The state of Maine and the seven large paper companies that own 35 percent of its land took their annual run of the pesticide treadmill last month.
As chemical insecticide use has increased, the pesticide treadmill has become a familiar phenomenon in forest and agricultural communities. In Maine the object of the poison is the spruce bud-worm, a tiny moth that feeds on fir and spruce — the trees most prized by the paper companies for their mills. More than 1.8 million acres of forest in Maine were sprayed for the budworm in May and June.
Many people, including government officials in Washington and Maine, believe the spraying aimed at stopping the epidemic actually has prolonged it. That is the essence of the pesticide treadmill, when the chemicals create conditions conductive to continued infestation.
Spruce budworm epidemics, which have been recorded for hundreds of years, previously collapsed of their own weight when the budworm ran out of food. “Epidemics of the spruce budworm in the normal state last 7 to 9 years,” said Mel Ames, a lifelong forester and president of the Maine Woodmens Association. Maine has been spraying for 26 years.
The spraying is not aimed at eliminating the bud-worm, but at keeping the trees alive long enough for the paper companies to harvest them. By keeping the trees alive from season to season in a weakened condition, though, the spraying assures the budworm plenty to eat every spring.
And the sprays don’t target only the budworm. “They are not selective,” said Ames. “They kill birds, they kill predators (of the budworm). They throw the whole thing out of balance.” With the loss of that balance comes the pesticide treadmill.
Despite pressure from Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Joseph Brennan, the U.S. Forest Service this year refused to provide any funds for insecticides, pointing out that “Previous chemical insecticide spray projects have not stopped tree mortality, prevented stand deterioration, halted the spruce budworm outbreak or altered forest conditions which favor budworm outbreaks.”
The Forest Service instead gave the state money for biological insecticide — a virus believed harmful only to certain classes of insects — and encouraged the state to decrease reliance on the chemicals. Chastened by this decision, Maine officials often talk about reducing the role of pesticides in an overall management system for the woods. More revealing is that they are planning to ask the federal government to once again pick up part of the cost of insecticides in next year’s program. The paper companies can be expected to push for the resumption of funding as well.
With millions of dollars of state and federal tax money subsidizing the program, the spraying has been a bargain for the paper companies. It undoubtedly is much cheaper than implementing the careful forestry management practices, generally believed to be the key to stopping the outbreak.
But while the spraying is a good deal for the paper companies, it is a source of great concern to woodsmen like Ames who are worried that their forestry practices are destroying the health of the forest. The people living in the small forest towns long have been worried about what exposure to the pesticides may be doing to their health.
Brennan and his officials say they must balance the risks of the pesticides with the economic risks of not spraying. But the risks to the private profits of the industry hardly stack up against the risks to public health and the long-term welfare of the state’s greatest resource — the forest.
While trying to please the paper companies, the state may be an accomplice to the slow destruction of the resource that drew the industry in the first place. Intensive cutting, little or no management and heavy spraying — the paper company policies unchallenged and sometimes assisted by the state — provide quick profits, but injure the forest, opening the way for problems like the current spruce budworm epidemic.
If the forest becomes too weak or diseased, the paper companies undoubtedly will begin to move more of their money out of Maine. There are many forests in the world. But for the people living in that state, there is only one. And unless the state forces the companies to change these policies, Maine someday may find itself the victim of a plant closing on a statewide scale.