CRAWFORD COUNTY - You may have noticed the Crawford County Highway Department spraying herbicides along county and state highways over the past few weeks.
If you didn’t see them spraying, you may well have seen the results—bands of brown, dead or dying, foliage on trees and bushes in the road right-of-ways.
The herbicide spraying is aimed at halting encroaching brush from limiting sightlines for motorists and holding invasive weed species in check. While most local residents understand the purpose of the spraying, not everyone likes the results.
Some of those less than thrilled with the results are people concerned with promoting tourism and economic development.
“I heard about it, so I went out and took a look,” said Lori Bekkum, who works with Community Development Alternatives and favors economic development through tourism. “I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. I didn’t think it would be that bad, but it really looked terrible-much worse than I expected.”
Crawford County Highway Commissioner Dennis Pelock explained the need for spraying to open the roads so drivers can see more.
“The county has always sprayed,” Pelock said. “They sprayed under the last commissioner. Some years not a lot gets done because of the work schedules and some areas are not sprayed.”
Crawford Stewardship Project Program Coordinator Forest Jahnke has also noticed the result of spraying over the last year or two.
“They (the highway department) hosed down the bluff from the orchards to Gays Mills and it just looked so bad later,” Jahnke recalled. “There’s got to be more creative ways to control the brush. They hosed down the area around the bathtub spring and that has water. It’s a popular place for people to stop to get water.”
Jahnke feels that minimally the county should take a more creative approach to brush control in places tourists go by like the bluffs along the road coming down to Gays Mills on Highway 171 or the bathtub spring near Star Valley. He readily acknowledged that it might take more funding and that the current spraying saves time, which saves money.
Jahnke and others noted that mass application of herbicide on the roadside is killing non-targeted wildflowers and other plants, while it kills brush and some invasive species.
“That cliff face going down to Gays Mills was loaded with columbine poking out of the bluff, but it’s not there now,” the local conservationist said.
Pelock is not enamored with spraying the roadsides either, but believes it’s necessary to maintaining a safe road.
“I don’t like doing it,” Pelock said. “But, sometimes the brush must be trimmed back so drivers have vision. The first year after it’s done you’re not going to like how it looks. There’s no two ways about it.”
The highway commissioner understands the points made about aesthetics and tourists’ reactions.
“I agree,” Pelock said. “I’m a big supporter of tourism.”
The highway commissioner said he was open to a discussion about not spraying in specific areas for concerns of preserving scenic beauty. He noted when the department employed 78 people using manpower to trim brush was more of a possibility. However, with current staffing levels, the department is “physically unable to do it.”
In statements made to the Boscobel Dial, the highway departments’ state highway superintendent Todd Meyer appeared to concur with his boss, Dennis Pelock.
“Spraying is more cost effective and we can get more done in less amount time,” Meyer said. “It’s a constant battle to keep the roadways visible and clear, not only around those sharp corners, but so you can see those deer that seem to jump out from nowhere.”
The highway department sprays a blend of Garlon mixed with Escort XP herbicide. In the world of herbicides, these two are regarded as milder in nature than many other alternatives.
Neither substance requires those using it to be certified pesticide applicators. However, the highway commissioner stressed that over the years highway department employees have been sent for training.
Garlon is primarily made of Triclopyr, an organic compound in the pyridine group that is used as a systemic, foliar herbicide and fungicide.
Literature about the product states that it is commonly used to control unwanted weeds, brush and trees beneath electrical power lines; along railroad beds, roadsides and pipelines; and in commercial forestry and wildlife openings, including grazed areas on these sites. The spray also apparently contains no petroleum distillates; instead it uses methylated seed oil as the solvent.
The main ingredient, Triclopyr breaks down in soil with a half-life between 30 to 90 days. One of the byproducts of the breakdown, trichloropyridinol, remains in the soil for up to a year. Triclopyr degrades rapidly in water. It remains active in decaying vegetation for about three months.
The compound has been found to be slightly toxic to ducks and quail—moderately toxic to fish, like bluegill and trout
Triclopyr is considered slightly toxic to humans in oral and dermal (skin) routes of exposure. Inhalation however is practically non-toxic. A study in which humans ingested Triclopyr found that more than 80 percent of the chemicals were excreted within two days.
The active ingredient in Escort XP is Metsulfuron-methyl, another compound used as an herbicide for broadleaf weeds and some annual grasses. According to Cornell University, the chemical has a very low toxicity in mammals, birds and aquatic organisms. It is reported to also have a low acute toxicity to honey bees and earthworms.
However, Escort XP does have some direct warnings on the label to agriculture workers entering areas treated with the compound within four hours of the application. Under those conditions the workers are advised to wear coveralls and boots.
Would that kind of warning indicate caution should be used in going into a freshly treated area? If so, would it be wise for the highway department to post signs warning people that areas along the highway were treated with herbicides and contact with the vegetation should be minimized?
Highway commissioner Dennis Pelock acknowledged he had not considered those possibilities, but he said they would have to be addressed going forward.
As for the possibility of the spray reaching water, Pelock downplayed the possibility and noted the highway department employees don’t spray stream banks. However, water is prevalent in Crawford County. The area along County C and Highway 171 west of Highway 27 have active trout streams which cross under bridges. There are springs on hillsides below the roadways in many parts of the county that feed into streams and there are wetlands adjoin state highways and county roads.