? Southeast Alaska's weather and geology virtually assure that aerially sprayed pesticides will get into our water, no matter how they are applied. It is hard to think of many places where there is no karst, stream, muskeg, lake or beach for a mile in any direction. And it is when pesticides reach our waters that they begin to really affect our salmon and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

Pesticides have been shown to cause major damage to salmon and other aquatic animals and plants. Studies by the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and many academic institutions have shown causal links between pesticides and reduced viability of salmon stocks, including loss of swimming abilities, hormonal changes leading to deformities, feminization of males, alteration of salmon's sense of smell, and changes in schooling behaviors.

Because of the nature of karst, which underlies most of the area targeted for spraying, toxins will get into our waterways, and into our fisheries. No two ways about it.

To let the state know how you feel about its plans to allow pesticide spraying in Southeast Alaska this summer, send comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation at (907) 376-2382 (fax) or

• Steve Lewis of Tenakee Springs is the Conservation Chair for the Glacier Grotto, the National Speleological Society's Alaska Chapter, and a director and co-founder of the Tongass Cave Project, experts exploring, mapping, studying, and working to protect Southeast Alaska's karst and caves.

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